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Originally produced for UNICEF
By 1996 there were an estimated 6.6 million working children less than 14 years old in Bangladesh. Around 42% of these were girls. Most child labourers worked in rural areas. Just over a third worked in towns and cities.
Children are engaged in at least 300 forms of work in Bnagladesh of which 49 have been identified as hazardous to their physical and mental well-being. Hazardous jobs are not only those that expose children to risks of injury or abuse, as is the case for children who are domestics, waste pickers, brick chippers, and workers in tea stalls and auto-repair workshops. Hazardous work also includes jobs where children labour for ten hours or more in grindingly repetitive manufacturing activities – making shoes and caps, weaving and embroidering. It includes work that places burdens on children that are far beyond their years, as when children as young as ten are left in charge of younger siblings for hours every day while their parents work.
According to the 1995-96 Child Labour Survey, only 36% of working children receive any pay. Unpaid workers, 58% boys and 71% girls, are mainly family helpers and apprentices in farms and factories. In 1995-96 the average income was Tk 478 per month (about $6). Domestic servants usually earned less and often nothing at all.
A recent opinion survey of employers of child domestics in Dhaka and Chittagong showed that most children worked for about 16 hours a day. A survey of 10,000 households showed that 90% of domestics were girls aged 9 to 16 years old and half of these were illiterate. According to CLS, 89% of working children surveyed had received no education.
Until the mid-1990s, there was little awareness in Bangladesh that there was anything wrong with the role children played in the workforce. It was considered the inevitable fate of the poorest families that their children would have to contribute to the household economy. The parents of working children, were often illiterate and unschooled, had little awareness of the value of education, and made virtually no demand for the education rights of their children to be fulfilled. Attendance at primary school had been compulsory since 1993 but it was tacitly accepted by the government that the poorest children would not attend.
Limited access to government primary schools in the poorest urban slum areas may have been influenced by this assumption. Schools were generally located some distance from the places where the poorest children lived. Low access to primary education was also a result of the relentless drift of the rural poor to city slums and a burgeoning population of children in need of schools that urban authorities had apparently been unable to match. Indeed, most slum areas were not recognized as legitimate settlements and therefore were not included in urban planning processes.
By 1995, the garment industry of Bangladesh was booming. Factories were springing up all over Dhaka and many of these employed young children who earned minute wages for excessively long hours of labour. In the same year, however, the Harkins Bill, proposed in the US Senate, prohibited the import to the USA of any items manufactured by children. Although it was never passed, the proposed legislation sent shockwaves through the garment industry in Bangladesh and ultimately led to a landmark Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the garment manufacturers, UNICEF and ILO. Under this Memorandum, special schools operated by NGOs (BRAC and GSS MOU) were set up for former child workers in the garment industry. Over the next four years more than 9,000 children were enrolled.
Preparation of UNICEF’s 1996-2001 Country Programme for Bangladesh was undertaken against this backdrop of increasing awareness of the deprivations of working children. Since 1994, UNICEF had been negotiating with the Directorate of Non-Formal Education for the establishment of an education project for unserved children living in urban slums. In the new country programme, this project, Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Children, became a pilot scheme specifically designed to serve working children.
Since 1997, more than five thousand learning centres had been opened in small rooms in the slums of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal and Sylhet, and by 2001, more than 200,000 children had enrolled for the daily two-hour session in basic education.
In 2000, a formative evaluation of the project was conducted which aimed to identify strengths, weaknesses and to indicate areas where improvement was necessary. Several important achievements were highlighted.
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