Child labour remains a reality in slums in Bangladesh. Many families don’t have a choice – they depend on the income earned by their children to keep food on the table. Aware of this situation, a young woman named Tisha decided to bring school directly to the children. Her “School Under the Sky” offers flexible classes, allowing kids to attend before or after work hours. She also helps families understand the importance of education as a way to escape poverty.
An estimated one third of children between the ages of 10 and 14 live in the slums of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, and work more than 60 hours a week, according to a report published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in December 2016. This is illegal – in Bangladesh, children under the age of 14 are not allowed to work.
“In extremely poor families, everyone has to earn something – even the children”
The persistent problem of child labour is fueled by poverty. Yet when kids can’t go to school, they can’t develop the skills they need to escape poverty. That’s why Meher Nazmoon – who goes by her nickname, Tisha – decided in 2009 to launch the “School Under the Sky”, an education programme for children living in the slums of the Rangpur District. Her school is financed by the American NGO The Hunger Project – Bangladesh, as well as by donations from local community leaders and other well-wishers.
In the past few years, the programme has expanded. Tisha now works with four other teachers to educate 45 young pupils between the ages of seven and 13. They hold class outside on the grass of the Carmichael College campus. If it rains, they usually move into an empty classroom or veranda.
When I was a college student, I used to see kids selling nuts and flowers near campus. It made me so sad. I wanted to do something to help them, to break the cycle of poverty.
Because, even if most parents want their kids to go to school, poverty makes that impossible. In extremely poor families in Bangladesh, everyone has to earn something – even the children [Editor’s note: An estimated 53 percent of Bangladeshi boys and 74 percent of girls work to supplement family income, according to the ODI report.]
Parents can’t afford to have their children at school from 9am to 4pm every day. And the idea of spending money on books and the other hidden costs of schooling are beyond their imagination.
So, we decided to run our free school from 9am to 11am six days a week, which leaves many hours in the day for the kids to help their families. We are also in constant communication with the children and, if they can’t come for some reason, we change the time of the class. Our main aim is to make sure that they come.
“It takes time, but we can always convince the parents that education is important”
If we notice that a child hasn’t come to school for a few days, then we go visit them at home to figure out what is going on. We never give them money, but we do what we can to help. If they are sick, we take them to the doctor, for example.
Especially at first, many parents were suspicious of our motives. Trust-building is a slow process. When one family agrees to let their child come to our school, other families get interested, too. Sometimes a child will hear about our school from a friend and will want to join us. If the parents are opposed, we go talk to them.
Every once in a while, we organise a cultural programme where the children sing songs, dance and recite poems. We always invite their parents and they are always impressed.
“We’ve seen a lot of the families start to think differently about hygiene”
We start by teaching the children the Bangla alphabet and reading and writing. Then, we try English. We also teach the children about the importance of health, nutrition and hygiene.
In our country, many toilets are out in the open. We teach the children to wash their hands after going to the toilet as well as the importance of keeping their dishes and clothes clean. These children then spread this message. We’ve seen a lot of the families start to think differently about hygiene.
We also teach girls about their menstrual cycles including the importance of using clean cloth pads. If they have problems or pain, we tell them to go to the health centre.
“Our students have a power inside – the knowledge that they can do something”
After they finish our programme, many of our students go on to high school [Editor’s note: Hunger Project – Bangladesh reported that about 50 per cent of Tisha’s students go on to integrate formal education].
The programme has been especially helpful for the girls. Poor parents often want to marry their girls early. But the girls who go to our school are motivated and they want to be economically independent. I’m very proud of them.
One of my most inspiring students is a 12-year-old girl named Raishma. Her father is a rickshaw driver and her mother is a cleaner. Raishma had to take care of her younger brother and sister while her parents worked. When her mother was sick, Raishma replaced her mother.
When Raishma first came to our school, she was very shy and she didn’t want to talk. She was also worried that her family would be angry at her for coming to school. However, in the time that she has been with us, she’s transformed. For one, she now wears clean clothes. But we’ve also seen her use of language change alongside the way that she thinks, talks and does her schoolwork.
Now, Raishma’s mother takes her younger sister to work with her so that Raishma can come to school. And Raishma told me that she wants to be a teacher.
In recent years, the Bangladeshi government has adopted several measures aimed at ending child labour. However, ODI researcher Maria Quattri says more steps need to be taken, including raising the age of free and compulsory education from 10 to 14, increasing overall financing for education (especially in slums), improving poverty reduction schemes and fining businesses that employ children.