Voices of Children: A Report on the Public Dialogue on “Children and Security”

Sohela Hassan

“Give us
-Air to breathe
free from pollution
-Water to drink
free from arsenic
-Road to school
free from accidents
-Health to live on
free from HIV
-A secure society
free from traffickers.”

The quotation above highlights some of the security threats that the children of Bangladesh face toady. This was written on a poster carried by a four-year-old from A.G. Church school at the public dialogue on “Children and Security.” The dialogue was organized by the Center for Alternatives in collaboration with the British Council and the Daily Star on Sept 1, 1999 at the British Council auditorium.

It was a different kind of dialogue “on the children, of the children, for the children.” The auditorium was full of enthusiastic faces below the age of 18. The mood was electric— the children were eager to speak as the adults present would take a back seat and listen to them. The children participants came from diverse backgrounds, social class, and educational institutions. Drawing on their every day experience the children voiced their concerns, views, and thoughts on the security problems they face and how these problems can be solved.

The dialogue was divided into two parts. In the first part the children identified and discussed the various security problems they experienced. The second part was group-work where the children focused on specific issues and tried to find ways to deal with them.

Are We Your Future?

The children defined security from a broader perspective, and identified and described the various security problems they faced at home, school, in public places, and on the street. The problems described by them were not limited to threats to physical security only. The young participants also highlighted other aspects of security as they discussed issues such as life chances, opportunity to develop oneself, distribution of resources, social apathy, law and order situation, environmental threats (i.e. air or water pollution) and their links with security.

List of Security Issues Identified by the Children Participants

  • Fear/ feeling of insecurity at home
  • Unhygienic living conditions at home (esp. for children living in the slums)
  • Fear of having no home (slum children facing eviction)
  • Bullying at school
  • Hazardous working conditions
  • Physical and verbal abuse by the employers
  • Physical and verbal abuse by the mastans/ police in certain occupations
  • Not being paid for their work
  • Lack of opportunities at the workplace to improve one’s life condition
Public Place
  • Eveteasing
  • Sexual harassment
  • Verbal /physical abuse by mastans/police
  • Fear of being mugged/ trafficked/kidnapped
  • ‘Bad’ people tempting children to use drugs
  • Fear of accidents/ and lack of proper medical treatment
  • Fear of being mugged/trafficked/kidnapped
  • Sexual harassment
  • Verbal/physical abuse by the police
  • Verbal/physical abuse by the mastans
  • Fear of being raped
  • Eveteasing
  • Air pollution
  • Noise pollution
  • Street children coerced by mastans into participating in political processions/ protests/ throw bombs
  • Street children forced to join criminal gangs

On the Streets: Almost all the children participants experienced security problems on the streets, though the types and extent of the problems varied depending on which socio-economic group they belonged to.

The adolescent girls are the most vulnerable group. They identified eveteasing and/ or sexual harassment (i.e. being fondled, touched, shoved) as a major reason behind the insecure feeling they experienced on the street. Rim Sabrina, a teenager from Udayan Bidyalaya, said that her parents did not allow her to walk back home from school which is only ten minutes away because they are worried that she might be harassed on the street. Iti Akhtar from Suravi school (a school for working children) described graphically what happens on the street. “The boys harass you, they make lewd remarks, pull your dupatta, try to touch you and say such things that anyone with a sense of decency would not say!” The girls felt the worst part was not being able to talk about it to one’s family, especially parents. As Kazi Rabeya Khatun Gypsy from Vikrunnessa Noon College put it “How can you tell your mother such things? Even though I desperately wish that I could share this with her.”

For the girls who live or work on the streets the harassment does not stop at eveteasing. Pakhi from Aparajeo Bangladesh, an NGO run school for street children, informed “I sell water on the streets. Everyone harasses us—the rickshawpuller, the police, the moulavis, everyone! They push, shove and verbally abuse me.(They) Ask me if I would do ‘bad things’ with them.” And it does not stop here. Pakhi’s schoolmate, Parveen was picked up from the streets by the police. Recalling her experience, all she could say was, “What happened to Tania also happened to me.”

