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Children interview Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on TV

© UNICEF Bangladesh/ 2009/ Habib Uddin
Jhumur, a nine-year-old girl who is benefiting from a UNICEF-supported project for the protection of children at risk, exchanges views with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina.

By Iftikhar A Chowdhury

DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 24, 2009.  Rather anxious, 20 children are sitting on the beautiful sofas of the Prime Minister’s sitting room at her official residence in Dhaka. They have come to interview Sheikh Hasina, who was elected Prime Minister in December 2008. Among them are children living on the streets, child workers, orphaned children and child journalists.

They want to share with her their problems and concerns in an open conversation broadcast on prime time by the national television on the occasion of  National Children’s Day. They also want to ask all sorts of questions ranging from personal to policy issues that affect their lives.

 The 45 minute “Amader Kotha” or "Voice of Children" was the first programme in the history of Bangladesh Television (BTV) where children were able to ask questions face to face with the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister, instead of feeling intimidated by the volley of questions, opened herself up candidly to the children.

When a nine-year-old girl, Jhumur, who has been living on the streets, asked her how she felt being the Prime Minister. Sheikh 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 wellbeing 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, near Dhaka, whether she wanted to be a politician right from her childhood, Sheikh Hasina flatly told him that she had no plan to become a politician. Instead, she said that she had 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. “My childhood was not always a happy one”, she 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 wellbeing of the people of this country, influenced me.”

Shaheda, 13, a working child, raised the issue of dowry, stating that many women still have to give their lives on account of dowry demands and that such violence was on the increase. She also asked Sheikh Hasina whether she gave or received dowry for her daughter’s and son’s marriage. Responding that in neither of the cases the question of dowry was raised, she added: “Dowry is still pervasive and spreading like cancer in the society. Apart from legal sanctions, there should be more social awareness on the issue so that people start to practice what they preach.”

Answering to a question of Osman Gazi, 14, a vegetable vendor, about what her government would do to ensure the education of children like him, she 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 a light meal at primary and secondary schools in order to increase the student retention level. In our new education policy, we will look into how working children like you can be included in the formal schooling system.”

© UNICEF Bangladesh/ 2009/ Habib Uddin
A relaxed photo session between the young interviewers and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina followed the 45 minute dialogue.

A child journalist Mala, 14, drew attention to the fact that in the bordering areas of Rajshahi, children are being used to transport smuggled goods, including drugs to which they often become addicted. The Prime Minister said: “Smuggling itself is bad. But when it involves children and drugs, it becomes worse. I will seriously look into the problem”. Replying to a similar question from a child worker, Mamun, 13, who wanted to know if the government had any plans to protect street children from violence and being used by drug peddlers and political hoodlums, Sheikh Hasina said, “Poverty is the root of all evil. If we can ensure the basic necessities of all children and their families, we can get children out of these terrible situations. Laws are there, but their enforcement is often weak”. She added that she longed to see the day when there will be no street children in Bangladesh.

Citing an example from his own life, a street child, Shumon, 15, explained that policy discontinuity was hampering the wellbeing of children as one government usually discards the policy of another. Admitting that this was a major problem, the Prime Minister promised the children that if the previous government had taken good initiatives for the welfare of children, she would continue the programme.

When the children asked her about her childhood, she revisited fond childhood memories and found herself in her village home as a truant child – climbing trees, swimming in the canals, catching fish, 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 urban children today grow up like “farm chickens” without any fields or playgrounds, a these had disappeared to "human greed".

Shohag, 12, a child working in a Dhaka drug store, asked whether she was also thinking about her own future instead of only thinking of others. She burst into laughter and told him 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 the Government of Bangladesh-UNICEF joint project “Advocacy and Communication for Children and Women Development”, implemented by the Ministry of Information. It was the first of a series of monthly programmes where the country’s top policymakers will face children.




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