A day in the lives of two homeless brothers in Bangladesh
By Casey McCarthy
DHAKA, Bangladesh, 12 March 2009 – The sun had not yet risen when the two boys woke up. By 4 a.m., the port on the River Buriganga here in the capital of Bangladesh was alive and bustling. The ‘bed’ where Yusef,14, and his younger brother Smaile,10, slept was made of hard wooden planks on the pier.
In a familiar routine, the brothers washed up and then walked around, looking for empty bottles to fill with fresh water that they would later sell. They started their morning by begging for food at local cafes. On a good day, the boys get some leftovers. On a bad one, they go hungry.
Estimates of the number of children living on the street in Dhaka vary from 250,000 to 400,000. Rapid urbanization in the country has created pockets of dense slums and squatter settlements, each of which is home to thousands of street children. Children living in these conditions grow up on the margins of society, without appropriate protection, education, health care or guidance.
A safe space for at-risk children
By 9 a.m., the brothers arrived at a UNICEF-supported, open-air school to attend informal classes until noon. The school also offers friendship, recreation and access to hygiene facilities, as part of the ‘Protection of Children at Risk’ project that began in April 2007.
The project aims to protect children living on the street – and those without parental care – from abuse, exploitation and violence.
It was at this school that Yusef and Smaile registered their births. Birth registration is the first official acknowledgement of a child’s existence, and it’s a means of securing his or her right to critical services and benefits such as immunization, health care and education.
The school hosts monthly student meetings where children discuss and try to solve the problems they face. Each meeting is chaired by a different student. The sessions build participants’ decision-making skills by helping them to identify problems and find solutions.
At a recent meeting, children discussed the difficulty of maintaining food hygiene outside of school, since many of them live on the street. If they are begging for food, they asked, how can they ensure it is fresh and clean? The children offered possible approaches. One boy suggested eating at the nearby drop-in centre.
The children also complained that they are often sick and wondered how they could stay healthy. One participant suggested that they visit the health worker at the school each week. “We can stay healthy by keeping ourselves clean – especially our hands – when we are eating,” said another boy.
Determined to create a better life
For Yusef and Smaile, lunchtime meant – as usual – begging for food. Then they returned to the harbour to look for work carrying bags or boxes. (The boys work about six hours a day, earning less than $1.) The day ended as darkness crept in. Hey returned to their ‘beds’ on the pier for a few hours’ sleep before repeating the whole process the next day.
Yusef admitted that his life is difficult. After his parents divorced, his father remarried. His stepmother forced him to work at a local garment factory and took all of his wages for herself. Two years ago, the brothers moved across Dhaka to another district to live a life of their choosing.
But Yusef said he has big plans for the future. He and Smaile are in the process of moving permanently into a UNICEF-supported centre where they can sleep, eat, continue their informal education and, most important for Yusef, receive vocational training. Children living on the streets are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The drop-in centre provides the protection they need.
Yusef is determined to create a better life. “I want to train as a garment maker,” he said. “I want to earn money and buy a house. I want to get married and have my own family. When I leave this earth, I want to have something to pass on to my child."