The fear of being kidnapped, trafficked, mugged or being forced to engage in criminal activities by the gangs were pointed out as sources of insecurity by the children, particularly by the street and working children. Some of the children recalled how they were almost abducted by strangers. Nurunahar from Naripokkho described how her younger sister was almost kidnapped by a stranger while on her way to school. Mohammed Robin, a mess boy of Jahurul Huq hall, DU, recounted how he was mugged on his way to Karwanbazar, where he goes to buy vegetables for the hall canteen. Moreover, some of the street children are forced to join the criminal gangs. Jamal from Suravi school was a member of a pickpocket gang for three years in Sadarghat before he managed to run away. He was brutally beaten when he refused to work for them. He also described the activities of a criminal gang in Noabazar. The ‘tokais’ here are forced by the gang members to take drugs. Thus, they become addicts and are used in the gang’s criminal activities. The girl children are not spared. Parvin from Aparjeo Bangladesh school was lost from her parents and was forced to steal, and pick pockets by a street gang.

The fear of mastans is always present among the children. Many street children, children who live in slums, working children are forced by the mastans to join political procession and engage in political agitation and violent activities (i.e. throw bombs etc). Fatema from Chinnomul Shishu O Kishore Sangtha complained that coercion by the mastans to join political agitation were one of the main sources of insecurity. Jamal narrated how the local mastans forced him to throw bombs at the political procession and how later the police arrested him.

Road accidents, lack of safe public transport system were also identified as security concerns by the children. Sujan from Suravi goes to school from Shaymoli by bus. He walks half a km to catch the bus. Sujan is aware that walking and crossing the street by himself is dangerous as no one follows the traffic rules. He biggest fear is that he would die in a road accident someday. Iti Akhtar complained that the traffic police did not help the children to cross the streets even when the vehicles almost run them over. “They just stand there and take bribes from these public transport vehicles.”

The children also mentioned air and noise pollution on the streets as source of insecurity as “it is affecting our health.” Mushfique Rahman from Udayan Bidyalaya commutes daily to Dhaka from Uttara. “Commuting is a hassle,” he said, “Because of the noise/air pollution, traffic jam. Furthermore, people push and shove to get on the BRTC bus. If you tell them not to, they ignore you because you are a child.”

In Public Places:

Adolescent girls felt that public places were not safe places for them. Girls expressed that public places did not include “girls in the public category.” Eveteasing, harassment is common in the public places. Kazi Rabeya Khatun Gypsy described her experience at the cattle market set up for Qurbani Eid. She said that many people came up to her and expressed their disapproval (but some people were encouraging). Fatima who sells water narrated how she is often harassed, verbally abused by her customers. Ayesha Siddka from Suravi and Amrita from Southbreeze school complained that girls did not feel safe in the public playgrounds and that limits their opportunities for recreation. Ayesha would like to have been a cricketer like the famous Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar but she has given up hopes for playing cricket. “I can try to overcome poverty. But how can I overcome this feeling of insecurity? Shoaib certainly did not have to face eveteasing.”

The boys drew attention to the fact that they did not feel safe either given the presence of mastans in public places, and uncooperative (and sometimes violent) behaviour of the police. Fear of being mugged, kidnapped also terrifies the children.

Sharmina Bhattacharji of Maple Leaf International School mentioned that many children are tempted by acquaintances or older friends (‘bad people’) to experiment with drugs etc when they go out parties, picnics or other public places. And many do fall into the trap.

At the Workplace:

The working children pointed out that they did not feel safe even when they were not on the street or in a public place. Verbal or physical abuses by the employer are common experience. Houseworkers are the most vulnerable group of children. Sujan recalled how he used to be verbally abused, repeatedly beaten by the head of the household where he worked. Parveen recounted the experience of a classmate. Her classmate was locked in, verbally abused and so severely beaten that she had welts on her back. Parveen asked in desperation, “Would they have done this to their own children. Do they not know that we are someone’s children too?” Most of the times the houseworkers are physically abused when they ask for overdue wages.

The situation is not very different for other child workers. Mohammed Robin who works as a mess boy at DU said, “There are six boys who serve 340 members. If I am late in attending someone, they behave rudely. They verbally abuse me, they even slapped me a few times. Is this how someone of Dhaka University should act?”

The presence of mastans and police do not make work easier for the working children. Sujan recalled that in his stint as a tea boy in Krishi market, the mastans would demand free cups of tea and his employer would beat him for not making enough money. Sadekur Rahman from Nilkhet who works as a hotel boy has had the same experience. Shipon, a tempo helper, is beaten by his ‘ustad’ whenever customers leave without paying the ticket fair.

