‘If we don't invest in childhood, we lose all opportunities to ensure economic growth’
UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh Mr Sheldon Yett speaks to child journalist Gargee Tanushree Paul on the occasion of World Children’s Day
Mr Sheldon Yett took on the responsibility of UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh in October this year. Mr Yett spoke to 13-year-old child journalist Gargee Tanushree Paul on the occasion of World Children’s Day about issues affecting children today, and what the government, UNICEF and partner organizations can do for their welfare.
Gargee Tanushree Paul: Let me start by welcoming you to Bangladesh! As the new UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh, what is your experience of living and working here till now? What do you look forward to doing most in the coming years?
Sheldon Yett: I have been here a month now, and I am learning so much, so fast. I feel like a school student. I am in awe of the work in front of us, because the needs of children in this country are enormous. But we can build on a very strong foundation; I take hope and courage from that. There are very competent people in the country who are working on these issues. I am confident that working together with our government and partners, we will be able to move forward towards solving them.
Gargee: As a child journalist, I have seen while working that a major reason for many children not going to school or dropping out from school is that they have to provide for their families. At the same time, living in Dhaka, I see many children my age who live on the streets. I would like to hear from you about these two issues: what can UNICEF and the government do more for them?
Sheldon: The number of children living on the streets you see every day is overwhelming. They clearly need assistance from the government and organizations like UNICEF. There are millions of children living and working on the streets in Bangladesh – you see them on the way to the office, on your way to school.
There are a number of things we need to do. We have to be conscious of the issues beneath the waves – the issues that we don't see. Yes, there is poverty, but that is not the only issue here. I think children living on the streets is often a symptom of other issues. This is a symptom of breakdown of families, often due to violence, which is an issue in communities here. That has a huge impact on why children are on the streets. Many of them had to leave very unhappy households. We know many of them are living on the streets because they had to drop out of schools. We need to do all we can to ensure that children who have dropped out of school can continue to learn, and to address the reasons for school drop out to begin with.
We also need to address the issue of violence against children and not be afraid to talk about it. People talk about the need for strict discipline. Yes, it is important to have discipline, but there is a difference between violence and discipline.
We are working with the government to ensure that we understand the multi-dimensional elements of the issue. There are no simple solutions. We are looking at this as a holistic issue.
I also think it is important to ensure that children know that they can get help. There is a government helpline – 1098 – which is supported by UNICEF and the Department of Social Services. It is staffed and children who call do get support. More children need to know about this helpline.
Gargee: Girls continue to be the severely at risk in our country and child marriages are still very common in Bangladesh. They happen in front of us, but the majority of the people watch silently, and accept the issue without standing up against it. What is UNICEF doing in this context to raise people’s awareness?
Sheldon: This is an extremely serious issue. The number of child brides here is astounding – there are some 38 million child brides in this country. Bangladesh has committed to ending child marriage. It is one of the SDGs that the country has signed up to: the hope that there will be no child marriage by 2030. But the speed of reducing child marriage is far too slow. We need to go eight times faster if we want to meet that goal.
Something else that should be kept in mind is that child marriage is a crime. We need to emphasize that, and the harm that it does – not just to the long-term health and well-being of that child, but that child's community as well. Children who get married at an early age are far more likely to drop out of school, they are more likely to be vulnerable, and because of this they are not able to contribute to their fullest potential to their community and country. In the process, everybody loses.
For this country to continue to grow at the pace that it’s now growing, it is essential that we end child marriages.
Gargee: What do you think will be the most important issues that will affect children’s rights in the coming years? What challenges will we face? Are you optimistic?
Sheldon: It is difficult to mention just one or two. It is an interlocking package. There is violence against children and women. The long term social, public health, economic costs of violence against children are massive. We know physical and emotional violence impacts children's immune systems and health through their entire lives. It impairs the full development of their brain. The first two years of a child's life are particularly critical. These are some of the critical issues which will continue to plague this country.
Another issue is one that is creeping up on us, but which might not be visible on a day-to-day basis is climate change. People in Bangladesh understand their vulnerability. There is no shortage of cyclones and storms, and the situation is getting worse. The impact on children is getting worse by the day as well. This affects access to clean water, access to services, access to healthcare. We know incidences of diseases increase due to climate change. We know that millions of children living in coastal areas will be affected in the days to come.
The Government of Bangladesh has sent a large delegation to COP-26 because it realizes how critical the issue is to the future development of this country. It is critical, both for the economic health of the country and the health and welfare of children.
Gargee: When did you first realize you want to work for children? Could you share some fond memories from your long experience of working with UNICEF?
Sheldon: I used to be a journalist before I worked for UNICEF. I used to write about economics, foreign affairs and development. The more I wrote about economic growth, the more I realized that the issues we need to tackle, are those we need to tackle at a younger age. It is not just about balance of payments and inflation rates; what really matters is what happens to human capital and the potential for children to grow. If we don't invest in childhood, we lose all the opportunities to ensure economic growth.
We must invest in public health and good quality education. Otherwise, we cannot hope to have a functioning and growing economy. I realized this about 25 years ago and decided to work for children through UNICEF.
I spent a lot of time in emergency countries. I was working in Somalia after a war to ensure that schools could open, worked in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic and worked with the government and partners to make sure that schools could reopen safely and public health services were available.
What matters ultimately is how we are supporting children in classrooms, how we are making sure that the fundamentals of public health are in place, how we are ensuring that women's rights are ensured and children get access to vaccines. These basics matter the most, and it has been fantastic to work with governments to see them being put in place.
Gargee: On World Children’s Day what would you like to say to the children of Bangladesh and the leaders and policymakers who represent them?
Sheldon: I think the most important thing to say to the children of Bangladesh is: Use your voice, use your platform. You have a voice and you need to be heard. What policymakers do, matters; your future depends on that. Stand up, speak out. Petition your policymakers and parliament. Hold your teachers accountable, hold you community accountable, hold us accountable.
Make sure that resources are going to what matters to you: not just schools, but quality education where children learn skills that are important for growing up; for a safe environment, not buffeted by climate change; access to quality healthcare; a community free of violence. These things matter, and your voice matters. Speak up – we are listening, and policymakers will listen to you as well. You need to use your voice.