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     Volume 5 Issue 123 | December 8, 2006 |

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Human Rights

Street Children with Disabilities
Speaking for Themselves

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Many urbanites passing by Banani Road 11 may come into contact with a little curly haired girl with a beguiling smile who limps as she precariously crosses the street to ask for money from a passerby. Shilpi could be anything from eight to ten years old; it's hard to say, she is so small and frail, walking with a limp. All day long and sometimes late into the night she walks along the street, sometimes wandering into Cantonment or other areas, hoping to get some sympathy in the form of a few takas. She has a mother who sometimes accompanies her to beg; but most of the time Shilpi works alone. One cannot help but fear for her safety; she is too pretty to be left alone, too small to fight off the hidden dangers lurking in the corner. She is also disabled and would have a hard time running if she had to.

But Shilpi is possibly better off than many other kids with worse disabilities. Those kids who cannot even move by themselves and have to rely on other beggars who will share the earnings. They come from the poorest of the poor section of the society; their parents use their child's disability as a way of getting money. School is a faraway dream for street children and an impossibility for those who are disabled.

The Centre for Services and Information on Disability (CSID) is an organisation that tries to make going to school a tangible goal for such children. Khondokar Johurul Alam, the Executive Director of this registered non-profit charity trust, explains the holistic approach to their activities. “ We first work with the families (of these children) and discuss the problems of being disabled and the possible solutions. Then we highlight the potential of these children and the fact that that they should be going to school. We also work with 'School Advocacy Teams' comprised of disabled street children”.

CSID works mainly in Mirpur, Muhammadpur and Tejgaon rail line where many disabled kids can be seen on the street, mainly begging. Some of them got injured in road accidents, others had their limbs severed when they were caught under a running train.

The advocacy teams go to various schools in the vicinity and perform little skits that reflect the plight of disabled street children and the fact that they have a right to go to school just like any other child. The little drama groups write their own script and storyline and perform in front of school children, teachers or members of the school management committee. At the end of the play they initiate a dialogue with the audience and talk about the various issues related to children in their circumstances.

“So far we have enrolled about a hundred students in the regular schools” says Alam who adds that most of these children are only physically disabled and so can go to regular schools. Only those who are blind or mentally challenged are sent to special schools.

At present CSID works in four areas and helps about 406 children. “Some kids are so poor that they cannot afford to leave work and go to school; we get them involved in income-generation activities,” says Alam. CSID gives these children interest-free microcredit upto an amount of 10,000 taka. Sometimes this is a full grant for those kids who have no support and cannot pay back the loan.

Most of these children survive by begging and CSID does not necessarily tell them to stop unless there is a better alternative. At the initial meetings the CSID team explains to the children what their rights are and then to the families. “Our goal is to get the families to support them”, says Alam. “There is no reason to pity these children, they have rights like any other children and in order to establish those rights they must be proactive. They must talk about themselves.”

CSID advocates what they term as inclusive education which basically means mainstreaming children with disabilities or children from say adivasi communities or kids who have been born in brothels, into regular schools.

Advocacy team members perform a skit to make people aware about the difficulties children with disabilities face.

Before CSID initiated its project on disabled street children (in partnership with Save the Children Sweden/Denmark) it conducted two studies. The studies came up with important findings. According to one of them, Bangladesh, although has ratified the UN Child Rights Convention (CRC), has not been able to develop an appropriate policy or legislative support and budgetary allocation to protect the rights of these children. Thus street children who are disabled are deprived of the most basic rights of shelter, food, clothing and health care as well as special attention and care relevant to their disability. The latter is caused by the fact that the necessary medical care is inaccessible for these children, either too costly or unavailable in their area. Few of these children have access to education, some are physically and emotionally abused and most are excluded from mainstream society. Leisure, rest or recreation is almost unknown to these children. They have to bear the brunt of insensitive remarks and negative attitudes and are thus viewed s a burden on their families and society. Government projects and even the NGO sector hardly include street children with disabilities.

The second study tried to find the reasons behind such exclusions. Seventy-seven out of 113 organisations were not at all interested in including children with disabilities in their programmes. Twenty-one reported to have a bar in policy and 17 organisations answered that they did not have the technical knowledge to work with disabled children. The third largest group of 12 organisations mentioned lack of funds and unavailability of information for such exclusion.

It was on the basis of these two studies that CSID developed its projects. The key issues corresponded to various articles of the CRC and included survival and development; non-discrimination; participation; and accountability.

Apart from sensitising the community about the rights of disabled children, the projects focused on other ways to improve the quality of life of these children. This means improving the mobility and functional ability, including these kids into mainstream education, health, games, recreation and social systems. Reducing the worst form of child labour among children with disabilities is also an important objective.

This innovative approach of getting the children to persuade the larger society to recognise their rights through direct contact with members of the community, has brought remarkable results. CSID's activities have expanded in Mirpur and Tejgaon and even Sylhet. Other organisations are emulating the methods to use them in their own programmes. The families CSID has counseled are more open now to the idea of their children going to school and are trying their best to support their wards.

Around 100 children have received specialised treatment, therapy services and necessary aids and appliances to improve their ability to move and function. 250 children and their 750 family members are receiving basic health care and teenage girls and boys are being educated about reproductive health care.

Getting adequate funding, however, is a major challenge for programmes that need to be constantly supported and expanded to make any real difference. Currently CSID is supported by Save the Children Sweden/Denmark, Action Aid Bangladesh and Bangladesh Freedom Foundation. In Sylhet, the programmes are funded by Manusher Jonno Foundation. Alam insists that government support is essential for projects like this and says that the budget for children with disability should be part of the national budget.

Despite this major constraint of getting more funding, CSID continues with its work of getting these children to take charge of their own lives and making sure that their families and the larger society that they are a part of, support them along the way.


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