Environmental Security for the Children

by Tahsin Farzana Tilottoma

The issue of protection of children against exploitation is, in recent times, rationally taking a dimension on the concern to protect the next generation from environmental degradation. The environment of a country, be it natural, physical or social, essentially sustains and governs the growth of the future leaders. In Bangladesh the child population is approximately 16% (under 5 years of age) and 44 % (under fifteen years of age) while the rate of infant mortality is alarmingly 78 and child mortality of 117 per thousand. About 70% of all children under five years of age are malnourished and 11% are severely malnourished. The gorgeous Bangladesh turns all grey to 25 thousand children every year who suffer from diarrhoea and other water born diseases. On the face of these facts the Constitutional commitment to improve the level of nutrition remains a mockery and the street children most popularly know as TOKAIs frown at the high promises of the Constitution aiming to secure food, clothing, shelter, education, treatment, security and so on.

Who is a child:

It remains to be a harsh reality that the entire child population has gained two different status. Those who can afford the essentials belong to an upgraded community and are usually given the status of children. Those who are deprived are called tokais. Most commitments with regard to protection of the children are centered around the welfare of these tokais or the street archines. While commitments are only commitments and the tokais remain the tokais, it must be remembered that they also comprise the vast section of the children community and a tokai is essentially a child towards which the society holds specific responsibility. A society that seeks a good citizen for the future must also ensure a healthy environment and structure that would support the normal upbringing and growth of a child.

While the socio-economic conditions have given variant status to the children, the laws dealing with rights and justices for children differ in terms of the defining age of children. For example, the Majority Act, 1975 defines a child as a person below the age of 18 years while the Children (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933 regards a child to be a person of 15 years. Under the Factories Act, 1965 a person under the age of 16 shall be deemed a child while the age limit for being a child is below 12 under the Employment of Children’s Act, 1938. For the purposes of the Children Policy of 1994 the age limit for children would be 14 years.

Status of Child Security in the NFYP:

This paper attempts to provide a brief picture on the status of the children as prevail in different environment. The best way to start, perhaps, would be to see what the NFYP National Five Year Plan (1997-2002) commit for them that also amount to be a recognition by the state of the existing threats in terms of child security. The said Plan seeks to adopt:

• Appropriate measures for providing equal opportunities to all children for development of their personality, talent and mental and physical abilities to the fullest potential through the Local Government structure at various levels;
• Provide a favourable environment to children through the universal access to safe drinking water and sanitary means of excreta disposal;
• Protect children from economic exploitation and hazardous occupations and to reduce child labour in a phased manner;
• Take measures for delaying the age of marriage of girls and prevent early pregnancy;
• Take necessary steps towards children requiring special protective measures, such as urban slum children, children without shelter, children exposed to sexual exploitation and violence with particular focus on adolescent girls, disabled, destitute and displaced and those caught up in arm conflict;
• Adopt appropriate measures towards elimination of trafficking including immoral trafficking of girl children.

The above extract from the NFYP clearly reveals that children in our society do not enjoy security in most instances. Their work and working environment remain to be hazardous, their physical environment might be seriously sub-standard, the natural environment might expose them to deadly health threats and all these would disturb their physical and intellectual development and in extreme situation even lead to terminate the young lives.

Children and their Environment:

The question of security for the children starts from the mothers’ womb. Despite clear prohibition of law (Section 312-316 of the Penal Code) against causing harm to unborn child, the rate of illegal abortion is ever increasing and the doctors who on oath declare to be honest to human life right from the time of inception hardly hesitate to kill the fetus. Innumerable numbers of fetus are denied access to this world while the major reason for such denial is social exploitation in various forms.

When a fetus is lucky enough and is given birth to, the next crisis evolves around the basic necessities. Large number of parents find themselves helpless in addressing hunger and in many cases mourn the death of their descendants. Those children who survive facing the utmost odds of poverty, the atmospheric pollution persist to be a threat for their development. Every year almost 50% of the children under the age of 12 years become victims of led pollution that is highest in the air of Dhaka City.

For obvious reasons of poverty, the childhood in most instances is not all rosy. The bulk of the deprived sector of children start an early career and although laws prohibit hazardous job for them the preparation of a long list of high risk job is not at all a difficult task.

The Children Pledging of Labour Act, 1933 prohibits in sections 3,4,5 all kinds of agreements to pledge the labour of a child who is under the age of 15 and provides punishment with fine for such offences. No national law nor even any international document has been able to put restriction on the heinous trade on child labour. Crossing even the boundary of the country the children of Bangladesh have become capital for trade for many middle eastern countries. It is a shame that the Bangladeshi children are sold to the organisers of camel race in the UAE for using them as camel jockey. The tender hearts bleed when they are put on the back of the camel and screams out of fear that makes the camel run. Who is to perform the obligation of protecting these children from such exploitation that is prohibited under the UN Convention on the Right of the Child? Who really is counting the number of deaths caused by felling from the back of a running camel that is so frequently reported in the newspapers?

Protesting such trafficking in children the founder of BELA Dr. Mohiuddin Farooque moved a Writ Petition (No. 278 of 1996) before the High Court demanding the followings:
a) Ensure that no further children are smuggled out of Bangladesh and that no such camel race take place with Bangladeshi children anywhere in the world; and
c) Take immediate measures to bring back all the children illegally trafficked to the UAE.

Meanwhile following severe protest from the international community the Government in UAE banned the use of children under 14 years of age with less weight than 45 KG. The recent incident of one Bangladeshi child aged 4 years named Juru Miah being abandoned in a desert by his importer/organizer for 4 days because of his refusal set another example of audacity by such traders to all norms and concerns of the international community about child rights.

The situation for child labour is even worse with regard to the girl child. The rational that laws rightly reflect the socio-economic condition of a country perhaps found its justification in the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act of 1933. This particular Act prohibited the keeping of a brothel for safeguarding women from trading on their physique. There is, however, no dirt of brothels or of numbers of child prostitutes being kept in such brothels.

The fact that the laws tend to protect children from violence clearly suggests the existence of such phenomenon in the society. Section 34 of the Penal Code prescribed punishment for assault, ill treat, neglect, abandon or exposition of children to any kind of the above mentioned acts.

With increasing number of child beggars, section 35 of the Penal Code that prescribe penalty for employing children for begging turn out to be a paper-commitment than of any real significance.

End of the day children even cannot count for their just earnings. There is exploitation by the employees who tend to pay them less although the same is punishable with fine, which may extend to TK.1000.


Legal provisions cannot always effectively deal with many forms of social exploitation that result from poverty and ignorance. Newspapers, in recent times, suggested that even the parents evade the legal provisions under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 suggesting minimum age for marriage and over age their girl child while registering the marriages. As such, the legal prohibition of selling tobacco to children under 16 could not deal effectively with the scenario where children promote sell of such products for their livelihood. These situations reflects the general helplessness in respecting law and so long the other socio-economic conditions are not considered in a holistic approach in preventing abuse of child right, violation of law would continue to be registered.

The writer is a Staff Lawyer of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)