Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain
“I want to keep working,” says 16-year-old Akash.
“I want to be an engineer!” says little Sagor, just 12.
11-year-old Sajeeb, the youngest, wants to be in the garment's sector.
These are dreams. Dreams that no one knows if will ever come true, dreams that are yet to be complete, dreams that are very unlike yours or mine. These dreams are nurtured every day by these little boys. But do you want to know what's crushing these little dreams? These ambitions? These beautiful spirits?
Due to the harsh realities of life, society and poverty, Akash was sent to Dhaka when he was much younger, by his parents to earn. He has not yet reached the legal age to work. Yet, he loiters around the streets of Dhaka, sometimes ends up even outside of it, to earn whatever he can for himself and his family. “I didn't know what to do when I came here. I did whatever I could find to do, anything I might get paid for. Lastly, I landed on trash collecting,” he says.
When we talk about child labour, we often forget the little ones doing odd jobs on the streets, who are also risking their lives everyday to earn some money for themselves and their families. Whether running around in the middle of the streets to sell flowers or collecting trash from the streets that we pollute so nonchalantly, they are sometimes run over, and often beaten by the public.
“At the end of the day, the Government and the society are the ones who are responsible for the treatment of children in the country,” says Syed Sultanuddin, Assistant Executive Director, Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
According to a UNICEF report, increasing rural poverty and urban migration continue to swell the numbers of people living in urban slums and on the streets. Problems of rural unemployment, landlessness, river erosion, natural disaster, family conflict, and weak law and order have caused families to leave their homes in search of better prospects in the city, and still continue to do so, which, as we know, contributes to the number of children living/working on the streets. Many children live with their families, either on the streets or in slum houses. Other children live on their own because they have been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. Children also run away from their families or caregivers, fleeing poverty and physical abuse, and end up living and working alone on the streets. Although no comprehensive statistics are available on the actual numbers, living conditions, needs and interests of children living on the streets, estimates show a continuing increase in the number of these children. Thousands of children on the streets of Bangladesh are being denied their rights, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Many a times, Akash and his friends were beaten up by the public. “I am a trash collector, which requires me to pick things off of the streets. Very often, people mistake it for stealing and end up ganging up on me to beat me up. They do, very badly. Shagor once took a leftover sandwich left to rot, and was tied to a pole and beaten up. We couldn't help,” says Akash, in a horrifyingly normal voice.
Children who resort to living or working on the streets become predominantly exposed to abuse and exploitation. Even when and if these children end up living with their families, poverty and lack of service means that most parents are not able to provide appropriate care. These children, first and foremost, grow up without appropriate shelter, protection, education, health care, food, drinking water, security, recreation and guidance. Somehow 'shunned' from society, we often forget we are the ones who put them there.
“The child rights bodies must be aware of what is happening to these children on the streets. There are many schools in different upazilas for impoverished children to attend, but they also need skill development centres for future work, and also an alternate means of income for the family. Charity and spreading awareness help very little, as we can see. Any family willing to send their child to work must speak to the concerned authorities, like Child Right’s Bodies, who will then ensure safety for the child,” Sultanuddin says.
The UNICEF report also mentions that children who live on the street also increasingly become vulnerable to other forms of exploitation and frequently find themselves the victims of sexual abuse and at risk of HIV/AIDS infection, physical torture, and trafficking. Extensive criminal networks make substantial profits by engaging children in commercial sex work, smuggling, stealing, and the distribution of drugs and weapons. Without appropriate care and continually struggling to survive, many children have no other option. “That's my biggest fear. I have had many friends here on the streets like me. They resorted to selling drugs and being addicted themselves. I don't want to be like them,” says Akash. But what if, at some point, he has no other option for survival than to sell drugs? How will we ensure that Akash never has to be like them? How can we help Akash and those like him?
While the questions keep building up, there is, sadly, no answer yet.