Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Three Hundred Taka!"

by: Sayaka Uchikawa

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.)

However, when I met those three boys, I was amused at how well they read the situation between them and me. Firstly, they shouted at me in English, knowing or guessing that I (a foreigner) did not understand Bangla but English. Secondly, they chose "three hundred" instead of thirty or three thousand, understanding that a foreigner like me would probably have that amount of taka in her pocket, and could afford to give it to them. Thirdly, although I do not know whether or not they were aware of this, they picked up a number that could be divided by three. It was apparent that they were not begging from me, but playing with me. They did not slow down their pace to make the gestures, but just shouted loudly a few more times with their friendly smiles and carried on along their way.

On another day, my colleagues and I visited a learning centre where a local NGO provides non-formal education opportunities to so-called working children,and I asked the children if I could take a picture of them. One girl then said, Do you want a picture of us studying (gesturing writing something on her notebook with her pencil), or with our face up smiling?

(Photo Left: Baby (age 11). Breaking bricks. Since Bangladesh is located in the world's largest delta, there are not enough sufficient materials to produce concrete for building constructions. Thus, there is such an occupation as "brick-breaking," which is categorized as a hazardous child work by the ILO and UNICEF. The brick breakers work outside, under the sun, in the heat, and smash bricks into pieces that will be used as concrete producing materials.)

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 usthe outsiders, often foreigners.

Moreover, I felt as if they were challenging our-kind-of-peoples usual notion of so-called child laborersand 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 childrens 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 howchildhoods are in Dhaka today.

Then, through irregular visits of foreigners, especially of development aid workers (in the name ofassessment and/or evaluation studies), the children learn to internalize our notion of child labor andworking children, and act out the ideal type of working children”—how we think their lives areto the visitors. Although they have probably never read or heard what kinds of attitudes wethe outsidersoften have toward children like them, they understand (or act as if they understand) how the idea of child laborand working children has been constructed, idealized, and used in the international development aid context.

Today in Dhaka there are many development aid programmes/projects for those so-called child laborersand working children; however, their lives have not still been celebrated enough, because many of us know very little about them. They may know ushow we think their lives aremuch better than we think we know who they are.

(Photo Above: A learning centre for "urban working children" operated by the Bureau of Non-formal Education, Ministry of Primary and Mass Education of the Government of Bangladesh, UNICEF, and 20 entrusted local NGOs. There are total 8,000 centres for 200,000 children.)


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,, 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,, accessed February 2008.

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