Precious childhood lost in the streets
Dhaka, a city of cacophony that reverberates from its belligerent streets which carry the clash of a million stories every day. Amidst cars honking, buses screeching, people cursing, vendors trading, the shuffling sound of pedestrians and the din of everyday life, the sound of a boy, begging for a few takas with his hand outstretched, gets muffled.
Under the scorching heat of the sun, Shakil, a skinny boy of seven with a toothless smile, runs to different cars as the signal turns red. Tapping furiously on the windows, he channels all his pent up anger his little heart can harbour towards the privileged sitting inside the bubble of their bourgeois life. Three frustrated taps on the windows. His regularly practised tuneful pleading and his animated face fail him as a salesperson of flowers. He moves on to the next car.
There is no answer as to why he has to suffer in wretched poverty while the rich live unscathed and nonchalant.
With Bangladesh ambitiously progressing keeping Vision 2021 in mind, it is ironic that these children, who are increasing in number every day, should still be perpetually marginalised. A section of the population which has gone unjustifiably unrecorded in the national survey. There is no exhaustive and definitive national consensus on these floating children. As per the statistics of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), it was estimated that there are about 1.5 million street children who are vulnerable to street gangsters who lure/force them into crime, begging or prostitution. But that's all they are: estimations. Their lives operate with latent inertia, only manifesting itself like an "exhibition on abject penury" in front of our spectating eyes in broad daylight. As night creeps in, they disappear, resorting to sidewalks, park benches, bus depots, stations and all sorts of platforms under the open sky, while we return to our concrete homes, the bricks of which do not even allow lingering contemplations of children in the streets, let alone their very corporeal existence.
These children neither exist in any statistical records nor do they have any proper address; they wander rootless between streets where villainous entities lurk in every corner ready to pounce on them.
Their stories begin quite ordinarily, but all too soon their whole trajectory changes, with their families unable to meet the bare minimum level of subsistence. Most of these local economic refugees come to Dhaka—wide-eyed, dreaming of living a life that would treat them better. Instead, they become the narrator of harrowing tales once their high-flying dreams make a crash landing. Some of these stories are about separation from parents, with many children being deliberately abandoned in the crowd by their guardians. Such cruel acts for one less mouth to feed.
These street children become the victims of physical harassment at the hands of law enforcers and are used as bait by the street mafioso. They are made to earn through begging, scavenging and peddling drugs with most of their earnings being confiscated by the rent-seekers. They are susceptible to all sorts of diseases and traumatising experiences with no access to schooling, proper nutrition or healthcare. The nightmares do not stop there. Children, too young to even comprehend the concept of sex, are sexually abused, with the majority being young girls in this case. Many become sex workers initially against their will, and later diminish to a form that simply succumbs to this system run by bloodthirsty syndicates.
While going on about our lives, we see women carrying malnourished toddlers, wearing them as badges of deprivation to extract a few takas. We bear witness to emaciated boys addictively sniffing glue on the sidewalks to ward off the vicious pangs of hunger. We come across little girls in rags selling napkins instead of gleefully walking to schools clad in uniforms. All of this and more collectively leaves us with a cliffhanger that fails to arouse anything more than a fleeting look.
Numerous NGOs and private organisations have mushroomed throughout the country, with a focus on catering to the needs of these children. Despite the work being done by these entities and words of assurance from the government, only the surface of this dire situation has been scratched, because only a miniscule percentage can be targeted given the slow progress of these correctors.
According to Mithun Das Kabbo, CEO of an informal school for street children, Alokito Shishu, merely teaching them ABCs is not going to fix the problem. These children are not being raised in an all-encompassing nurturing home. Growing up, these children are subjected to varying degrees of trauma. They grow on to develop an expansive set of survival skills and become more business-oriented. They would rather be out on the streets making money, satisfied in their domain, than be in school.
Unless an ambitious project powered by both the government and private agents is undertaken soon enough, these little warriors will soon be lost to extensive criminal networks. These children are in urgent need of rehabilitation so that they can finally find a place they can call home and feel safe. According to the provisions of our very constitution, children are entitled to proper healthcare, education, shelter and nutrition. The ministries of women and children affairs and social welfare can take the first step by developing a national survey centric to their numbers and conditions.
Despite our strong belief in the notion of children being the leaders of tomorrow, our negligence towards these suffering street children only goes to show our hypocrisy. So, while we fail them every day, let us remember to not add to their daily dose of misery by treating them as some sort of nuisance. After all, it is our collective responsibility to make sure their fingers are busy running through lines of books, not tapping on car windows.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of North South University. Email: [email protected]