Bangladesh: STREETWISE Educates Street-Savvy Children of Dhaka

By Layli Uddin,Womens Feature Service

Images of overwhelming poverty, natural disasters and human crises spring to mind when one thinks of Bangladesh. This is a sad reality.Nearly half the population falls below the poverty line and street children swarm the country.However, the Streetwise, a Dhaka-based civil society organisation is paving its way to make a real and purposeful change in the lives of the city’s street-children by educating them.

A key insight from the last two decades has been the crucial role of education in lifting people out of poverty and encourage children to love education.The Bangladesh government has made a strong commitment in the quest for a sustainable primary education.They have been extremely successful in meeting that goal with a gross enrolment rate of 98 per cent. Sadly,it unveils bad results.Poor children may be going to school but they don’t do it often enough.This leads to poor performance and high drop-out rates. Reports show that in Bangladesh 9 million children are out of school and 5 million of whom are engaged in forms of work.Children who are in the labor force are in the peril of exploitative and dehumanizing conditions.

One of the most vulnerable groups are the street-children. The numbers is quite alarming .An estimated of 3,800,000 street children swarm the counry and 55 per cent of them are in Dhaka.Half of them are 10 years old or less. They have to endure a daily routine of violence, abuse and humiliation.Some are exposed to drugs, alcohol and prostitution in order to make those few ‘takas’ to sustain their families.

When Streetwise was organized, it made a drastic change.As Anita Aparna Muyeed, founder and director of Streetwise Education Foundation, points out, Bangladesh’s poor children deserve the best schools because they need an education that compensates for multiple disadvantages.She believes something has to be done to suffice the educational needs of these poor children.

In 2006, Muyeed resigned from her position as Art and Design Technology Instructor at the International School of Dhaka to create what she described as a “privileged school for the underprivileged.” She and her cousin invited 10 street-children who worked in the tradetrade of rag-picking and street hawking.She was touched of how street-savvy they were.She was amazed how they navigated their way around the dangerous streets of Dhaka.

The Streetwise Project began in a garage with 10 children.Recently, it is now a boarding school with over 30 children aged between four and 15. It provides what Muyeed describes as a “comprehensive life support system, an alternative educational programe that helps the children stay off the streets”. The school which is situated in the heart of Dhaka near the areas where the children live, provides a place for them to reside at least five days a week. They can stay, sleep and eat in the school.They are offered lessons in Bangla, English, Maths, health, hygiene, religion, arts and crafts, story-telling, coaching, games, cooking, theater, song and dance.

However, Streetwise is not just for kids but for their families, too. The program also offers a drop-in centre for advice, support and some limited grants, medical check ups.

The children have not stopped working. Muyeed’s initiative operates on an ‘earn and learn’ strategy.The young children are housed in a secure environment.They can use the skills they learned in class to create artworks and handicrafts.These crafts are later sold in the market.Each Streetwise product for sale has one thing in common, whether it is a T-shirt, a poster or a lamp – it bears a reproduction of its students’ artwork from art class. This “printed artwork” ensures that students don’t have to spend endless hours creating a handful of art products. Fifty per cent of the profits of this project helps to drive the school forward.The rest is distributed among the children and their guardians.

Since the children bring in income by attending school, parents no longer stop them from attending classes.As they actually “earn” their stay in the program, they are not receivers of charity. This makes a big difference in their level of responsibility and pride in the program .This gives them a feeling of succes also.This revenue model also allows the school to be self-sustaining.Thus, allowing for autonomy and flexibility. Further, by using local and international volunteers, Streetwise has not only reduced costs but also built connections with wider society. It uses the new media effectively and has a website:

Paulo Freire, one of the greatest philosophers of education, once said, “Education is the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in their transformation of their world.” Long live Streetwise!

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