Where do the children play?

Jyoti Rahman and Rumi Ahmed

Published by the Daily Star on 5 October 2009.

ACCORDING to American political philosopher John Rawls, a society should be judged on the welfare of its most vulnerable. In this regard, macroeconomic survival of the global recession or buoyant foreign reserve is not enough to understand the quality of our social life. Since children are among the most vulnerable in any society, a good test using the Rawlsian framework of how the Bangladeshi society is faring would be to look at how our children are doing.

Let’s start at the birth. In 2007, less than a fifth of births in Bangladesh were attended by a skilled health professional. Although this is an improvement over the less than a tenth a decade earlier, child birth in Bangladesh remains a far more hazardous event than in our South and Southeast Asian neighbours (Chart 1).


In 2007, 47 children in every 1,000 died at infancy in Bangladesh (Chart 2). This is a significant improvement from over 151 per 1,000 infants lost in 1975. Bangladesh is also doing better than its major South Asian neighbours. But 47 is still a very high number, especially compared with Southeast Asian countries.

Bangladesh tends to do a lot better when it comes to immunisation of those who live beyond infancy. As Table 1 shows, Bangladeshi children aged 12-23 months are relatively more likely to be vaccinated against diseases such as measles or diphtheria. This certainly proves that despite manifold problems in Bangladesh, it is possible to provide services that make clear improvements to living conditions.

children 2

Of the children who survive their infancy and live to the age of five, nearly half are short for their age, while nearly two in every five are underweight. Of our major neighbours, only India has a worse prevalence of malnutrition (Chart 3).

The prevalence of child labour is relatively low among Bangladeshi girls, but it is striking to note how high it is among Bangladeshi boys (Chart 4). Over a quarter of Bangladeshi boys aged between 7 and 14 years are economically active, higher than in similar countries in the region. About 63 per cent of economically active Bangladeshi children do not go to school, compared with only 15 per cent of economically active Indian children. Coupled with the low prevalence of child labour in India, this means that many more Bangladeshi children have to work compared with their peers in our neighbouring country.

Over three-fifths of working Bangladeshi children are employed in agriculture. This may well reflect the still agrarian characteristic of our society. About an eighth of children who work do so in manufacturing. The rest — over a quarter of boys, and slightly less than a fifth of girls, who work — are in the services sector.

Why do parents send their children to work instead of school? Recent studies suggest that child labour falls, and schooling rises, when families escape the subsistence level. This suggests that direct philanthropy can, at the margin, improve children’s welfare by taking them away from work and putting them into school. But philanthropy cannot be realistically expected to make a serious and sustainable dent into poverty.

However, beyond philanthropy, the affluent classes in Bangladesh — that’s us, dear reader — can still make a difference. We need to square up to the fact that the whole culture of live-in child domestic worker is a form of slavery. Perhaps some, maybe most, slave owners are “good,” because they (we) feed child domestic workers three times a day, buy them clothes two times a year and, at the end of the month, hand out a modest sum to their parents. Perhaps, we let them sit on the floor and watch some TV shows, and make them a bed to sleep on the floor.

Maybe, in return, we don’t ask much of these workers — nothing like the factory sweatshops, or working in the mine shaft. They cook three meals for the whole household, make all the beds, sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms, wash all the clothes, go to local grocery for the errands, carry our little ones on their lap, or be the servant to our children who are often older than them. Beyond philanthropy, we, the slave owning class, can own up to the unpleasant reality of our culture.

Cat Stevens wrote three decades ago: I know we’ve come a long way, We’re changing day to day, But tell me, where do the children play? Bangladesh has come a long way from its precarious beginnings. But we are still far from a good society, judging by the way we treat far too many of our vulnerable children. Poverty and underdevelopment are complex issues for an individual to tackle. But one can make a difference to the child domestic worker who is slaving away as this piece is read.


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