Saturday April 17 2004 01:12:13 AM BDT
When Pakhi Akhtar was a child of five or six years, she was mercilessly beaten by her ‘Khalamma’ for whom she used to work as domestic help. The reason was that Tk 500 was missing from the house. A daughter of her employer, who was a police officer, also beat her repeatedly for the alleged theft.
She left the house and hit the streets because she had nowhere to go. A commercial female sex worker rescued her from the roads, took her to her shack in the slum, fed her and provided her with a bed. She felt affection for the little girl, treated her like a sister and tried to enable her to lead a normal life.
The kind woman was raped by seven people of her slum after she refused to hand over the little girl to one of her regular customers.
The next morning she took her ‘little sister’ to a club in Arambagh, called “Aparajeya Bangladesh”, which is run by an NGO.
Pakhi is now living a decent life, having being given some education. She works at a data entry firm and earns an adequate amount of money.
“I am confident and believe I can do many things like others who are from the privileged section of the society,” she said.
Her commitment to the betterment of the homeless has made her a social activist. She is a member of a “child brigade’, and she works with the street children to make them aware of sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS and to impart life skills to them.
Another member of the brigade is Nazma Bayati, who has earned a reputation as a painter both nationally and internationally. She won a prize of the Asian Development Bank in 2002 and dreams of setting up of an art school. Now she is receiving training from the YWMCA for establishing herself as a professional painter.
“I was on the streets, but now I am proud of my life,” said Nazma.
Financed by Unicef, Aparajeya Bangladesh has just completed a project for awareness building of the street children by peer educators. The project, which started in December 2002, was limited to Dhaka and Chittagong metropolitan areas.
During the 15-month programme, about 35,000 street children and community people have been contacted to build awareness about HIV/AIDS. A team of 50 trainers, who are called “Child Brigade”, have completed the job successfully.
Aparajeya Bangladesh’s main targets are the street children who are abused by the peers and adults, are forcefully involved in sex with adults, who have a history of sufferings from STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and also those who are at risk of abuse on the streets.
Nazma said during the 15-month programme she had to suffer police harassment and persecution by local hoodlums. “But we have overcome all troubles and finally made them understand the positive outcomes of the programme.”
Mohammed Mamun, another member of the brigade, was teaching his street friends at the Karwan Bazar on Sunday about the risks of HIV/AIDS. He is very popular with his students, who collect vegetables from the kitchen market and sell them to keep body and soul together.
According to him, the street children are dangerously exposed to sexual abuse by adults, especially in the workplace and on the streets.
“I know the real situation as I was on the streets for years. So I know that the risk of spreading HIV among the street children is very high,” he said.
“We have proved that street children are not liabilities, rather they can be made into assets of the society,” said Wahida Banu, director (programmes) of Aparajeya Bangladesh.
She explained to New Age that social backwardness and negative attitudes of the community people create a serious problem in working for the betterment of the street children.
“To address this issue we are trying to involve different communities with our work so that the street children can have a safe environment to live in,” she said. She said they are going to take up a countrywide project very soon with the help of the World Bank.
Project Manager Basudeb Maitra Basu told New Age that continuation of such a project is important so that the ‘created resource’ could not be lost due to lack of support. “We should avoid a project-based approach and take up a long-term institutional approach for better results.”