The ripple effect
Sherpur, Bangladesh, 28 April, 2011: “Kick your legs, kick your legs!” Crowds of children line the banks of the local pond in the village of Khailkura in Sherpur, northern Bangladesh, squealing with excitement as they watch a swimming lesson being conducted by Marjia, their local Community Swimming Instructor (CSI).
Many of the children, already graduates of the UNICEF-supported ‘SwimSafe’ project, proudly sport white graduation T-shirts with the slogan ‘I know how to swim’ as they call out words of encouragement to their friends in the water.
In a country where drowning causes 29 per cent of deaths among children aged five to nine, swimming lessons constitute a significant investment not only in a child’s health, but in their very survival. In districts from Rangpur in the north to Cox’s Bazar in the south, the SwimSafe project, funded by UNICEF with support from partner organisations, identifies vulnerable children aged four to ten and offers them the chance to enrol in a free 15-day swimming course taught by local adolescents. The cost for a child to learn to swim is approximately US $8.00, and in the last 12 months more than 27,000 children have completed a SwimSafe course.
From the safety of an underwater bamboo platform, constructed by the local community, the current crop of students watch on as Marjia demonstrates kickboard techniques. Upon graduation from the course, the students prove their new skills by swimming the 25 metre semi-circle around the platform, un-assisted in the deep water.
Marjia heard about the opportunity to become an instructor through her local ‘Kishori Club’, a UNICEF-supported youth group that she attends regularly. She and she and her peers received training from members of the Bangladesh Swimming Federation.
“Watching my students learn to swim makes me feel very proud”, says the 15 year-old, blushing “the children treat me as if I am their teacher, and my work is valuable because it prevents deaths in this village from drowning. I enjoy that responsibility. Also, my family is poor, so the money that I make as a CSI (50 taka, or approximately US $0.70 per child per course) means I’m no longer a financial burden on my parents and can pay my own tuition fees.”
For adolescents, becoming a CSI fosters values of active citizenship and collective responsibility, and affords them greater respect in their communities. In the case of girls, like Marjia, this is particularly significant as female participation in physical activities has traditionally been limited in Bangladesh.
In accordance with strictly defined gender roles and conservative community attitudes, girl children are treated differently from birth which too often results in inequalities of nutrition, health, education and financial status. By elevating adolescent girls to positions of responsibility, initiatives like SwimSafe are helping to redress the balance.
“I was not apprehensive about joining the project,” says Marjia, “The entire village was very encouraging, especially the parents of the children. All the parents here want their children to do lessons so people are supportive.
The sentiments of Marjia’s elderly grandfather certainly suggest that, in this community at least, the SwimSafe project is having some success in challenging long-held attitudes toward girls and sport. “Swimming is good.” He insists, “Good for children, good for health, always.”