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Highlighting the plight of street children in Bangladesh

This month a special exhibition can be seen in Dhaka and the southern city of Barisal in Bangladesh. Called ‘Living in the Urban Jungle’, the exhibition is a collection of photos taken by a group of 20 disadvantaged children. The children, who all live and work on the streets of the two cities, were given photography lessons sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in partnership with Telenor Group and the DRIK Gallery. After their training, each child returned to their home slum areas and took photos of life around them.

One 12-year old who took part in the scheme, Dulal Hossain, explained that he chose to take pictures of other “children at risk”, such as those living in drop-in centres and working children who were collecting bottles or carrying heavy loads. In total, almost 28,000 images were captured by the 20 children and these were whittled down to 60 photographs for the final exhibition. Each has a caption to accompany the image, which the children were helped to write. One girl, Chadni, who ran away from home at the age of 7, said “I feel good about ....having the chance to express myself. Through pictures, I can tell the story of my hardships and the hardships of other children”.

The exhibition is designed to highlight the plight of poor urban children in Bangladesh who frequently suffer much greater deprivation than those in the countryside. Slum populations have grown rapidly across Bangladesh as the landless poor migrate to the towns and cities to find work, displaced by poverty, natural disasters and land-grabbing elites. With little or no money for proper accommodation, it is estimated that around one third of the urban population in the six largest cities of Bangladesh now live in slums. These are dense and overcrowded squatter-style settlements, with little or no sanitation and few services. Frequently deprived of an education, many children in these slums areas are forced to work long hours or even to fend for themselves in a predatory and unforgiving environment.

In Bangladesh, children account for around 45 per cent of the total population (an estimated 156 million in 2010) and about half of these children live below the upper poverty line, with one quarter living in extreme poverty. UNICEF has identified that many of the poorest are now those working in urban areas, as well the street children and orphans of the cities. The organisation estimates that in 2011, there could be almost one million working children (10-14 years) and as many as 2 million street children and orphans (0-14 years) in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi government has implemented a number of social safety net programs to help the poor graduate out of poverty, but progress over the last few years has been slow. New research shows that interventions to break the poverty cycle between generations are crucial to speeding up poverty reduction. In partnership with UNICEF, the government has therefore launched three new initiatives focusing on improving opportunities and living conditions of urban working children, street children and orphans. The schemes – Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Working Children, Protection of Children at Risk and Our Children – will run for 40 months, 12 months and 18 months respectively. After that, and if the programs prove a success, UNICEF is hoping the schemes will be expanded with wider investment from the government. As the young photographer Chadni exclaimed after taking part in the ‘Urban Jungle’ exhibition – “even though I am female, poor and young, when given the opportunity, I can achieve”.

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