School and shelter: protecting working children
Barisal, Bangladesh, 23 December 2010: It’s a balmy evening in Barisal City, southern Bangladesh, and while the air outside is still, there is a buzz of activity coming from inside the school building. It’s 8.00pm, and the students here are only now taking their seats, ready to begin class after a day spent in shops and on factory floors, begging at the ferry terminal, or collecting garbage on the street. These are the working children of Barisal City; forced to earn a living in order to support themselves and their families.
Suddenly, a low whirring followed by a thud signals the first power outage of the night, and the classroom of ten-year-old Nazmul is plunged into darkness. The children here are all too used to the country’s erratic electricity supply, and they wait patiently as a couple of assistants rush to light lamps and position them amongst the desks. The teacher stands, walks to the blackboard, and the class begins.
Nazmul has been attending night school here for 12 months after leaving his family’s village in Chandpur District, south-east of the Bangladeshi capital. “I love fruit, and in the summer I would climb the fruit trees and steal the mangos and guavas”, he explains, “My mother caught me doing this and she beat me. I was upset, so I decided to run away”.
It’s not surprising that months spent living on the streets have caused Nazmul to grow up fast. Sporting a confident, street-smart attitude that belies his tender age, he wears his hair slicked back in a rock star-style quiff and carries a comb in his pocket which he’s quick to whip out in the presence of any reflective surface.
In order to support himself in the city, Nazmul found employment in a workshop painting and varnishing, but he did not like his employer and he knew that breathing in the fumes was unhealthy.
That’s when Nazmul first came to the attention of PCAR Divisional Coordinator, Zulficar Motin, and Barisal’s team of social workers. As part of the Protecting Children at Risk (PCAR) project, UNICEF and the Government’s Department of Social Services have provided more than 400 social workers with outreach and case management training to help them better identify and monitor children at risk.
Child labour is an issue fraught with complexity. It is a visible part of everyday life in Bangladesh, with young children serving at roadside tea stalls, and weaving between cars selling goods to motorists. Widely accepted as a social norm, many families rely on income generated by their children for survival.
For these reasons, the PCAR project is focused not only on protecting children from hazardous work, but on mitigating the risks to children already in the workforce and ensuring reasonable working hours. With the help of the social workers in Barisal, Nazmul has been able to negotiate a better job working in a local fabric shop.
“It is good to earn money”, he says. “If I need clothes, then I buy some. Otherwise I save so that I can have a good future”. The PCAR project offers a formal savings mechanism for working children and the social workers are in regular contact with employers to ensure safe conditions and working hours that encourage school attendance.
Zulficar hopes that Nazmul will soon make the transition back into regular school and cut back his working hours to a level deemed appropriate for a child his age, but he concedes this can be a challenge. “Many children come to enjoy the freedom of life on the streets, without understanding the risks. The experience of earning their own money often gives them a sense of independence that they don’t want to relinquish.”
For his part, Nazmul certainly seems to understand the value of an education. “School is important to have a good future”, he explains, “If I don’t go to school, I won’t learn to calculate – which is a skill I need because one day I want to start my own business”.
Back in the classroom, the power returns, and the children squint as their eyes re-adjust to the light. Nobody forces Nazmul and his classmates to be here after a long day at work. If they are tired, they don’t show it, listening attentively and jumping to answer the teacher’s questions. “Our work with children like Nazmul means that these children, at least, will not become a liability of our society”, concludes Zulficar. “There is no limit to what they can achieve.”