|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/ Uddin|
|Jhumur, 9, asks a question to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, while (at right) Nazma, 13, and Mala, 15, listen. Behind Jhumur is Shrijoni, 14, anchor of the programme broadcast by national TV on National Children's Day.|
By Iftikhar A Chowdhury
DHAKA, Bangladesh, 1 April 2009 – Twenty children were on the beautiful sofas in the Prime Minister’s sitting room at her official residence in Dhaka. They had come to interview Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was elected in December 2008. Among them were children living on the streets, child workers, orphaned children and child journalists.
The young people shared their thoughts and concerns in an open conversation broadcast on television on the occasion of National Children’s Day. The children also ask all sorts of questions ranging from personal to policy issues that affect their lives.
‘Voice of Children’ was the first programme in the history of Bangladesh Television (BTV) in which children were able to ask questions while face to face with the Prime Minister for 45 minutes.
Questions from young people
Ms. Hasina opened herself up candidly to the children.
When a nine-year-old girl, Jhumur, who has been living on the streets, asked how she felt being Prime Minister, Ms. Hasina answered: “As people voted me to power, they have also given a lot of responsibilities to me. In many ways, these responsibilities relate to the well-being of children. If children like you remain on the streets, my mission will not be fulfilled.”
Asked by Rony, 15, a child journalist from Gazipur, whether she wanted to be a politician right from her childhood, Ms. Hasina flatly told him that she had no such plan. Instead, she always wanted to be a school teacher or a doctor. But as she had not done well in mathematics in the school finals, she had to give up the dream of becoming a doctor.
Shaheda, 13, a working child, raised the issue of dowry. Violence against women due to dowry demands is on the increase, she said, then went on to ask Ms. Hasina whether she gave or received dowry for her daughter’s and son’s marriage.
The Prime Minister responded that the question of dowry was not raised in either case. “Dowry is still pervasive and spreading like cancer in the society,” she added. “Apart from legal sanctions, there should be more social awareness on the issue so that people start to practice what they preach.”
Increasing student retention
In response to a question of Osman, 14, a vegetable vendor, about what her government would do to ensure the education of children like him, Ms. Hasina said: “After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, primary education was made free. We are now thinking to make education in the public sector free up to graduation level.
“We are also thinking of providing light meal at primary and secondary schools in order to increase the student retention level,” she noted. “In our new education policy, we will look into how working children like you can be included in the formal schooling system.”
A child journalist Mala, 14, drew the Prime Minister’s attention to the border areas of Rajshahi, where children are being used to transport smuggled goods – including drugs, to which they often become addicted. “Smuggling itself is bad,” said Ms. Hasina. “But when it involves children and drugs, it becomes worse. I will seriously look into the problem.”
Child welfare initiatives
Shumon, 15, commented that policy discontinuity was hampering child development, as one government usually discards the policy of another. Admitting that this was a major problem, the Prime Minister promised to keep in place any good existing initiatives for the welfare of children.
When the children asked her about her own childhood, Ms. Hasina revisited fond memories from her village home – climbing trees, swimming in the canals, catching fish and eating green mangoes from other people’s trees.
“Those were the best times of my life,” she said, while at the same time expressing sadness over the fact that so many urban children today are growing up without any fields or playgrounds. “My childhood was not always a happy one,” Ms. Hasina added, “because we had to visit our father in jail, as my father was often imprisoned by the Pakistani rulers. My father’s political doctrine, which was all about the well-being of the people of this country, influenced me.”
The future is for children
Shohag, 12, a child working in a Dhaka drugstore, asked whether the Prime Minister was also thinking about her own future instead of only thinking of others. Ms. Hasina burst into laughter and told Shohag that she was too old to think about her own future.
“Now, it’s time for me to think about disadvantaged children like you. However, I’m fortunate that at least you think about my future,” she quipped.
The programme was produced under a joint Government of Bangladesh-UNICEF project called 'Advocacy and Communication for Children's and Women's Development', implemented by the Ministry of Information. It was the first of a series of monthly programmes in which the country’s top policymakers will answer questions from children.