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Working children and school dropouts get a chance of education

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2016/Habib
Monirul Islam, 14, is showing his drawing.

By Porimol Palma  

Satkhira, 02 January, 2017: It was the middle of the month of Ramadan when everybody eagerly waited for Eid, the main religious festival for the Muslims. During this festival new clothes, special prayers and salivating food come up at the top of family agenda.

It, however, did not bring anything special to Monirul Islam, the major wage earner of a three-member family at the age of 14, and his mother Tanzila Khatun, 32. They hail from Lokkhihar Uttarpara at Bhomra, a bordering area with India in Bangladesh’s southwestern region.

“I don’t go to the Eid prayers … I cannot arrange new clothes,” said a sad Monirul, sitting on the yard of their small hut on his maternal relatives’ house on a cloudy afternoon. 
He feels sad when he thinks of his father who abandoned them years back.

“I buy food items like nuts, and biscuits from the border area and sell those to retailers. It brings me 100 taka to 150 taka daily (US$ 1.25-1.8),” said Monirul, who began to work when he was eight and never had a chance to go to school.

Early this year, a national NGO Jagaroni Chakro Foundation (JCF) selected him to enroll in Ability Based Learning (ABAL) school in Lokkhhar Uttarpara under the Education Equity for Out of School Children (EEOSC) project supported by the UNICEF.

“I read Bangla and English letters. I can write numbers up to 100 now,” says Monirul, who equally puts importance on his work as he knows the hardship of his mother that began with a faulty marriage.

Mistaken marriage and abandonment

It was around 1999 when Tanzila was only 12 years old that Tariful Islam, a day labourer at Bhomra Port, proposed the marriage, saying he was passionate about her and would take care of her parents after the marriage. 

Convinced, Tanzila’s parents agreed and she was married off to Tariful, who was originally from neighbouring Shymnagar upazila (sub-district).

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2016/Habib
Monirul Islam, 14, is doing writing practice with the help of his teacher Afroza Pervin at Unicef supported ABAL (Ability Based Accelerated learning) center of Lokkhihar Uttarpara at Bhomra, Satkhira.

The fact revealed only within a week when Tariful’s first wife came to Tanzila’s house and objected to the marriage. Tanzila’s parents sought divorce with Tanzila, but Tarif promised that he would divorce her first wife.

The next is even more dramatic. He got two kids – a boy and a girl of his first wife – to Tanzila’s house and her mother Amena Khatun had no alternative, but to take care of them.
In next four years, Tanzila gave birth to Rahima and Monirul. Struggling to manage the big family with daily income of 150 taka to 200 taka (US$ 1.8-2.5) daily, Tariful decided to leave for India for better income.

Sometime in 2002, Tariful and Tanzila, along with two kids, crossed the border and began working in a brick kiln at Barasat district in West Bengal, India. Their total income daily was some 700 Indian rupees, which is equivalent to more than Bangladeshi 1,100 taka (US$ 13.75).

“We were having a much better time,” says Tanzila, who by that time had given birth to another daughter, Shamima, in India. However, after three years, Tanzila noticed something very suspicious in Tariful’s behaviour. In the evening, he used to stay out till late nights that frustrated her.

She inquired into the matter and learnt that Tariful married three to four other girls in Barasat.

“In frustration, I left the kiln and came back home along with three kids,” says Tanzila.

Livelihood crisis returns

She started working as day labourer to earn only 100-150 taka (US$ 1.25-1.8) a day, too meagre to meet the needs of the four-member family. There was work available only for three to four months in a year. 

“I sometimes used to work in others’ houses, but it was very difficult. There were men after me. In fear of loss of dignity, I stopped working as domestic help,” Tanzila Khatun says, reminding of rife domestic and sexual violence in the male-dominated society.

When Monirul grew eight years old and found mother’s struggle for bread and butter, he, like many other children, got engaged in child labour.

Abandonment common, law enforcement weak

Advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), says abandoning wife and children by the husbands is widespread, especially in rural Bangladesh.

According to the Muslim family code, the husband is legally bound to provide subsistence allowance to the wife and children if he divorces, but it does not happen in many cases.
As a result, the wife and children remain in serious vulnerability. Children are often forced to indulge in exploitative child labour, while women engage in domestic work, trafficked or even forced into prostitution, Salma Ali explains.

“We lodged many complaints against such abandonment, but the settlement takes too long. Ultimately, the women and children suffer,” Salma Ali says.
Regular natural disasters like cyclone, coupled with familial breakdown, result in hundreds of children not having basic education.

UNICEF estimates that approximately 2.9 million primary school-aged children (6-10 years) do not regularly attend school in Bangladesh.

The JCF selected 5,000 such children only in Tala and Satkhira sadar to enroll in ABAL schools and then mainstream them into government primary schools.

Challenge of mainstreaming

Monirul Islam says while he likes to study because he can do better job then, but he also needs to work for living.

JCF Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Sheikh Tokdirul Awal says many of the children like Monirul went through traumatic experiences in their childhood, and mainstreaming them into school is quite challenging.

“We’ve seen the children are happy when they come to ABAL schools, but when they are mainstreamed into the government schools, many drop out,” he explains.
The reason could be the ABAL method fits them well as they work and learn in a flexible manner, which is not the same in government schools, Awal notes.

The ABAL school from I-V grades allows the children to learn based on their ability and also to work before or after class hours -- one shift in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

Expanding ABAL schools up to class VIII as well as adding technical and vocational education to the system could be other options for consideration, Awal suggests.



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