Harsh realities of life for children on Bangladesh’s streets
Selim is 12 years old and small for his age. He wears a polo shirt pocked with tears and repairs and frowns down at the ground as I talk to him.
When he answers my questions, he twists his arms awkwardly behind his head, rarely taking his eyes off his bare feet.
He seems shy at first, but as tough as they come. He has to be.
Home used to be Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second city but, when his brother started beating him, Selim fled. Now he is one of over 100,000 children who live on the streets of Dhaka, the nation’s sprawling capital.
For a while, he had a job on a tea stall. When that didn’t work out, he joined the children who spend their days hanging around Kamalapur train station looking to earn enough to eat by carrying bags for passengers.
At night, he sleeps there as well, making a bed out of whatever’s around.
A life thrown from its orbit
At an age where he should be at home, going to school and enjoying his childhood, Selim has been thrown into a dangerous adult world. And his chances of escaping a life spent drifting from station to station, without ever really going anywhere, appear to be slim.
As night falls, the station teems with warning signs. Monosyllabic older boys, eyes glazed from sniffing glue, come over, their faces locked into drowsy grins. On the tracks beyond the platform, shadows of men crouch in front of the small bonfires that sputter away in the darkness.
Somewhere in the crowds, traffickers may be lurking, on the lookout for vulnerable children to smuggle across the border.
But if his future looks bleak, Selim doesn’t appear to see it. “I don’t think about tomorrow: only of the time at hand,” he tells me, cheerfully.
And when I ask him about whether he is afraid of sleeping on the streets, he just laughs throatily. He tells me about night-time beatings, but seems to shrug them off as though they were just another minor annoyance.
Talking to him, it’s almost as though he’s grown a hide to protect himself.
A calmer space
A short walk from the station, Save the Children runs a 30-bed shelter for boys like Selim in association with partner charity, INCIDIN Bangladesh.
In the office, filing cabinets line the near wall and posters, calendars and sporting trophies are dotted around the room. The windows are open, and the noise of the city five floors below competes with the hum of conversation coming from the boys in the room next door.
Work and lessons have finished for the day – now children of varying ages sit together on jute mats chatting, watching one of the small collection of DVDs in the corner, or sleeping off the efforts of their day.
The atmosphere is warm and friendly – a world away from the concrete and noise of the station. So I’m surprised when Mojib, a softly-spoken member of the Save the Children team here in Dhaka explains that one of the biggest challenges the team faces is getting children to come to the centre in the first place.
“On the streets, they live like kings,” he explains. “No one tells them what to do. When they get hungry, they eat what they like. When they get tired, they sleep where they want.”
But he also tells me how many children are often scared to admit to some of the things they suffer at the hands of their employers in the bottle shops and rubbish tip, for fear of biting the hands that feed.
Instead, they develop what Mojib calls “negative coping strategies” – perhaps similar to the kind of protective hide I sensed in Selim.
The shelter offers these children a chance to be children again.
Hopes and fears
When they arrive, every child gets a physical and psychosocial assessment. Once that’s done, they’re given the chance to choose a path to head down – either through education, or vocational training.
The programme really does make a difference. The children seem so much more open and engaged than the ones I’ve met in the station. Each meets my eye and answers my questions carefully, making sure they leave no important details out of their stories.
There’s 13-year-old Rumon, who has already learnt tailoring skills during his time at the centre and is now returning to school to get a proper education, Akash, who stores the money he earns working in a bottle shop here and Hasan, who arrived here a few weeks ago after six months living in the station.
“I saw people [traffickers] collecting boys from the station,” he tells me. “I was looking for somewhere safe, so I came here.
“Many people used to beat us there,” he adds. “Sometimes older kids, or people from the station. I’d get upset when somebody woke me in the middle of my sleep. It made me feel bad.”
He can’t afford not to work, but tells me he’s planning to save up so that he can start selling books. And he has even bigger ideas for the future.
“When I grow up,” he says, “I dream of working in the guards or the police. But for that I need to study.”
It’s the answer you’d expect from any child; that is its beauty. At Save the Children, we often say that every child should be able to look to the future with hope – but until now, I’ve never actually thought what it means.
I think back to the station, and of how Selim told me he didn’t think about tomorrow. I wonder whether he is the first child I’ve ever met who has forgotten how to hope.