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Blooming in a confined yet carefree setting

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00055/Mawa
Shanto and his classmates learn mathematics during class in the Dhaka Central Jail.
By Raffat Binte Rashid

Dhaka, 17 February 2013: At exactly 7 a.m., just as the bell rings, 4-year-old Shanto begins his morning at the day care centre. He is given a glass of warm milk and then exercises a little before singing the national anthem.  His day continues with study time, followed by playtime, bath time, and then lunch. After lunch there are outdoor games.  Routine is strictly maintained and each time the bell tolls, a new activity begins. Finally, at the dot of 5 p.m. Shanto returns to his mother.

It may seem a little regimented for a day care centre to follow such clockwork precision but when one is situated inside the Dhaka Central Jail that is how one has to operate.

Shanto has been at the prison for three and a half years. He arrived with his mother when he was six-month-old.  She has been waiting for her trial to begin. She has no money for bail.

Confined but still happy

For children like Shanto and 32 others, the 10 hours they spend at the day care centre is a great alternative to spending time inside their mother's cell.

Nur Jahan, Chief Matron of the women's cell, observes, "A mother's mood can severely affect a child.  The day care centre provides an alternative space for the children, where they can learn, have fun and thrive. The mothers are also able relax knowing that their children are being taken care of.”

The atmosphere at the centre is happy and carefree. The sound of laughter is a common occurrence as is the sight of smiling faces. The centre consists of a central spacious study room, which is clean and airy and the only sign that it is situated inside a jail are the high walls and heavy metal grilles on all sides of the verandahs. Adjoining the study room is another large area where the children take nap after their bath and a nutritious lunch. The room is also used for the toddlers. The verandahs are used for outdoor activities.

The newest addition to the day care center and the most favoured space is a play room - a carpeted corner, stuffed with child-friendly toy cars in the shape of various animals, a red see-saw, a pink doll’s house, puzzles and cricket bats.  The star attraction, however, is a small, yellow slide that plunges children into a pool of bright-coloured balls.  According to Shanto, "My best ride is the slide but I also love to drive my red bunny car.  Playtime is my favourite hour of the day.”

"My name is Suha and I can sing", "My name is Mim I have a red car", "I am Laboni", they let you know their presence and are keen to impress as they sing out aloud while queuing for play time.

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00074/Mawa
Children sleep in their beds at the day care centre for the children of imprisoned women at the Dhaka Central Jail.

Shanto does not remember seeing the world outside the prison walls. His mother is grateful for the centre. She says, “Shanto is a happy child and I feel relieved when he recites his rhymes for me at night. I know that at least he is learning. This play corner gives him a chance to enjoy his childhood.”

For Shahida and her two-year old child, who came from Kamrangirchar two months ago, confinement is still new and hard to adjust. "My son Zahiul cries most of the time and is not interested in anything. The Matron  summons me quite often to calm and soothe him, he gets upset if he sees too many people. He only likes the play corner," Shahida explained.

Emphasis on early learning

The day care centre was established in 2003.  The following year, a new building adjoining the women’s jail premises was constructed specifically to house the centre, which is administered by the Ministry of Social Services. Since 2009, the Bangladesh Shishu Academy has been managing the education programme including the early learning initiatives. The play corner was added by the Bangladesh Shishu Academy in December 2012 with the support of UNICEF and their medical health partner, Institute of Child and Mother Health (ICMH).

"For the pre-schoolers like Shanto, Laboni, Suha and 32 others, the day care centre is a better choice than sitting in their mother's cell and soaking in her sulking mood. However, the recent addition of the spacious play corner and medical health partner Institute of Child and Mother Health (ICMH) is like a breath of fresh air for the toddlers," explained Dipika Rani Shaha, Social Services Officer.

“It is vital to stimulate a child's brain during infancy since 80 per cent of his or her development occurs during the first five years of life” says Md. Tariqul Islam Chowdhury, Programme Officer of the Early Learning for Child Development (ELCD) project. The project is implemented by Shishu Academy supported by UNICEF Bangladesh.

The curriculum blends together, basic reading, writing and pre-math skills with fun storytelling, rhyming games, song practice as well as physical exercise and basic information on health and hygiene. While talking about challenges, Tariqul acknowledges that the education of the children at the day care centre is hampered.

“If a mother is released, freed on bail, or transferred to another prison then her child will move with her and so cannot have a continuous learning process”  he says.  The education programme, however, is viewed as a success and many children are able to transfer to regular schools after they reach the age limit at the day care centre.

A child's smile brings joy to all

Despite the fact that the children live in a confined environment, bound by rules and regulations, the day care centre provides a small dose of normality to their lives. They have come from crime-ridden environments and the centre helps shelter their youth.  According to Md. Farman Ali, Senior Jail Superintendent, Dhaka Central Jail says, “The day care centre gives these innocent children a chance. Living in confinement with their mothers, amidst depression and violence, the day care centre, is as good as it gets for them.”

Meanwhile. Shanto, with his big smile sits at a table with his friends and reads from the Bangla alphabet chart that is hung on the wall. He is happy and secure in his own world, for the time being, within the confines of the jail walls.



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