Inter Press Service - November 12, 2001
Qurratul Ain Tahmina
DHAKA, Nov 12 (IPS) - His serious demeanor belies his young age, but Mohammad Atikul Alam has probably seen it all.
Now a peer trainor at Aparejeya-Bangladesh (AB) here in Dhaka, Alam has been on his own for the last five years, having left his home, an "uncaring" father, and a stepmother in a faraway village at age 11.
He says he found himself living in the streets of this bustling city, and it was only by sheer luck that he stumbled upon AB, a non- government organisation which runs a day-night shelter for minors like him.
"I am 16 now," says Alam. "It’s an age when you want to try out many things. If I wish to have sex I can get a girl paying 50 taka (less than a dollar) or even less."
"I know girls who sell sex for a living," he adds, matter-of- factly. "I also know of street girls who are abused by various men. Amongst us street kids, many go to bad girls (sex workers) or have sex with friends at least twice or thrice a week. Even very young boys and girls have this habit."
Every day, the streets of Dhaka become the new home of children who have run away from their families because of poverty, domestic violence or sheer neglect.
Officials estimate that there are some 20,000 to 30,000 children between the ages of eight and 16 now living in this city’s streets. And in such a situation, experts say, these children are vulnerable to all kinds of diseases, including those that are sexually transmitted, such as HIV/AIDS.
"When an eight or nine or 10, 11-year-old child comes to the city all alone, he or she is in an extremely unprotected and vulnerable situation," points out AB training coordinator M. A. Hannan.
"For survival they need to work and they linger in the busy areas of the city — bus stations, markets, railway stations, and launch terminals," he says, noting that such areas are dominated by men who have been living away from their families for months or even years.
"The policemen are also included in this group," says Hannan. "In the first few days of total bafflement, without any shelter or friend around, the kids get attached to whoever shows them any sympathy or affection."
"These men can easily lure the children with food, money and kind words and eventually abuse them sexually. This happens to boys and girls equally," he says.
Hannan even says that they have encountered children still bleeding from the abuse they have just endured. He recounts,"Some children take it as a shock and wipe out the memory. Often they suffer from traumas."
"There are some kids who take it as a game and later share the experience with friends," he also says. "And thus multiple- partner sexual involvement becomes a habit for many as they grow up. Girls do it for fun and for earning a living. Homosexual practices, too, are very high among the boys."
Other experts say even those children who have some sort of family to which they return at night for shelter are also at high risk of being abused since they spend more than 10 hours a day roaming the city.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the total number of streetchildren - including those who go home to their families at night - in five major cities across Bangladesh reaches about 300,000.
These children are invariably busy at work in the streets - picking rags or paper, shining shoes, chipping bricks at construction sites, running errands in market places, selling newspapers or flowers at traffic intersections, washing plates in roadside restaurants and begging.
Some also sell sex. Most if not all are exposed to all sorts of crimes that go on in the city.
AB began working with the street children of Dhaka in 1989, and introduced a four-step rehabilitation programme aimed at educating the children of their rights and what they can do to protect themselves from abuse and diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea and HIV/AIDS.
It is telling that when the programme began, half of the children who sold sex had syphilis while about 13 percent were injecting drug abusers. A baseline survey conducted among streetchildren also found that majority were virtually unaware of HIV/AIDS.
The recently concluded HIV/AIDS prevention and education programme, which ran for a year and followed the peer-education model, targetted some 13,650 kids. Alam himself says he was able to reach and teach at least 1,400 of his friends.
The programme also targetted 10,000 adults in the children’s immediate neighbourhoods, including shopkeepers, police, traders/small businessmen, and night guards of different buildings. AB personnel say many of these adults are often the abusers of the children living in the streets.
STD and HIV/AIDS education continues through AB’s integrated programme since the practice of safe sex remains very low among streetchildren in general. But since AB discourages sexual activity among children, it limits itself to "safety-related" information and does not promote condoms.
Hannan says that it is their social context that makes it difficult to keep streetchildren out of willing or unwilling sexual involvement.
"The looks of a street kid do not evoke sympathy in the so- called educated and regular type of people," he says. "These kids are always looked down on as potential thieves and troublemakers. Consequently they are forced to be in company with the rough lot."
"In such circumstances," he says, "the prevailing mainstream social or religious values carry no meaning for them. They (the children) ignore these just as the larger society abandons them."