“I used to attend school regularly until one fine day my whole house was burnt down and I realised that the whole of Korail Basti was on fire. After that incident, I moved to another slum in Mirpur and now I work at a factory nearby. Most of the time after I am done with work, I meet my friends and inhale solution (also known as ‘dandy’, a common street drug in Dhaka),” shares Aliyah, a 10-year-old.
Dhaka is the most densely populated city of Bangladesh. According to the slum census 2014, about 646,000 people live in slums. This large population brings along with it a huge problem of accommodation and low living standards. The conditions are inhumane and harsh for the residents of urban slums. Children in slums are in a vulnerable situation as their living conditions are deteriorating by the day.
Aliyah further shares, “I left school when I was in grade two and never was able to go back to studying. I have two brothers and two sisters and with my parents we live in a one-room tin-shed in a slum in Mirpur. All of my friends either work in factories, or sell stickers on the streets, or become rickshaw-pullers.”
Aliyah’s story is not an uncommon one. She is just another dweller in one of the 5,000 slums in Dhaka city. And just like her, most of the children in slums live in inhumane conditions. These children lack access to basic education and proper nutrition. On top of that, the chaos of life in slums makes it difficult for children to grow up in a healthy manner.
According to a study by icddr,b on children aged between 6-14 years, about 14.1 percent boys and 8.9 percent girls do not have any schooling background at all. And the ones who do receive a little bit of schooling leave it at a young age and start working, much like the case of Aliyah.
A study conducted by Theirworld, a global children’s charity organisation, shows that children living in slums work for about 64 hours a week, of whom many work in the textile industry.
“It is a different scenario in slums, unlike that of rural settlements. Both parents stay out for work and children are left unattended. They lack basic schooling, nutrition and other necessities,” says Reefat Bin Sattar, Director, Program Development and Quality, Save the Children International Bangladesh.
“About 8-10 households share one common bathroom and it becomes nearly impossible for me to use the washroom when I urgently need to. Currently, my older brother, Rahim, is suffering from diarrhoea and he barely gets any chance to use the washroom, and that leaves him with no choice but to use the drains nearby,” Aliyah mentions.
According to a survey by Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka, two-thirds of slum households reported suffering from disease for up to 15 days in the three-month survey period. One-fifth of these households even reported to being ill for 31 days and more. Despite of this, their health care expenditure during that time was not high. This is because 82.4 percent of the slum dwellers did not obtain health care from modern health facilities. Studies also show that some of the residents had not vaccinated their children at all.
Most of the children dwelling in slums are infected with serious water-borne diseases, and it is mainly because of the lack of access to fresh and clean water.
“Usually, there are a lot of people entering and exiting our house. Once a man entered when I was alone with my two younger siblings, and he claimed to know my father. But that became one of the most devastating experiences of my life. He sexually abused me and threatened to kill me if I spoke about it to anyone. When I tried telling my mother, she shut me down saying it was quite normal,” Aliyah says with a heavy heart. “But that was only one such experience. I have faced more and then got used to it. I got exposed to drugs when I was five. I started smoking biri, and then ended up using solution.”
Girls in slums feel unsafe most of the time as they are prone to experiencing sexual harassment and rape.
“It is difficult for a girl to grow up in such an environment. Most girls of the age 10-14 lack access to proper washrooms which violates their right to privacy. Such situations make girls more vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape. Not only girl children but male children too are vulnerable,” Reefat says.
Although Aliyah has been a sufferer at such a young age, she is still hopeful for a brighter future. She says she wants to start school again. To help children like Aliyah, BRAC is establishing 2,000 single classrooms which will support the education of approximately 62,000 children.
“Back when I used to live in Korail, there was a school by BRAC but right now I am unsure if there is a school in Mirpur. If I can study at night and work during the day, I will definitely join school again,” Aliyah says.
“There is an absence of focus on children when it comes to urban planning. The environment should be child-friendly so that children can grow up healthily,” says Reefat.
“One of the reasons why there are no proper slum-dedicated projects by the government is because there is a fear that people from the rural areas will migrate to Dhaka,” says Akter Mahmud, Vice President, Bangladesh Institute of Planners.
Where is the silver lining to this detrimental situation of children living in slums?
Children living in the informal settlements are no different than normal children with the wish of growing up in proper environment.
“It’s not like slum dwellers do not have the ability to pay rent. They do. So if there were a project on rental housing as per their affordability, it would help ensure security and safety of the people, especially the children,” Akter shares.
Currently, due to the absence of public providers, there remains a strong intervention of NGOs in case of health and education. A study by The World Bank shows about 27 percent of the slums have NGO operated school, providing quality education, and 20 percent of the slums have NGO operated clinics providing health care services to the underprivileged. Reefat says, “We work on Early Child Development to ensure children’s healthy growth and access to basic necessities.”
Akter Mahmud says, “If both private and public sectors come together, the problem of informal settlements can be improved. It can stand as a business model and it would benefit the whole city.”