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Learning to smile: Protecting children at risk

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2008/Salma Siddique
Jamal (right), plays a game of chess with his friends at the drop-in centre.
By Casey McCarthy

Jamal’s story

Jamal’s eyes tell a thousand stories. When he looks at you, suffering and survival stare back. Only 16 years old, Jamal has experienced so much in his life.  When Jamal was just 11 his father died. To help support his family Jamal was forced to work and severely beaten by his older brother if he didn’t.

To escape the abuse he was facing at home, 13 year old Jamal jumped on a bus to Dhaka.  Lost in a big city and with no one to help him, Jamal found himself in New Market working with other street children as a taxi porter and selling whatever he could.  He would work all day and make little money because shop keepers exploited him and accused him of stealing.

Jamal knew that education would help change his life. Several of his friends were attending an open-air school in New Market, so Jamal also started going. It was there that he heard about the drop-in centre run by the NGO Aparajeyo Bangladesh and supported by UNICEF.

“I grew up too fast,” Jamal said. “I didn’t want to stay living on the streets. I wanted a better life. When I heard about the drop-in centre I asked to join the house and stay”.

Jamal now lives at the drop-in centre, which provides shelter for 47 other boys aged from 8 to 18 years old. There, he started vocational training in wood work. It is clear that the younger boys adore Jamal. He is genuine, affectionate and much more mature than his 16 years.

Jamal’s ambition is to empower other children. He is a peer educator at the drop-in centre and also works as a youth motivator to help children who were victims of sexual exploitation. Jamal received specific training to run this support programmes. Jamal’s face lights up when he talks about his role to empower other children. 

“I was disadvantaged so I want to use my experience to help other disadvantaged children. I want to help protect them so they can have a better life too.

“I had no value living in the street. Now, living here, I strongly believe that I have value. I feel respected here. All the children feel valued and love each other. We’ve all been given the opportunity to change our lives.”

That afternoon, Jamal is organising a sing-along as part of the activities he helps organize as peer educator. Little Mahfuz stands up in front of the rest of the boys and sings a Hindi song. The happiness in the room is almost tangible; all the boys are clapping their hands and beaming with pride.

Working to protect children living on the street

The Protection of Children at Risk (PCAR) project began in April 2007. The project aims to protect street children and children without parental care from abuse, exploitation and violence. Aparajeyo Bangladesh is one of several NGOs working with UNICEF to deliver the PCAR project across Bangladesh.

Drop-in-centres (DIC) are a key component of the project where children living on the street are provided basic supports (food, rest, bathing, recreation, sleeping, primary medical care by qualified health personnel, psycho-social support through expert counsellors, education, vocational  and life skills training,) 24 hours a day. Vocational training is an important part of the PCAR project aimed at developing alternative marketable skills for street children. Since the project began, more than 3800 children have received services at the DICs across Bangladesh.

At open-air schools, children can attend three hour classes each morning or afternoon. Here they receive non-formal education on a range of issues from first aid, health and personal hygiene, to life skills, reading and writing. In 2008 almost 7500 children were enrolled in two six-month classes held in 111 open air schools across Bangladesh.

During a visit to an Aparajeyo Bangladesh DIC in Dhaka, Project Manager Md. Mohaimen Chowdhury said the programme was effectively changing the lives of disadvantaged children in Bangladesh.

“Children love the centres and open-air schools. They can play, get medicine, receive love and affection, and learn about their rights as children,” he said.

“Children are also given leadership opportunities by joining the joint management committee (six children and two adults) at the drop-in centres, or becoming peer educators at open-air schools.

“When a child is able to participate they are building their confidence and raising their self-esteem.”

Through the PCAR project UNICEF and its partner organisations have provided services to around 5000 street children in 2008 and, through DICs, open air schools and other interventions, expect to reach more street children in 2009.

This project is funded by the UNICEF National Committees of Germany, Italy, Swedish and United States and the Governments of Denmark and United Arab Emirates.



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