A retired government official, Fazlur Rahman, was taking his regular afternoon walk on a roadside pavement in Dhaka's Mohammadpur area. While passing by a slum, he suddenly heard a few lines of an English rhyme --Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, How I wonder What You Are…being recited in a shanty. As he got curious, he discovered to his utter surprise that slum child, Razia, was reading from a collection of English rhyme inside the hut. It was surprising to many, indeed.
Razia, daughter of a rickshaw-puller told the retired public servant that along with many classmates, mostly girls, she was taught to recite such rhymes in a nearby school run by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Some 6000 slum children between six to nine years old are learning their basic education in such schools under a two-year programme titled 'Urban Slum Children's Education Project".
UNICEF launched the project worth Tk 20 million in October of 2004. There are some 200 such schools at the slums of Dhaka city's Syedabad, Mirpur and Mohammadpur areas. A total of 190 teachers are taking classes in 118 schools at Syedabad, 55 at Mirpur and 27 at Mohammadpur.
"The objectives of the project is to prevent the slum children from becoming working children and help them to get involved with the main-stream education," said Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, project director.
A non-government organisation- Friends in Village Development in Bangladesh (FIVDB)-is the partner of the UN agency in the project to provide life- skill education.
Every class has 30 students in two shifts, one shift from 8-30 am to 10-30 am and second shift from 11-00 am to 1-00 pm. The elementary topics of Bangla, English, Mathematics and Environment Science are taught by experienced teachers.
The classes remain open everyday except Fridays and other government holidays."I am happy with the performance of all my students in the class as they are very attentive in their studies," said Mrs Naznin, a teacher of the school adjacent to the Nobodoy Dam area of Mohammadpur.
During a visit at the school, this contributor was also impressed when he found that a student-Sathi-- reached her class much ahead of the scheduled time."All the students are like Sathi and we have been able to create a knack for learning among these slum children," said Shamsul Huda, another project official.
He said the lessons learned by the students in these schools are equivalent to class three-status of main-stream primary schools."So after completing our courses, they will easily get admitted into the other general schools to lead their life in a better way," Huda said.
According to UNICEF survey, the problems of mass poverty are spilling over into urban centres specially Dhaka city. In urban areas, more than 50 per cent of residents are believed to be poor with 30 per cent among them hard-core poor. According to a preliminary data of Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), a joint study of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF, the national net enrollment rate is 82.7 per cent and the net enrollment rate of boys in Dhaka slums between the age of 6-10 years is 61.8 per cent and for girls 64.3 per cent. It said 27 per cent boys and 24 per cent girls never enroll in any form of formal or non-formal school. Many of the children in urban slums are already involved in income-related works and their families may be dependent upon their earnings for survival, the UNICEF survey said.
UNICEF and government of Bangladesh (GOB) have already completed a project meeting educational needs of working children living in urban slums. Over one-fifth of Bangladesh's population now live in urban areas. The project-Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Children's Project (BEHTRUC)-was also supported by the government of Sweden (SIDA) and DFID (UK).
According to available statistics, slums are growing in tandem with the urban areas. Children account for approximately 56 per cent of slum inhabitants. Almost all these children work to provide financial support to their families. In some families, child labour accounts for one-third of the family's income. These children work as brick-breakers, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, welders, auto mechanics etc. and some even end up as sex workers. The working children have little time to go to school, but in most slum areas, there are few schools for them to attend. Often they cannot afford the extra costs associated with education such as pencils, notebooks etc. These children are the most hard-to-reach. They are referred to as 'hard-to-reach' children because they toil the major part of the day in work that deprive them from having access to educational services. They are predominantly engaged in different exploitative and hazardous occupations.
The UNICEF-GOB joint project also included those adolescent working girls and boys who have 'missed the bus' at the primary school level. BEHTRUC provided non-formal basic education to some 351,000 working children in six divisional cities of Bangladesh.The cities were Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet. Some 150 NGOs participated in the project through the GOB's Directorate of Non-formal Education.
True that the result of such programmes is not that visible. But there is hardly any scope to forget the old adage: One little spark makes a million candles burn, one good soul makes the world turn. Even if the UNICEF's Urban Slum Children's Education Project fails to produce a good soul to turn the world, the six thousand slum children of the project would definitely play a role in removing, at least to some extent, the darkness of illiteracy among the poor.