The People's Republic of Bangladesh is a land of diverse attractions and a centuries-old cultural heritage. It lies in South Asia, surrounded by India except for a short southeastern frontier with Myanmar and a southern coast fronting the Bay of Bengal. It is small, with an area of 143,999 square kilometers, and a large population of 122.2 million.
Located in one of the wettest regions of the world, Bangladesh's tropical monsoon climate brings rain-bearing winds, warm temperatures and high humidity. During the summer and monsoon seasons, tropical cyclones, storms and tidal bores cause widespread damage and destruction. However, an early warning system and evacuation facilities have greatly reduced loss of life.
Its people include Muslims (87 percent), Hindus (12 percent), and Buddhists, Christians and others (less than 1 percent each). Over 98 percent of the people speak Bangla, although English is used as a second language. Bangladesh is a multiparty parliamentary form of democracy, where the Prime Minister is the head of government. The 330-seat National Parliament or Jatiya Sangshad has a normal term of five years. The constitutional head of state is the President.
Sixty-five percent of the total labor force is employed in agriculture, which accounts for nearly 46 percent of the country's GDP. Rice and jute are the two main crops.
Concerted efforts of a large number of nongovernmental development organizations, including the largest of them, BRAC, have contributed substantially to rural development and poverty alleviation. One of BRAC's main programs is NFPE.
Through NFPE, BRAC has provided basic education to rural children since 1985. The program started with 22 experimental schools after a mother in a functional literacy class asked the staff, "But what about our childrenwill they have to wait till they are 18 to join your school?" Today, there are more than 34,000 schools catering to more than a million students who cannot afford to go to or who have dropped out of regular schools.
In rural Bangladesh, girls are often kept in the house and encouraged to do only housework until they get married. Denied their basic right to literacy and numeracy, they cannot participate in the country's development or enjoy self-development.
Rural girls need a non-formal system of education and schools that have flexible schedules, are close to their home, with teachers who understand and support them, and teach not only basic education, but also basic skills to help them perform their roles and responsibilities in their families.
NFPE is a four-year course covering a five-year curriculum. Students learn Bangla, Mathematics and Social Studies from grade one, and English and Religion from grade three. More and more older children who have never attended school need special schools. BEOC (Basic Education for Older Children) or Kishori (adolescent girl) schools were opened in 1988. They offer a three-year course that covers a five-year curriculum. This is possible since the students are older and better able to grasp concepts. The schools accept girls from 11 to 14 years old and focus on their special needs, particularly health education.
The program emphasizes Social Studies, because the subject covers so many important issueshealth, hygiene, unity and cooperation in the family and community, and well as basic knowledge of the natural environment, environmental hazards and gender equity.
The third-year Social Studies textbook also incorporates the issue of children's rights. It introduces the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the UN and the Children's Rights Summit.
We use a poem and illustrations to make the issues more concrete. The poem teaches children about their rights to education, to play, to know, to ask questions, to speak, to have affection, to have shelter, to choose, to be treated equally no matter what their gender. It also include the rights of disabled children.
Human rights violations, especially violence against and oppression of women and children, is a major concern of our government. Our inheritance law, for example, discriminates against women and girls. Gender analysis of key human development indicators shows that in practically every aspect, women in Bangladesh are significantly worse off than men.
Households headed by women, which may exceed 4 million, are far more likely than other households to be extremely poor. Over 95 percent of them fall below the poverty line; a third are among the hardcore poor. For centuries, women have been disadvantaged. Women eating last and least is an all too common practice. A 1996 Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) study attributes women's higher death rate and poorer health mainly to the high risk of childbearing in rural Bangladesh. It suggests that as many as "one third of major illnesses of rural women of reproductive age are due to childbirth problems." UNICEF data show that more boys are treated at health centers, while self-treatment is more prevalent among girls, that girl babies are breast-fed for shorter periods, and that the incidence of malnutrition is higher for girls than for boys.
The female adult literacy rate is only 69 percent of that for males. Wages are lower for women, even for the same work. Women face discrimination in inheritance, child custody and marriage. Media and other reports suggest that violence against women continues at high levels and that laws to protect women are not enforced.
Abuse and Neglect
A relatively large number of children in Bangladesh are living in "especially difficult circumstances." They are not only deprived of basic health and educational services, but suffer family stress or breakdown due to poverty, low status (especially girls and ethnic minority groups), floods and disasters, disabilities, nutritional stunting, iodine deficiency disorder, polio, Vitamin-A deficiency and accidents.
In very poor households, children eight years old and up may forego schooling to work to support their families. Girls are sent to the towns to work as domestic servants. In the towns, youngsters can be found almost everywhereworking in small, barely mechanized, family-run workshops and factories; collecting fares in public transport; serving in shops, eating places and households. They belong to the unregulated informal sector workforce, and the degree of their exploitation depends on their occupation and employer.
Child Prostitution and Sex Workers
Prostitution is a serious problem in Bangladesh. With the spread of the AIDS/HIV virus, the demand for younger children is on the rise and more children are forced into prostitution. The factors mainly responsible for prostitution are poverty, unemployment and underemployment, unhealthy social customs, prejudices, early marriage, the dowry system, economic insecurity and women's low social status.
The South Asian Plan of Action was formulated to a) organize a network of and train anti-child-trafficking activists, b) establish a data base and share information and experience, c) form a core committee, d) network through training, e) film a documentary about trafficked children and f) organize "mock trials" nationally and regionally.
The Rural Development Program (RDP), BRAC's core program, implements this project through BRAC's Human Rights and Legal Education (HRLE) project, which is focused on socially empowering group members. It began in 1986, in the belief that if the group members, who were mostly rural women living below the poverty line, were aware of their rights and knew some basic laws, they would be able to protect themselves against illegal, unfair and discriminatory social practices. The specific objectives of this program are to:
The group members attend 28 HRLE classes over a period of five to six weeks, taught by a fellow member. HRLE teachers are trained at BRAC's training centers on four basic rights and laws: family laws, inheritance laws, land laws and citizen's rights, which include fundamental rights in the Constitution and information from the Criminal Procedure Code.
In 1997, with more than 2,000 volunteer teachers, the program trained 276,181 members from RDP areas covering almost all villages in Bangladesh. As a result, group members have not only started to fight oppression in their families, but they have also been able to raise their fellow villagers' consciousness against illegal divorce, polygamy, dowry, violence against women and other social problems. In cooperation with Ain O Shalish Kendra (a legal-aid organization), the program has also started to provide limited legal aid to BRAC group members in two RDP regions.
Many children under the age of 14 used to work in for garment factories in Bangladesh, in violation of the International Children's Rights Law. U.S. Senator Paul Harkins presented a bill in Congress providing that goods produced by children would not be accepted or sold in the U.S. UNICEF and the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, along with the ILO, Bangladesh Labor and Manpower Ministry, and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporting Association (BGMEA) signed a memorandum of understanding supporting the bill. The BGMEA, ILO and the ministry surveyed all the garment industries to locate working children under 14. They found more than 10,000. Along with NGOs such as BRAC and GSS they provided them with basic education and a stipend of Tk300 per month. In Dhaka and Chittagong, BRAC now runs 262 schools for such children.