When I see my Year 7 girls at school, aged 11 and 12, go past me into Assembly each morning, I am struck forcefully by the contrast with their counterparts at the centre for child domestic workers in Dhaka which I visited with Plan UK during my visit to Bangladesh two weeks ago. This centre was in effect the entrance hall to an apartment block; it had been donated by the owner for the use of one of Plan’s 20 learning centres for 20 of the 400 child domestic workers that they manage to reach through the project, and in it, the children come for 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, to experience some non-formal educations, some recreation and some counselling, as well as job skill training and awareness raising of personal safety.
It seemed to me that the centre was in effect a lifeline to these child domestic workers, who otherwise had no contact with others, and who worked in the home up to 16-18 hours a day, 7 days a week. One girl (a 14 year old who had been working since she was 10) described her work looking after her employer’s baby and doing the cleaning; she sleeps on the floor of the drying room and gets up at 6am every morning, for which she was paid around 600 taka a month (£1 = approximately 120 taka, so she was paid the equivalent of £5 a month). She was fed and housed, but she – and the other girls in the centre, who were enjoying drawing pictures of their fantasies (trees and villages) – were tiny; no-one in this group was over-fed, for certain.
It is astonishing that in the world today society tolerates the deprivation to which these children – these girls, for they were all girls – are subjected. These children have no support structures – no healthcare, no education – and are placed in what is in effect servitude. Of course, as I had come to realise, the underlying reason was poverty, as their families could not afford to feed them … but this does not make it in any way better, and simply calls on us (who are so much better provided for) to do something about it. Besides, there is a gender imbalance to be redressed; although there is near gender parity of children in primary school in Bangladesh now, the number of girls in education drops rapidly further up the school in socio-economically deprived areas.
So Plan is doing something about it, creating these centres which are full of hope and purpose, preparing the girls for a life beyond servitude. What does the girl I met want to do? Her family is saving a tiny amount each month from her wages and she intends to open a shop in a few years’ time. Her goal is to become ‘self-dependent’. And I really, really hope that she does; she deserves that future.