The child workers highlighted the fact that many of them worked under hazardous conditions. They also stressed that their work hours are long and they do not get proper medical care when they are sick. “I feel very insecure when I think that I might fall sick,” said one child worker. What most of the child workers worry about is the lack of opportunities for education to lessen their insecurity about the future.

“I do not think the privileged people worry about whether children like us get to go to school. I would like to speak ‘thas thas’ English like the apas here. But do we count at all?” asked Parveen from Suravi school.

Tawsif from Oxford International School echoed her concern. “It’s our attitude. There is a clear division—the underprivileged children work and the children of the privileged classes do not. Our parents do not pay attention to the problems of the working /underprivileged children because we do not work.”

At School and At Home:

School bullying was identified as one of the major sources of insecurity at school by the children. Standing on a chair little Jasim, a five-year-old from Nilkhet, said that he is regularly bullied by one of his classmates. “Ami apa-r kache bichar diyechi,” he said, “but the teacher has not done anything. She just says – shob thik hoye jabe.”

Insecurity at home was one of the main concerns highlighted by the children. Most of them said that their parents did not want to leave them alone at home. Amrita from Southbreeze school felt that lack of trustworthy houseworkers contributed to this feeling of parental insecurity. Nurunahar from Nariphokkho reminded the participants that one could become a victim of violence at home. A local boy threw acid on Nurunahar while she was at home because she had refused his “offers of love.” The children also felt that what increased their feeling of insecurity at home was that many of them could not communicate freely with their parents about the problems they experienced at school, or on the streets (eveteasing etc). They feared that their parents might scold them or blame them for the problems.

Salma from Aprajeo Bangladesh school drew attention to the fact that many children experienced insecurity if one of the parents abandons them. Salma’s father abandoned his family after he married again. Many children mentioned the fact that enough food, clothes, etc. was available in the family to meet their needs was the basic issue tied to feeling secure. Fear of becoming homeless was a major cause of insecurity among the slum children. Selim from Agargaon Slum expressed his fear that he may not have place to call home in the coming weeks. His father had brought them to Dhaka so that the whole family could be together. “Where will we go now?” was his fearful question.

The children identified the conditions of the slums as another source of insecurity as they were aware it affected their health. “The water is polluted, the waste is floating everywhere, the mastans can come and pick any girl up at night. I worry, because I am afraid I might get sick or I will earn a bad reputation.” said ten-year-old Parul, a student of Apad Kalin school.

The Children’s Plan :

The children participants also came up with a list of what they feel should be done to ensure children’s security. The list of suggestions prepared by the children is given below:

For Security on the Streets:

  • “Authorities in charge” (traffic police and others) should be made aware and should take steps to help children cross the streets/ children using the roads.
  • The people (those who drive the public transport vehicles—buses, rickshaws etc) and those who use them should be made aware that children should get priority in using the transports and that their safety should be everybody’s concern. The media can play an important role in this regard.
  • As the police have not been very effective, can some other institution be established to ensure the physical safety of children on the streets?
  • The police force should be made aware that “street children have rights too” and the law enforcing agencies should be monitored (“dekha shona kora”) so that they do not abuse street children/slum or working children.
  • Strong measures should be taken to stop driving without license.
  • Everyone should be made aware that girl children are not to blame for the harassment they experience on the streets. The police and others should be vigilant to stop eveteasing, harassment.
  • Those who throw acid “deserve the death penalty” and these cases should be dealt summarily and punishment should be carried out without delay.
  • Everyone (especially the police) should protect children from abuse by the mastans.
  • Children who were forced to join criminal gangs should be “rescued and provided with the chance to learn a skill and go to school” rather than just locking them up in jails. Children from Aparjeo Bangladesh and Suravi felt that NGOs can play an important role here.
  • Public transport system and the streets should be made safe and the traffic laws should be implemented stringently.
  • Steps should be taken to prevent air pollution (vehicle owners should be fined for owning vehicles that emit black smoke, moreover, “gari jate batash nostyo na kore tar baybotsha shohoj ebong kom dame-r modhye jate hoi e rokom korte hobe.”
  • Awareness should be raised about how children are trafficked and the law enforcement agencies and everyone should act to stop trafficking.

