On The Road Blog
Lessons from the Boys of Suhrawardy Udyan
Bangladesh is a country of large forests, beautiful vegetation, and many bodies of water. Some of its forests are home to Royal Bengal tigers. The country prides itself on having the Bengal Delta, which is the world’s largest delta and gives the country its “Land of Rivers” nickname.
The country is also famous for cricket, with renowned players like Mashrafe Mortaza and Mushfiqur Rahim, who played major roles in Bangladesh’s victory over Afghanistan in a fierce, seventh-match game during the ICC Cricket 2015 World Cup. I was privileged to be in Dhaka at that time, and after the match you could hear children and youth chanting, “Bangladesh, Bangladesh” as they celebrated the victory.
In traditional Bangladeshi communities, children are considered to be gifts, and it behooves all adult members of the community to contribute to the children’s well-being in any meaningful way they can, each time they come in contact with them. Children may be safeguarded by providing them with care, guarding them from danger, and expressing love to help in shaping their lives.
I was looking forward to seeing this beautiful culture in action when I arrived in Dhaka. I was also excited to connect with the beautiful people of Bangladesh, learn more about the culture, experience their hospitality, and eat lots of maach (fish) and bhaat (rice). Above all, I relished the opportunity to play with some of the children supported by The Global Fund for Children’s grassroots partners.
But before I had the chance to enjoy all that I had in mind, I read a shocking headline in the Dhaka Tribune—“Mob justice is no justice at all: Children beaten by mob cleared of wrong-doing, vendors at the Suhrawardy Udyan now claim they saw nothing.” This was a story of three boys, all about 12 years of age, who were suspected of being involved in preparing and using crude bombs to hurt people at Suhrawardy Udyan, a national memorial located in Dhaka.
The picture in the newspaper showed one of the boys being pulled by his shirt. Another was held by the wrist with blood oozing out of his nose and his face. It was obvious the children were helpless. They looked like they were crying; their facial expressions indicated pain, panic, and fear. I believe they were stunned to be receiving this kind of harsh and terrifying treatment from adult members of the community they expected to protect, guide, and care for them, and to correct them with love when they made mistakes.
Even if the children committed the crime they were being accused of, was that the appropriate way to handle them? My entire day was negatively affected as I imagined what these children had gone through. It was a relief, though, that after the boys were interrogated, the Shahbagh police officer indicated that they were innocent.
I had millions of questions flooding my mind. Considering what these children went through, why had no one come to their aid? Why were they on the streets? Where were their parents? Why were they not in school? How can such a situation be avoided? How can children be guided to be more responsible and make smart choices? How can we better protect children? Whose responsibility is it to protect children? And why is it that the systems and structures in some countries seem to have failed children?
This is where The Global Fund for Children (GFC) comes in to fill a vacuum. At GFC, we are committed to transforming the lives of the world’s most vulnerable, marginalized, and excluded children. We do this through grassroots organizations because we know they are best positioned to reach hard-to-reach children living on the margins of society. We currently support a number of partners in Bangladesh and in other parts of the world, and we wish to support more.
Our expectation is that the grassroots organizations we support will share their lessons learned, experiences, and promising practices with other organizations and the general public to ensure better care and protection for children such as these three boys. In addition, many of our grassroots partners advocate for better policies, systems, and structures for the care and development of children.
I was privileged to visit some of GFC’s partners in Bangladesh to learn more about their work. Among them is Sanjog Bangladesh, which works with street-based youth and slum dwellers in Dhaka. The vision of Sanjog Bangladesh is to create a society with equal distribution of power and universal access to services such as basic education and primary healthcare for children. Most of the children Sanjog Bangladesh supports are orphans whose only means of survival is forced and hazardous labor. Sanjog Bangladesh also engages the community in its work and secures public support to ensure sustainability of its initiatives.
Another organization I visited is Voluntary Association for Family Welfare and Social Development (VAFWSD). I was so impressed by the knowledge, enthusiasm, and sacrifice of Dr. Abdul Kayyum Laskar, the founder and director of VAFWSD. He works with an experienced team to enhance public capacity on human rights, education, and poverty reduction by providing need-based support and technical assistance to vulnerable youth in Dhaka. It was fun meeting the youth who are being supported by this organization. I met with them at their training center, where they learn various livelihood skills, including tailoring, dressmaking, woodworking, auto mechanics, and cell phone repair. Some of the beneficiaries told me how they had felt hopeless, how their lives had had no direction or future, until they met Dr. Kayyum and his team.
I also had the opportunity to meet with the great team at SOHAY, a grassroots organization doing remarkable work with vulnerable and impoverished children in six urban slums in Dhaka. Most of the children served by SOHAY are being raised by single parents. The mission of this vibrant and youthful team is to provide opportunities for these children to access basic education, help them stay in school to learn and have fun, and ensure that they transition successfully to the next class.
SOHAY works with experienced volunteers who supplement the efforts of the staff to support some of the youth who prefer to acquire vocational skills. The organization also implements various healthcare programs. SOHAY’s programs ensure that parents and the entire community are sensitized on the key values of parenting and on how to care for children, express their love for them, and not let their children go to the streets or be exposed to unsafe environments or activities.
I was blown away by the commitment and selflessness of Korvi Rakshand, a law school graduate and the founder of GFC grassroots partner JAAGO Foundation. Rakshand shared how he conceived the idea of helping vulnerable children to play, learn, and achieve their dreams. He was ranked fifth in the British Bangladeshi Power & Inspiration 100 list of the top ten motivational Bangladeshis around the world.
Rakshand started JAAGO Foundation with his friends to help reduce the pain of flood victims in the slums of Rayer Bazaar in Dhaka. He believes that education is one of the greatest tools to empower children and break the cycle of poverty. I was touched by how Rakshand sacrificed his opportunities and personal pleasures to help address illiteracy and malnutrition among slum-based children in his city.
With support from the private sector, JAAGO Foundation works with community structures to design and implement pioneering initiatives to promote education, improve health and hygiene in the slums, and deepen awareness on girls’ empowerment. Its programs are all deeply flavored with leadership and environmental activities, as well as time set aside to be creative and play. After painting and playing with some of the children, I talked to the team about how to expand their programs and mobilize more resources while helping to shape civil society in Bangladesh.
The day of my visit to Shobujer Ovijan Foundation (SOF) was a rainy one, but it was actually fun traveling in the rain. SOF is an organization that promotes the rights and well-being of women working in garment factories. SOF’s tailor-made, customized learning centers provide early childhood development and care for the children of the women the organization supports. The organization also provides healthcare and livelihood skills training for the women. This is a very important role that SOF is playing to support low-income families and help them provide the best care and protection for their children, and SOF’s assistance helps to ensure that children are not abandoned or neglected, out on the streets, or left to fend for themselves like the three boys at Suhrawardy Udyan.
In the end, the most important thing for parents to understand is that they don’t need to be financially well-off to protect, care for, and express love for their children. We are all capable of doing so, even with the little that we have—especially with support from the wonderful organizations that partner with GFC. We have a lot to learn from these grassroots organizations on children’s care, development, and protection to ensure that children are not exposed to risk and danger. We at GFC invite you to join us to prevent unfortunate situations like what happened to the three young boys from happening to other children anywhere in the world.
Dhan’yabāda (“thank you” in Bengali).