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Real lives

Hammers and homework: Educating child workers in Bangladesh

© UNICEF/Seidel/Bangladesh 2003
Hosneara at the Hard-to-Reach school.

Hosneara has worked as a brick-breaker since the age of nine. For the last three years, she has spent most of her days hitting square pieces of red stone with a heavy hammer. She makes $0.35 a day.

“The employer used to cheat me on the length and height of the bricks,” Hosneara says. “Now I’ve learned to count. I learned it at the Hard-to-Reach School.”

Hosneara lives with her parents, two sisters and a baby brother in a hut in one of the poorest slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her father works as a rickshaw driver; her mother and her sisters are also brick-breakers.

Two years ago, an outreach worker came to their hut and told them of classes initiated by UNICEF for urban working children. Hosneara’s father never went to school himself, but agreed to let Hosneara and her nine-year-old sister Phaki attend.

“The school is for two hours a day, so my daughters can still work,” he says. “It does not hurt us that they go to school.”

Little time for school

UNICEF and the Government of Bangladesh developed the Basic Education for Hard-to-Reach Urban Children project in 1997. It provides informal education to working children living in urban slums. Over one fifth of Bangladesh’s population – about 26 million people – now live in urban areas. Children account for approximately 56 per cent of slum inhabitants – some 14.6 million boys and girls.

In some families, child labour accounts for a third of the family’s income. These children work as brick-breakers, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, welders or auto mechanics. Some end up as sex workers. These children have little time to go to school, and in most slums there are few schools to attend. They often cannot afford the extra costs of schooling such as pencils, notebooks or uniforms.

The objectives of the Hard-to-Reach project are to provide non-formal basic education to the over 300,000 working children in six divisional cities of Bangladesh and to protect children from exploitative and hazardous work. The Learning Centres of the project are set up and managed by 150 non-governmental organizations. As of July 2003, some 11,550 centres in six cities have opened. They reach 339,150 children between the ages of eight and14. More than 59 per cent are girls.

Hosneara’s father was eager to send his children to school because he knows first-hand the price of illiteracy. Three years ago, he owned a small piece of land where he grew vegetables. He lost the land in a legal dispute.

The value of literacy

“I could not read the file. They cheated me,” he fumes. “Then I had no choice but to send my children to work. But if we can get them educated, they will be able to defend themselves.”

The Hard-to-Reach initiative builds on other efforts to get children into school. In 1990, UNICEF developed a cartoon series about a nine-year-old girl named Meena. The series, which promotes girls’ education, is popular throughout South Asia. 

“Sometimes I can watch TV at our uncle’s house. I love the Meena cartoons,” says Hosneara. “Meena says that all children should go to school.”

Hosneara is determined to get an education. Her teacher can vouch for that.

“She is a little weak in reading, because she has not been here since the beginning, so it was difficult for her to catch up,” says her teacher. “But she has a strong will and could improve quickly with a bit of support.”

Hosneara says she dreams of becoming a doctor and helping poor people some day. The Basic Education for Hard-to-Reach Urban Children project is doing all it can to help make her dream come true.



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