Quoting Child Rights Forum reports it was revealed in a seminar at the Jatiya (National) Press Club last week that, from last September to August, 587 children were murdered, 487 abducted, 565 raped and 787 were trafficked outside the country, mostly to be used as camel jockeys in Arab countries. The question is how a child living under such constant threat of abduction, rape and killing can grow up. A National Crime Records Bureau report says that crime against girl child is increasing dangerously.

While other countries talk about the need to invest in their youth, much of Bangladesh has converted its youth into a pernicious capital investment. Too many children are doing hazardous jobs in tanneries, shrimp processing units, glass factories, and welding and metal workshops. Child labour is hardly a new concern, having been fiercely debated and mostly outlawed in the West early this century. The phenomenon still persists in the developing world and lately it has been receiving considerable international attention. Child labour problem is most common in areas where there have been no land reforms and no education. Despite the fact that child labour has been withdrawn from the garments sector in Bangladesh following international pressure, there are still thousands of children now in the country eking out a living under oppressive situations in other vocations.

These are children who are working either to support themselves or their families. The number of children doing such odd jobs as splitting stones for the construction works or picking trash from the streets, or packing groceries, or working as hotel boys or coolies in bus and railway stations outnumber those 10,000 child workers just withdrawn from the garment factories. In a report released by an international NGO group in 1998 named "Anti-Slavery Society", it has been revealed that as many as three million children are working in different parts of Bangladesh. In comparison, 115 million children work in India, eight million in Pakistan, 5.7 million in Nepal, 5.5 million in the Philippines and five million in China.

Grim accounts of poor girls under 14 being taken away from around the country and sold to foreign brokers and brothels are pouring in with sickening frequency and they make headlines when such secret trade is unearthed by women activist groups. In spite of the fact that the country has stricter laws to stop such illegal trade and abuse, the administration has hardly been able to ensure protection to these teenagers from exploitation.

The condition of the children lacking support of family or parents in the country beggars description. They wander homeless in the streets of Dhaka, Chittagong and other cities often surviving by thieving or begging in absence of any means of living. Although we talk glibly that children are the future of the country, we mean it in a very narrow sense. We employ them either in our homes, factories or business concern to perform chores that we would normally hesitate to delegate to our own children.

Born of poor parents these children don't have the money to buy their own freedom, and starkly true that this grim fact has emboldened us to take advantage of their disadvantage. To employ children in harmful works is strictly prohibited by the country's labour laws but enforcement has never been taken seriously. Sometimes, the authorities' time honoured excuse is that removing a child from a job robs a poor family of needed income. In fact, child workers take jobs that might otherwise be given to adults who themselves suffer from significant unemployment or under employment which by some estimate is over 40 million. The fact is factory owners prefer young workers because they can be paid less and bullied into working longer hours without complaint.

The real reason children are allowed to work in underdeveloped countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines is the indifference of the ruling elite to these impoverished groups. Shockingly, as things stand today in the country, certain kinds of children get the best education in the world. But there are others who are believed to be born to work with their hands and do not need an education. "The families of the child labourers are the same families who don't have access to healthcare. And they are the same families who are largely illiterate," says Richard Young, chief of Community Development in SE Asian region, U.N. Children's Fund.

China is a vast country with a population of about 1.2 billion but child labourers there are vastly fewer only an estimated five million, a relatively new phenomenon prompted by a decade of explosive economic growth. In Beijing the most common official complaint is one rarely heard in other regions that children in factories are missing out on education. Lamentably, in Bangladesh population boom takes place mostly in the impoverished families and most of the children born of poor parents were ever in a position to receive the most basic education. Ironically true, even when there has come about explosion of knowledge worldwide, education for the poor in Bangladesh is something we don't see as necessary at all. It's almost as if the poor don't have the same desires and aspirations as the rich.

Predictably, in the vast Bangladesh region, we may have hundreds and thousands of meritorious boys and girls who are born to blush unseen because of lack of support and opportunities. Even in a favourable situation when the government encourages school enrolment through introduction of scholarships to the tune of 663 00000 Tk.(60taka = 1 US Dollar) to lure children of the poorest section in society into primary schools, grim news of school dropout cases from different parts of the country are pouring in.

Reports published in a Bangla daily on September 23 last indicate that out of about 4 14 000 children of school going age only 30 51000 got admitted in different primary schools of Kishoreganj district. That so many children, about 62 thousand in one district only are out of school is a profound tragedy. The feeling of powerlessness that goes with being illiterate comes through loud and clear in any conversation with ordinary people. And that emphasises the need for a major improvement of the country's schooling system.

Despite the fact that government in the last one decade launched the literacy drive through programmes like "Food for education", "Total Literacy Movement" and now cash incentive for enrolment, success is still a far cry. Plainly speaking, if rhetoric is the yardstick, there has been a great leap forward. However much remains to be done in terms of action. Without confronting the alarming trend of the decline of teacher-pupil ratio, infrastructural facilities, general improvement in the economic condition of the parents, and over all monitoring and surveillance in curbing the endemic corruption embedded in the programme and educational administration success in educating the children of the country will remain an elusive proposition.

SOURCE: Asadullah Khan is Controller of Examination, BUET ( Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology), The daily Star,18. 10. 02

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