The presence of even a single poor child on the street means a million defeat for mankind said a Turkish author. Bangladesh has 57 million children which constitute 40 per cent of the total population according to UNICEF. They are often considered as the biggest future economic resource for Bangladesh. Among them, the number of street children ranges from 50,000 to 2 million (due to uncertainties of birth registration and different definitions). Leaving this large segment behind is incompatible with inclusive development of the country’s journey towards development.
One of the fastest growing cities, Dhaka is to become 6th largest megacity by 2030. Due to unplanned urbanisation, it is plagued with multifarious problems making the future blurred with uncertainty. Even so, Dhaka’s infrastructure and circumference are expanding in an unprecedented way. Luxurious cars, varied advertisements, air-conditioned houses, and the lofty buildings mark the city’s resounding outward beauty. Along with these mindboggling views, some disheartening sights and inhuman milieus are caught in every pedestrian eye. Skinny, ragged and ailing hapless street children are wandering to collect subsistence. They are oblivious to the irony of fate, struggling to survive while millions of children are dreaming to have a bright future nearby.We state two basic facts of why we should urgently respond to the plight of street children. Firstly, as they are the underprivileged group and incapable of helping themselves, state constitutional provisions are responsible for their protection. Secondly, if we fail to do so they will become burden to society and threat to security of the country. As many of them grapple with multiple crimes they could hamper well-being of city life also.
Use of children as a tool in political functions such as a procession, campaigning, publicity, hartal and meddling in opposition activities, in exchange for some money or bread is common in our country. No political party cares much about their rehabilitation once they gain power which they abuse dishonestly in various ways. This indicates the unhealthy practice of politics and exploitative society. Despite continuous caution from civil society and NGO, street children remain victim and scapegoat of evil deeds done by the wicked for their own vested interest. Child policy 2011 clearly states, “…children cannot be used in political activity, neither they could be compelled to be involved in such activity”
They are made the artery of crime network, smuggling, abducting and so on. Drug peddlers force children to perpetrate this atrocious crime and as a means of life. “I get scared if I sleep alone,” said a child indicating his woeful condition on the street. As the former UN Secretary-General said in 2000 in a statement, “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace”.
UN defined them as any girl or boy for whom street in the widest sense of the word has become his or her habitual abode or sense of livelihood and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults. Another one called them “illicit labourer” doing whatever they can to survive on the street. In other words, street children are those who live off the street and on the street. Consumption of drug under the open sky is totally unacceptable to common people. This depicts the harrowing scenario of so-called modern society. Children and old age people are the two most underprivileged groups who require direct intervention from the capable segment.
Social thinkers like Richardson hold that universal process of urbanisation and industrialisation are massively responsible for the creation of abandoned children. Ahmed Istiaque, head of Aparajeyo Bangla, expressed two basic reasons for increased street children - poverty and massive unplanned urbanisation. Poverty, physical and sexual abuse and peer influences are three major factors that push children to migrate from rural to urban area said UNICEF representative of Bangladesh, while Patekar added aberrant families and modernisation too. The trap of modernisation is insurmountable that we must confront challenge and byproducts of its advantages to successively reap the benefit of globalisation.
Cold weather in winter, wetness during the rain, sleep deprivation, exposure to mosquito, theft during sleep, being victim of sexual abuse and police abuse are the common problems of street children. As winter approach they become victim of untold sufferings. According to a report by the ministry of social welfare 41 per cent have no bed, 84 per cent have no warm clothes, 75 per cent have no medical treatment, 44 per cent are addicted to smoking, 40 per cent don’t take bath every day and 35 per cent have no access to toilet facility.Bangladesh ratified convention of rights of children by which children have the right to life, survival, and development. In support of this, the country adopted child policy and included the issue of child right in various agenda. But abolishing child domestic servant, street children and child begging were not given focus as there is no separate commission for children. One attempt of the government of launching bank deposit for street children has failed as banks didn’t respond positively.
Lewis Aptekar defined them as needy and bold. They have “survival skill” which is inherent among all human, thus if they are mobilised with proper intervention, quality of life can be ensured through rehabilitation. He said the most common response to street children is scorn and hostility because they look dirty, uncontrolled by authority and involved in mischievous action. Normally street children are shown in terms of the tragedy of their life which is true but there is another dimension - their wisdom, dignity and enormous capacity for survival.
The prime minister once said, “If we can feed 160 million people in the country, we can feed them too”. Yes, we can but not with a handful of NGOs with their scarce budget and a mere promise from development agenda. It’s also the responsibility of social elite and authorities whose bonafide effort could abolish this social menace from the country.
Md Eleus Mia, The writer is student of social welfare at University of Dhaka