For Security in Public Places:

  • Police should be more vigilant and willing to help the children in any difficulty (children who are lost, street children facing problems etc). More resources should be allocated so that the police can be trained to do these (“Police to ‘pari na’ bole. Tahoile jate pare she baybostha kora uchit.”) .
  • Children should be taught self defense techniques.
  • Children should be made aware about where they can seek help, what they need to do in case they face problems on the street. The parents and the media can play a big role. The children felt that “Do not talk to strangers kind of advice is not enough, we need to know what we can do if a stranger does pester us.”
  • Police and everyone should be more vigilant in stopping eveteasing, harassment in public places. There should be stricter laws and they should be enforced.
  • People should be made aware that “girls belong to the ‘public’ category too.” Media should highlight eveteasing and other problems the girl’s face. The attitude that “you are a girl and you should not be here or you must have done something that is why the boys tease you or you should be ashamed because you were harassed” needs to be changed.
  • There should be special cinema shows that would be for children only.
  • Public awareness should be created about the security of children and the rights of children through mass media.
  • Open spaces and playgrounds should not be encroached upon or used for other purposes.
  • Special arrangements should be made so that underprivileged children can use these children’s parks etc. for recreation.

For Security at Work:

  • Awareness should be raised about the rights of child workers. The media can play a vital role in this regard. Special attention should be given to raise awareness about the rights of the child houseworkers.
  • Attitude (of the privileged people) such as “the problems of working children is not our headache since my children do not work,” needs to be changed.
  • Police and employers should not abuse/ exploit working children and laws in this regard needs to be implemented stringently.
  • Police and concerned authorities (and the community) should protect child workers from “mastans” or “cadres”.
  • Work hours for children should be according to their age and ability.
  • Employers should pay attention and take necessary steps to provide for the medical, nutritional needs of the child workers (this also applies to the child houseworkers).
  • Employers should take necessary steps to improve the work environment and should take appropriate safety measures and whether this is done should be monitored by the concerned authorities.
  • Children should not face any sort of discrimination at the work place. They should receive “just wage” (“najyo paona”) for their labor.
  • Employers should bear the expenses for medical treatment of the victims of work place accidents (this also applies to the child houseworkers).
  • Employers should make arrangements so that the child workers, particularly the girls, can return home safe if they are working in the evening shifts.
  • Children should not be employed in any profession that is harmful to their health.
  • The government and the NGOs should run schools that have flexible hours so that the working children have a chance to attend school after work.

    For Security at School:

  • The teachers or senior students at school should not verbally, psychologically or physically abuse children. “We admit we are no angle, but people should be aware that we have feelings. We do not mind if we are reprimanded if the teacher is does not taunt and abuse us and is totally insensitive to our ‘man-shomman.”
  • There should be more open communication between teacher and students.
  • Teachers should not “favor one student over the other.”
  • There should be necessary security arrangements at schools.
  • Strict measures should be taken to stop bullying at school.
  • “Schools should teach us how to be healthy.”

    For Security at Home:

  • “The parents needs to listen to us. We need to feel that we can tell them our problems without being scared that we will be scolded or disciplined. We need to have a voice at home and this does not mean that we want to make all the decisions or disobey them.”
  • Steps should be taken to provide shelter for the homeless/ street children.
  • Laws regarding child marriage should be implemented stringently.
  • More day care centers need to be established (and staff needs to be trained for these centers) for the children of working parents.
  • Children should not be verbally or physically abused.
  • Verbal abuses should not be uttered in front of the children.
  • Children should not be sexually abused.
  • Home should have a “healthy environment” and hygiene education should begin at home. The “people in charge and concerned parties” should help to clean up the slums.
  • Children should not face the threat of losing their homes (slum eviction).
  • Children should be encouraged to engage in creative activities (music, debating, handicrafts etc.)—“Porashona is very important. But pushing us to do that all the time, and conjuring up a horrible future that awaits us if we do not study 24 hours a day, scares us. Everyone knows—all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The list above is a wish-list that the children came up with for a secure future. Many of the children participants pointedly asked at the dialogue “Are we your future? Then, why are you not doing anything concrete?” A people has a future only when ‘their young have dreams and their old have visions.’ The concerns voiced and the suggestions made by the children at this dialogue show that they still have dreams about the future. But do we, the adults, have visions to help the children attain their dreams?

The author is a Lecturer of Department of International Relations, Dhaka University.