Painting with purpose
Art brings children into safe spaces and closer to critical services in Bangladesh
The narrow, muddy alleyways of Korail slum in Dhaka lead to a small room packed with about 40 children. The mood inside this room with tin walls is happy and cheerful, oblivious to the otherwise gloomy surroundings.
Nine-year-old Mim and her friends watch a series of images projected on the wall. Pictures from Bangladesh – fishermen in a boat, women carrying water, birds in a tree, mountains, an old man playing drums and children playing in the countryside.
Linda Valente Da Silva Acouri, a Brazilian artist who specializes in engaging children through art, shuffles through more pictures. The children shout “yes” if they like the picture and “no” if they don’t. The majority eventually settles for a bird in a tree and Linda asks them to draw the outline of the bird and the tree, and then paint it.
Mim is first up. She loves drawing and is enjoying today’s special session at the community hub, a safe space for children run by the Government with UNICEF and European Union support. “I draw houses and boats at home. Today we are drawing a very big picture. I think it’s going to be pretty,” says Mim excitedly.
UNICEF supports the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs to run 1,400 child protection community hubs across the country, providing children and families a safe place where they can get connected to the services they need, including awareness sessions, to prevent violence, child marriage and to end child labour.
An unusual but effective tool
The art exercise in the community hub has been commissioned by UNICEF and Bangladesh’s Ministry of Women and Child Affairs to make the hubs welcoming, draw more children in to access social services and to help the children to feel a sense of ownership as they work with the artist to express themselves and brighten up the space.
“Prior to each painting session, the violence against children and women coordinators (VACW coordinators) have played the important role of talking to the children about prevention of violence and to refer them to services as needed,” explains Elisa Calpona, Child Protection Manager responsible for prevention of harmful practices.
Linda has been working with underprivileged children since 2010. “My job, my passion is to help children light up just like the bright colours in this room. I ask them to tell me how they feel using colours. Yellow is for happiness, blue is calm, black is sadness and red is for anger or energy,” explains Linda.
In a country where 45 million children experience violence at home, about 6.8 million are engaged in child labour and half of girls are married before their 18th birthday, the need for child protection services is apparent.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as young mothers knowing where to get help if they are being abused or parents getting the right information to re-enrol children in school. This critical support and information can prevent child rights violations and transform children’s lives for the better,” says Natalie McCauley, UNICEF Bangladesh’s Chief of Child Protection.
Scaling up solutions to protect children
Linda and the VACW coordinators have trained 70 local artists, taking them through how she gets children to open up and participate during the art sessions. Together, she and the local artists have now engaged about 50,000 children in 700 community hubs across Bangladesh, focusing on underprivileged children.
Although they live right in the heart of the city of Dhaka bordering the most affluent neighbourhoods, the children of Korail slum possess little of the amenities of city life. Poor, crowded housing is the first sign of deprivation with most of the residents working in low paying jobs – rickshaw pullers, housekeepers, shop assistants and garment factory workers.
A burst of colour lights up the day
After taking turns painting bit by bit the little artists in the room are happy to see the finished product. Throughout the session Linda continues to guide the children, reminding them to wait their turn if their friend is painting in the same spot they want, to share and to take care of the painting materials.
Today’s art session has made the previously drab and dull room welcoming for more children like Mim to join. And as more children come to the hub, they have a chance to connect with social workers and get the support they need to realize their potential.