|VIDEO: UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visits a drop-in center for vulnerable girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Watch in RealPlayer|
By Arifa S. Sharmin and Vanessa Curney
DHAKA, Bangladesh, 11 January 2012 – Masuda, 10, eagerly greeted UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake at the gate of a five-story drop-in-centre, a safe haven for girls living and working on the streets of Dhaka.
Handing him flowers, Masuda and a friend guided Mr. Lake to the main room, where the centre’s other young residents were waiting to meet him with music, dancing, and affectionate calls of ‘Tony Bhaiya’ – Brother Tony.
Mr. Lake’s arrival at the centre was part of his three-day visit to Bangladesh to review UNICEF-supported programmes for children.
Living as a family
Bangladesh’s drop-in centres are a key component of the UNICEF-supported Protection of Children at Risk project, which protects children living on the streets from abuse, exploitation and violence. The centres provide children with food, a place to sleep, medical care, psycho-social support, education, and vocational and life-skills training.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2012/Mawa|
|UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake plays a game with children at a UNICEF-supported drop-in centre for girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh.|
This centre supports girls; girls in Bangladesh face a variety of challenges, including pervasive poverty and one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
Thirteen-year-old Akhi Akter is one of the many girls at the centre. Her father, a heroin addict, could not provide for the family. At age 8, Akhi was forced to leave her home in Faridpur to become a domestic servant in Dhaka.
“They beat me,” she said of her employers.
Sabina, the drop-in centre's cook, found Akhi and brought her to the centre. “When I got her, she was a street girl,” said Sabina. “But now she’s so developed. She’s educated, singing and dancing, participating in different activities.”
Nineteen-year-old Ruby has been living at the centre for the past 10 years. She now works there as a child rights expert. “We are living as a family,” she said.
Skills for the future
Mr. Lake also met with the young staff of the centre’s bank, an innovative programme that offers basic financial services to children, and teaches them essential life skills in the process.
|© UNICEF Bangladesh/2012/Mawa|
|Akhi Akter,13, shows a bankbook from the Children's Development Bank to UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.|
The Children’s Development Bank is a fully functional, entirely child-run operation that offers vulnerable children a safe place to deposit their money and earn interest on deposits.
Twelve-year-old Hamida is the bank’s development manager, and Akhi is the assistant development manager.
Akhi explained to Mr. Lake that customers may only withdraw money from their savings accounts twice a year, but they can withdraw from their current account at any time.
However, if they want to withdraw more than 500 taka [approximately US$6] a month, they must receive approval from the drop-in centre’s manager and co-ordinator.
Strength and courage
“I was impressed with the girls I met, who told me their stories and ambitions for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Lake said. “We often speak of the importance of protecting such children, seeing them only as victims to be pitied and in need of charity, but in fact they are among the strongest and most courageous children in the world, capable of overcoming the most tremendous obstacles.”
And through their bank, the girls at the Dhaka drop-in centre are working not only to improve their own lives but also to help each other along the way.
“They are an inspiration,” Mr. Lake said.