Oishi knows she shouldn’t be wandering the streets right now. She’s heard of COVID-19 and knows she might get sick if she doesn’t stay inside. But her family is struggling to make ends meet during the lockdown, so she’s outside trying to sell the discarded goods she has been able to scavenge on the streets of Dhaka.
“I don’t have any choice but to help my father sell this stuff,” 11-year-old Oishi says. “When I’m not helping my father, I have to help my mother with household chores and also look after my siblings.”
Stories like Oishi’s are common in the capital of Bangladesh, where desperate children are doing their best to help their families scrape together a living. But while Oishi’s family is poor, she knows she has a home to return to at the end of each day. For the children living on country’s streets, the story is quite different.
A double blow
Hundreds of thousands of children are living on the streets in Bangladesh, and the number is expected to continue growing.
For many of them, the COVID-19 pandemic is proving particularly tough. Not only do these children often lack access to soap and clean water to help protect against coronavirus, but even basic guidance like “stay home” means little if you don’t have a home to go to.
Working with partners, and in coordination with Bangladesh’s Department of Social Services, UNICEF reaches out to children living on the street to offer them psychosocial support and non-formal education, while its Child Protection Support Centres provide access to basic social services, protection from harm, and reintegration services. UNICEF also supports temporary shelters that provide children with food and water, health care and a safe space in which to play and relax away from the pressures of life on the streets.
“Corona can’t get us here”
“We’re a lot better off inside the shelter than outside,” says 14-year-old Shahina. “Corona can’t get us here if we practice good basic hygiene and physical distancing.”
Shahina is one of 20 children staying in a shelter operated by UNICEF partner Aparajeyo Bangladesh. The children staying there don’t have Internet access, but they’re able to follow classes on TV. They also have a teacher, Monoara, who is just a phone call away.
“I answer their questions, help them write notes and give them regular homework so that they can keep up with other students when schools reopen,” Monoara says. “But right now, their health is the most important thing.”
Protection, inside and out
Shahnaz Rahman, a social worker, says it’s essential that children at the shelter get the psychosocial care they need, even when some staff can’t be there in person because of the lockdowns.
“I call at least four times a day to find out how the children are doing. I try to bring some positive energy and talk openly about the pandemic so that children don’t internalize their anxiety,” she says. UNICEF has also provided leaflets explaining how to prevent the spread of infection, as well as additional soap and disinfectant.
Shahnaz Rahman feels bad that she can’t be with the children in person, but she knows that they are getting the support they need from the two resident caretakers, two cooks and a female guard, all of whom stay in touch with the social workers and monitor the children around the clock.
“The children are also helping themselves by keeping occupied with indoor group games and study,” she adds.
Sixteen-year-old Hasan says the children at the shelter miss school and being able to see friends.
“But we feel safe inside the shelter. We’re careful and we try to help each other,” he says. “The older children help the younger ones with their lessons, and we try to cheer each other up.”