Returned camel jockeys spark community education on child rights
Ten year old Kawsar Hossain has been regularly attending school but his progress is slow. Kawsar is unable to read and write as fast as his classmates because his left eye was severely damaged when he fell from a camel’s back while riding in a race in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) three and a half years ago.
Kawsar and his elder brother, Awal Hossain, along with their mother, Julekha Bibi, were smuggled from their home in Koreagram village, Borura upazila in Comilla district, south east of Bangladesh to the Arab state where camel racing is one of the most popular sports.
Such sports have great demand for lightweight children to be used as camel jockeys. Due to extreme poverty Bangladeshi children are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.
Children, such as Kawsar and Awal, who were sold into camel jockeying in the UAE are forced to train and are sometimes tortured. Some of the children were injected with hormones to retard growth and control their weight.
In 2005, the UAE government banned the use of children under the age of 18 in camel racing. UNICEF supported the long process of repatriating Bangladeshi children and, in some cases, their families, with funding from UAE Government.
Kawsar and Awal are among 168 children who are now in the process of being socially and economically reintegrated in their respective communities in 65 upazilas in 25 districts across Bangladesh through post-reintegration activities.
Community Care Committees were established to assist in each child’s rehabilitation and reintegration and to educate families and communities about child protection, trafficking and child rights. The committees, supported by UNICEF, are working to reduce the vulnerability of children to trafficking in the future.
“There is a sense of understanding, especially among previously ignorant mothers who are the common targets of the traffickers. Today these women have learnt to refuse to accept lucrative offers like jobs, money or even a better life abroad,” said Razia Begum, mother of three young children in Koreagram, Borura Upazila in Comilla District.
Ayesha Begum, who heads a Community Care Committee in Koreagram explained that many of the children had been out of Bangladesh so long that they had forgotten Bangla.
”Initially we had problems reintegrating Kawsar and his brother in the community as they spoke no local language. Without speaking the local language the brothers could neither make friends nor enroll in school,” she said.
Community elder and committee member Abdul Majid said, “We worked hard to teach the children their native language as fast as possible.”
Kawsar and Awal are very timid but they have gradually made friends and now attend school regularly.
The committees in Borura and surrounding upazilas designed an education programme on child rights and prevention of human trafficking that targets youth between 12 and 18 years and their parents.
“Rights to child education, healthcare, nutrition, protection and security are some of the major messages we discuss with children during meetings after school hours,” said Shirin Akhtar who heads a committee in Vherella union in Burichang upazila.
Burichang is located about 25 km north of Borura upazila where traffickers are said to be quite active due to its Indian border proximity.
Class seven student Mohidul Islam said, “We feel good to know about our rights and other important issues like trafficking through these informal discussions.”
Fellow schoolmate Papri said, “Sadly, these issues on child rights are not included as topics in school curriculum. However, since the committee began working in schools and madrashas (Islamic primary schools) children in this area are far better aware of the issues of rights and human trafficking.”
Committee leaders also coordinate regularly with government, upazila and union members at the monthly district Anti-Trafficking Committee meetings.
As compensation, the UAE Government gave each repatriated child Tk 1.04 lakh. The money is held in an account in the name of the child and his parents until the he turns 18. In the meantime annual interest can be used to support the child’s livelihood or care, which is a valuable assistance for families living in poverty, preventing the children to be trafficked again.
The committees monitor the use of this money to ensure the children’s best interests.
Despite this positive progress at the community level, poverty remains a major problem in dealing with child exploitation and trafficking. Many extremely poor families are easily deceived by promises of well-paid employment and vulnerable to traffickers.
“UNICEF is working with the Government of Bangladesh to develop a national child protection mechanism program, which focuses on interventions at community level, such as those being done by these Community Care Committees,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, Rose-Anne Papavero. “We will continue to support their work to raise awareness of child protection issues, particularly in rural and remote parts of Bangladesh where families are at greater risk.”