Showing me their adorable smiles and small hands, three "tokai" boys (street waste-collectors), probably between the ages of six and eight, shouted at me in English. Being in Dhaka, as a foreigner, this is not an unusual incident. Wherever and whenever you go (even at midnight!), beggars will ask you to give them some Taka (money/petty cash). Even when you are in a car, they constantly bang on the windows of your car, gesturing to show how hungry they are, how small and sick their babies are, and what disabilities they have. (Some even produce a bill for medical treatment signed by a doctor.) I would never be able to get used to these daily scenes in Dhaka.
(Photo Right: Saiful (age 10). Helping at a recycling shop.)
Then, when we left the centre, after asking if we would visit them again, some children said, “Yes, you-kind-of-people always say you will come back and visit us again, but you never do.” I was again amused by how much they know about us—the outsiders, often foreigners.
Moreover, I felt as if they were challenging “our-kind-of-people’s usual” notion of so-called “child laborers”and “working children,” the notion that we, outsiders, foreigners, often carry and have toward children in urban cities in a country such as Bangladesh.
An estimated 1 to 1.5 million of those children “who do not go to school but work” reside in Dhaka. Many boys work at a shop (car/rickshaw garage, market, tailor, tea stall, etc.) from early as 7 or 8am in the morning to as late as 12am at night. They take orders from customers, bring a glass of water to adult workers, and do whatever they are told to do. Most of the girls, on the other hand, work as domestic workers/servants, and do cleaning, washing, and/or taking care of small children in a house. Some children say that they like working, and are willing to work, while some say they do not like their job and want to quit.
(Photo Above: Sohel (age 10). Taking care of a vegetable shop in a market. The salary is approximately Tk. 300 (US$ 4.25) per month.)
Despite the diversity of children’s work in Dhaka, outsiders sometimes quickly judge and define their work as so-called “child labor,” usually with the negative implications. Much literature, for example, writes about so-called “child laborers” and “working children” in Dhaka to suggest that: they are disadvantaged, vulnerable, and subject to economic exploitation; their work is unsafe, unhealthy, dangerous, and poisonous; and, they are trapped in low skilled and low return work that pushes them further into the vicious cycle of “poverty.”
Nevertheless, in Dhaka, the “work” the children willingly or unwillingly do is part of their everyday life (especially when there is no school to attend). They spend their days being around, talking and chatting with, and/or helping their father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and neighbors, as if this is how“childhoods” are in Dhaka today.
Arat, Zehra F. (2002) Analyzing Child Labor as A Human Rights Issue: Its Cases, Aggravating Policies, and Alternative Proposals. Human Rights Quarterly 24: 177-204.
ILO Dhaka (2006) Baseline Survey on Child Domestic Labour (CDL) in Bangladesh. Dhaka: ILO.
SIDA (2008) 2008 What Does SIDA Do in Bangladesh? Bangladesh SIDA. Electronic document, http://www.sida.se/sida/jsp/sida.jsp?d=269&a=895&language=en_US, accessed February 2008.
UNICEF Bangladesh (2004) Project Proposal: Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Working Children (BEHTRUWC) Project Second Phase, 2004-2009. Dhaka: UNICEF Bangladesh.UNICEF Bangladesh (2008) Bangladesh. Electronic document, http://www.unicef.org/bangladesh/index.html, accessed February 2008.