Photo Courtesy: GMB Akash
While students in top universities are brightening up their future prospects ever more, thousands of children serving these students are left in the dark. These hapless children grow up watching hectic academic activities, but yet education is a luxury to them and illiteracy hangs like a black cloud over their head.
Child workers are omnipresent on almost all public university campuses and in all residential halls. They work 12-14 hours a day in canteens, shops and makeshift stalls, only for a very nominal wage or in exchange for food. Some peddle cigarettes, chocolates or flowers. And some wander about the campus in search of food or work.
“What else can we do? We have to work to survive,” Sohel Rahman, a 12-year-old boy working at a tea-stall on Dhaka University campus, told me. He came to Dhaka with his cousin Yousuf a year ago. “I wanted to study, but I was sent from my home in Chandpur to earn money and help feed our family,” he added.
It is estimated that more than 600 children are working at Dhaka University alone. Most of these children hail from rural areas and many of them are relatives of canteen owners and other workers. University authorities apparently neither bar the employers from hiring child labourers nor take any steps to educate these children.
Some students, however, feel compelled to do something for these children. Some others treat them roughly if their orders are not carried out properly. But most of the students are sympathetic and often ask about their family’s situation and why they are working instead of studying.
M.A. Muqit, a fresh graduate in Arabic from DU, was deeply moved when a child asked him for alms on the campus. A sense of responsibility struck his mind then and there. He shared the idea of doing something for these children with his friends.
In 2009, Muqit and a group of his friends formed ‘BRIKHOMIA SISHU BIKAS KENDRA’, a school under the trees of Suhrawardy Udyan. But soon they met with the ground reality that it is hard to attract wandering children to school, even though it is free. Then they approached S.M. Ashiquzzaman, a Professor of Economics Department.
Ashiquzzaman managed some fund for them. Then they started handing out food and some cash to allure children to school. Now the school has four campuses - at Suhrawardi Udyan, Palashi, High court intersection and at Usmani Uddan with some 120 students.
“We teach them how to read, write and count so that no one can fleece them in their business. We also teach them moral lessons so that they don’t go astray,” Muqit said. However, students of this school are far from mainstream education and Muqit seemed worried that their effort might not be able to change these children’s lot.
Bangladesh has ratified the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which requires countries to protect children from economic exploitation and forbid them from performing any work that is likely to interfere with their education. The constitution of the country also enshrined the idea that education should be free and mandatory for all.
But for Sohel and many others like him, school seems like a distant dream. When he is not at work he plays along with his fellow workers. He goofs off and makes fun to take his mind off the hardship. Like many other children, he too seems unaware of the importance of education.
After endless months of backbreaking labour, the homesick kid has just one wish: to go home. “I want to see my mother,” he says. For the last two months he has been asking for leave. But his employer is telling him: “Going home is bad for business.”
Sohel now works and waits.