Child Labourers: Educating and Emancipating Through Community Participation

The miserable plight of the child labourers in Gazipur, Bangladesh, called for immediate action. Michelle and her partner launched the programme, ‘We Learn’, to rescue and rehabilitate street children. She reveals the hurdles that they faced. They wished to purchase property, a farm and a house. The author’s partner’s family helped them. Soon street children started coming in. They saved 27 children from the streets – they could not accommodate more. They have their farm that the community tills. Four goats provide milk to the children. Soon egg laying chickens would be ready. ‘We Learn’, a self-reliant project is educating, emancipating and empowering the children. A small and successful beginning. Here’s an eye-opening report from Bangladesh exclusively for Different Truths.

This article is harder for me to write. It is about child labour, how common place it is and how we have created a long term solution for some of the children, who chose work instead of studies. The options for work are really the same as for any “unskilled labourer”, extremely dangerous, filthy living conditions, violence, ownership attitudes, and to my Westernised eye, horrific, early deaths. My partner and I could not just stand by and do nothing.

We always need our ideas to become self-sustainable, neither of us are wealthy at all. But, in the beginning, we were unable to spread the word and feed, and spend money. ‘We Learn’ had begun. We talked of purchasing property, a farm with a house. The cost was a hurdle, but my partner’s family decided to get involved and gave us just that. An amazing gift of trust that our new project would work. He has my deep respect.

A full time teacher and minder for the children was also provided. My partner kept planning, but the project had caught on. Children from different professions began to show up. My head was spinning, trying to keep up! Four one day, two the next. The street children following along, trusting enough to join. I admit, we spent money feeding women and children, while getting to know the community. Yes, women and children of the streets have a strange sort of community, one filled with wariness, knowledge, distrust. You have to prove yourself worthy.

I guess my partner did enough. But you don’t know Hercules like we do. I will tell you about his deeds another time. Before we could imagine, we were full and could not take in any more live-in students. Twenty-seven children saved from the streets. When I think about this number, I am flabbergasted. We have saved so many. I could not achieve this at home. ‘We Learn’ is keeping up with current teaching styles. Hugs, child to child, each morning, a wonderful way of teaching respect, they love it! We do too.

‘We Learn’ has community involvement as well. We have people donating fish and shrimp! They volunteer on the farm. The farm is precious to us. We have planted rice seed pods, which are growing so fast. It is a cash crop. ‘We Learn’ needs that too. But we will rotate the crops. After the harvest of the rice, vegetables will go in. Food for the children and hoping it is enough to store some for later as well. But first, save the seeds for next time. We will plan ahead.

The students are free here to run and play. Learn general knowledge and English every day. Except Friday. It is the proclaimed off day. But under our caring and simple we-want- nothing-from-you way, these traumatised children are starting to relax and be themselves. The smiles are not as forced, emotions divorced, love, given gently and slowly can give a start. The education, well, no one can take that away.

So, ‘We Learn’ concentrates on giving these children a different fate. Choices for the future. Art, music, exercise, freedom to become themselves, whoever that might be is also part of the project goals.

Our children were on the busses, selling, cooking food on the street, and all the while knowing there would be nothing to eat for themselves. They are always hungry, unhappy, busy, and frightened to be seen with my partner. The people are beginning to understand what we are doing.

It doesn’t matter in the end. There are so many more children to choose from, confined to this convenient space, they will be immediately replaced. But we keep getting new students, almost every day. Their families, if they had them, have dropped their children with us, never planning to return. ‘We Learn’ will have to expand. We are becoming the safe place in Gazipur for unwanted children. We will try to meet some of their demands. We have no donors, well, two friends have given $115.00 towards food for the children, thank you! The need is overwhelming, I cannot lie.

But back to our progress. ‘We Learn’ has forty chickens almost ready to lay eggs. We bought them a few months ago and have been caring for them while they grow. They are so fat and happy. Self-sustainable again. I purchased the chickens, I purchased food, clothes, and beds. ‘We Learn’ happened so fast it is all catch up right now. But seed money for projects is something ‘We Help’ does for project participants. So ‘We Learn’ also has four goats. The start of our herd! Milk for the children. The children were very excited by the idea of having this treat. We think of it as a necessity. So, the goats. As the flash floods have come, we need a boat.

A boat to rescue people in danger and for our students to get from the dorm building to the school room. They were endangering themselves on improvised floatation devises to get to us! We could not stop them, and they were so proud to have made it to class. We could not let this continue, not another day! We bought the boat. We are already known for loaning it to others to travel to work. The community is so grateful we were given a well-built raft. We run into others and we shared seeds with during Ramadan. We are offered help with the fields.

‘We Learn’ is on its way. We have more students, learning away, community support, and plans for expansion if we can find partners in this project. We believe that ‘We Learn’ could go on for a very long time, after we are self-sufficient. So close yet far away. I will be visiting with my husband in October, I am so excited to meet the children. I send voice greetings and they speak back. In English, really well-spoken too. I confess, I love them all.

©Michelle Yost

Pix by author.

Michelle Yost

Michelle Yost

Michelle Yost is the co-founder of We Help and We Learn. She has many years of experience working in the field of social services. Helping people with disabilities find jobs, homes, food, social opportunities, activities, find and fight discrimination. She has worked with different types of people, but it has taught her along the way. Social workers don't stay, skills do and that can't be taken away. This is the way she teaches.
Michelle Yost