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Some Glimpses into the life of
Street Children in Dhaka

Boys on the street

A report from CSKS

A casual walk through the back streets behind the painted VIP roads and all over old Dhaka and one can find them. One sees them in the bazaars, commercial areas, in the bus terminals, around hotels, in the parks, on the pavements, around the stadium, in the gutters, in the hundreds of slums. They try to earn a living. They collect garbage, break bricks, push rickshaws, hang out on the buses, serve teas, hassle strangers, beg, borrow, scrounge, prostitute their tender bodies, pick peoples' pockets - all trying to earn a living, involved in a struggle of miserable sustenance.

They get up very early, generally before dawn, and get ready by sunrise to do whatever they have planned for the day. The rag pickers (tokais) get out with their torn and patched bags to collect from garbage bins. The beggars go to their patches. The 'minti' (porter) goes with his basket on his head. The pick pocket goes to report to his area boss. Many of them spend the day wondering and whiling away time in small groups. They get together again in the evening. They normally buy a meal a day at roadside secondhand food shops and eat sitting on bricks. They share food if one of them is going hungry.


By late evening they are ready for the night's entertainment. Through word of mouth, they always know what is going on: fairs, outdoor TV or movies, festivities or public occasions etc. When there are places to go to - it's great fun.

Children of the street: causes and effects

Poverty, inadequate housing, poor healthcare, malnutrition, unemployment and lack of education have all contributed to the incidents of child annihilation, abuse and neglect. The impact of poverty on child welfare is dramatically illustrated in a number of different indicators. Figures collected annually by UNICEF clearly demonstrate the relationship between poverty as measured in per capita income, caloric intake and levels of infant mortality.

With less than 500 dollars per capita income and a deficient caloric intake over a quarter of children die before they reach 12 years of age; more than ten percent failing to reach their first birthday.

Breakdown of the family
The social unit of Asiatic Extended Family System, which used to provide a way for most children to remain within an attached framework at least at some minimum level, is breaking down. Children are increasingly finding themselves outside the traditional support system.

The 'cycle' for the family is typically as follows:
Landless peasant males get married early with 'dowry' demands. After a few children are born the family finds itself unable to sustain them any more. The man abandons the family. He moves away and marries again with another dowry. In the first family disintegration begins. Mothers with children migrate to the city. Here they face profound depravation. They take shelter in the squatters' slum. Progressively ethos/values alter and the mother grows dependent on serial male partnerships leading to her total exploitation and the gradual rejection of her children.

Violence within such 'families' is common, particularly against children. This is one of the principal reasons for children fleeing their 'homes'. In other cases the family bond remains strong but the parents simply cannot feed their large families and children are sent to fend for themselves. In such circumstances the children of the urban poor regularly find themselves active participants in the struggle for survival of the whole family.

Battered and brutalised
High incidents of maltreatment correlate with factors such as socio-economic status, unemployment, indebtedness, family size, corporal punishment, age of the mother at birth etc. Where deprivation is greater, child abuse is higher. Striking or beating children or inflicting pain in order to reform them is an acceptable and normal phenomenon in Bangladesh society.

Terror, violence and cruelty against and kidnapping and abduction of women and children are becoming a regular feature in Bangladesh society. So are the cases of suicide amongst teenage girls and young women.

Children are arrested, beaten and molested on any pretext. Once arrested there generally is no end of the detention. It can continue for years without trial, in rat-infested prisons. There are reported incidents of pregnant girl prostitutes kicked in the stomach by adults in authority to induce abortions. There are reported incidents of continuous rape of children in custody. Imagine a 12-year-old child in the same cell as a hardened criminal.

Sometimes a van comes to pick them up, under the Vagrants Act. Their grapevine is very effective and usually they come to know long before the van arrives. They are very scared of these vans; they hate being picked up and then confined. Their word of mouth info-system is apt and effective. On occasions, when they are asleep or weak, they get caught by these van peddlers. Sometimes they avoid being picked up by offering a cash bribe or an act in kind including sexual favours.

Exploitation and sexual abuse
The exploitation of child labour is rampant. Millions of working children, unable to assert themselves, have no collective bargaining power and are usually unaware of their rights. They are made to work long hours and frequently under inhuman conditions. An employer in a motor repairing shop said, "They are nimble and have keen eye sight, eat less food and their size enables them to crawl in small spaces, which costs less".

Commercial exploitation of children for pornographic or sexual purposes (though not yet of the magnitude of some other countries) is increasing at a rapid rate. Homosexual abuse of male children is more prevalent than people are prepared to accept. Trafficking of women, children and babies is increasing at an alarming rate. Child trafficking is one of the most distressing and inhuman acts against children. It is even more heart-rending when the traffickers torture kidnapped children. In many cases they are blinded, their limbs are broken and they are crippled for begging.

In the West Asian and neighbouring countries there is a large number of Bengali women and children living either illegally who become victims of blackmail, or who are in prisons as victims of unlawful trafficking of human beings. A lot of these women and children end up in the brothels of various cities.

Street children long for the things most children take for granted: food, a home, love, education, leisure, protection and recognition from their families, societies and friends. They are children who are unscrupulously used by others. They are children whom the society tries to forget and ignore. Children that nobody smiles at, nobody cuddles, nobody protects and nobody comforts. It certainly does not require a psychologist to predict the low esteem and negative self perception that develops in these children.

The street children's image of themselves is contaminated by the way society perceives them. Society labels them as 'delinquent' and 'bad' and consequently their behaviour, in many cases, is a reflection of this label. Often they are forced by their situation to compromise their self-respect by their own action (e.g. begging, robbing, stealing and prostituting) which reinforce their low self-opinion.
With their big brown eyes they scan their surroundings, which doesn't take much notice of them, except with the occasional despising stare of utter contempt. Continuously they are vulnerable. They have nothing to fall back on for their existence and survival except their own wits.

(This is an edited version of a report produced by CSKS for Global Footprints)
All photographs by John Goodwin.