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     Volume 8 Issue 52 | January 9, 2009 |

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Making a Difference

Standing up for Children

Elita Karim

Nine-year-old Fatima spends a lot of time with her drawing book. She picks out a dark shade of green from her set of crayons and carefully fills in the sketch of a tree. "I like to draw pictures of village scenes," she says, pointing to her drawing of a village morning, splashed out in bright red, orange, yellow, brown and green. "I also write poetry in Bangla," she remarks as she runs to get her notebook where she has written a poem about her mother. "We had our annual sports day a while back," says Fatima with a sudden catch in her voice. "I participated, but did not win anything."

Unlike other nine-year-old, Fatima is a domestic worker. She, along
with other domestic workers her age, attends classes set up by Phulki in Karail for two hours every morning.

Fatima might sound like just another child, but unlike other nine-year-olds, she is a domestic worker. She lives in a slum located in Karail with her parents, both of who work. Fatima works as a part time domestic help from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm in a house located inside the TNT Colony. She cleans the house, does the dishes and washes clothes. In fact, there are several children in Karail, mainly girls, who work as full-time or part-time domestic workers in nearby areas like the TNT Colony and Banani. Most of these children start working from the age of five or six.

Phulki, a non-profit organisation has embarked on a project that works with these domestic girl workers. The project was set up in 2006, which educates these young child workers. This innovative initiative aims to develop a social 'safety net' for the thousands of young girls working in homes across Bangladesh without access to counselling, skill training, education or legal services. Running this project in the slums and colonies of Karail, Pikepara and Rupnagar, child domestic workers attend classes in small rooms set up by Phulki, five days a week from 10 am - 12:30 pm in the mornings and 2 pm - 4:30 pm in the evenings. Each school has one teacher and an 'ayah' to look after the children. Fatima and others like her living in Karail learn how to read and write Bangla, basic math, cooking, sewing, ironing clothes etc. They also have art classes, including music and dance classes. Phulki meaning 'spark' in Bangla began to work for children's rights and women's empowerment in the year 1991. Partnered with Water Aid Bangladesh, Action Aid Bangladesh, Plan International, Global Fund for Children, Manusher Jonno, Oxfam and Shapla Neer, Phulki envisages a future where children can grow in an environment that is not only secure and healthy but also provides them with a proper education. The organisation's mission is to create a safe atmosphere for working mothers who would otherwise have to sacrifice their children's well being. Currently, Phulki has programmes addressing children from 6 weeks to 18 years of age, through the establishment of childcare centres, applying the Child-to-Child education approach, and training programs. One of Phulki's initial programmes was the establishment of childcare centres in several slum areas and colonies. These centres are also established in several garment factories.

In Bangladesh, a child working as domestic worker is common. Although official data is not available, according to some NGO reports, there are approximately two million children engaged in domestic work in Bangladesh. Families living in slum areas and trying to survive under the poverty line prefer to send their children, as young as five or six, to work and help earn a living. These child domestic workers are usually hidden from public scrutiny since they stay alone in the households. Their employers control their lives. As their poor parents live far away in the rural areas and villages, it gets very difficult for them to defend and protect their children in case of abuse, exploitation, not to mention the children's deteriorating health conditions as well. The fate of these child domestic workers rests largely on the mercy of their employers. In recent years, several cases of abuse and torture of child domestic workers by their employers have been reported by the media. Ironically, many of these employers belong to 'well-to-do' and 'educated families'.

In a country like ours, abolishing chid labour without providing a safety net for the family to earn more is not a viable solution. Suraiya Haque, the Executive Director of Phulki, says that poverty is, after all, the root of all evil in Bangladesh. "The children will not stop working," she says. "And the poor parents will not stop sending them to look for work. Otherwise, most girls will just end up getting married at the age of 9 or 10 or maybe even less. The idea is - why not just marry them off, getting rid of the extra mouth to feed in the family?" At least, adds Suraiya, this way Phulki is able to keep track of the whereabouts of the female children who otherwise fall prey to other tribulations in society.

Nine-year-old Farzana is a part-time domestic worker and works at the TNT Colony every evening. She spends her mornings in the one-room school set up by Phulki. "My favourite class is art class," she says. In the beginning, when she had just started to work, she was paid a measly amount because of her lack of skills. Now she knows not only how to read, write and also her tables, she has been taught how to iron clothes, cooking and maintain personal hygiene as well. "One of the major changes that take place here is the self-confidence the children develop," says Suraiya. "Very recently, one of our girls actually went up to her employer and bargained for a higher salary. She argued that she was now skilled and deserved more! The employer also agreed to the deal."

The Phulki programme, of educating child domestic workers, aims to develop a social 'safety net' for the thousands of girls working in homes across the country.

This project has benefited both the domestic workers and their employers. "In the beginning it was very difficult to even speak to the employers about this project," says Sabera Yeasmin, the Project Manager. "Some of them would not even listen to us. However, eventually the employers agreed to send their domestic workers to our schools and now they appreciate the changes that they find in the children." To an extent, the employers play an important role once their domestic workers are registered with the Phulki schools. One such employer even organised special cooking classes in her own kitchen for the children since the Phulki schoolrooms are too small to demonstrate or teach properly. "There was one gentleman in Kalyanpur who was very reluctant to speak to us in the beginning," says Sabera. "However, once his domestic worker got enrolled in Phuki, the employer got involved with the management as well. He now attends all of our meetings and helps us take decisions."

The children in Karail are excited. "We are going to have our sports day in February," informs 10-year-old Rabeya. Rabeya is probably the only full time worker in her group and attends the morning classes in Karail. "We will also get to sing and arrange dance shows for the event," she adds. It was a treat to see a spark in the eyes of Rabeya, Fathima, Farzana and other children who reassure the moments spent in their Phulki classrooms. These children who spend their childhood working as servants in peoples' homes discover their hidden talents for painting, singing, sewing or simply creating and expressing their thoughts and feelings in front of the world.

Even then, our society has to move a long way forward to provide children their right to a proper education. Even today, thousands of children wander the streets, defenceless and unaware of the malice that surrounds them. Until and unless the government prioritises the provision of basic education and shelter for every child on the street, it will be a Herculean task for the nation to eliminate poverty and unemployment in the next few decades.


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