Nahar – a nine-year-old who cannot remember her parents and has no place to call home – wanders around the Suhrawardy Udyan area in Dhaka, surviving with what little money strangers give her out of kindness.
She has been living rough on the streets of Dhaka for the last four years, and has no recollection of any memories beyond that period. The only belonging Nahar has is the clothes on her back, but her spirit of learning is indomitable.
The little girl began attending classes in 2018, offered specifically to street children by the volunteer organisation Human Safety Foundation. She learned to write her name, and could recite the alphabets of both Bangla and English languages.
Nahar was doing her best to utilise what little opportunity she had for learning, but fate once again turned its back on her. The school for street children was shut down last year following the government's instructions to curb the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I enjoyed going to the school. They taught me a lot of things and gave me food. But the school is now closed. If it does not open soon, I will forget what I had learned from my teachers," she told The Business Standard.
Just like Nahar, thousands of vulnerable street children across Bangladesh are now fending for themselves amid the pandemic without any education and shelter. They are surviving with barely any food or clothing.
Amid the crisis, government and non-government organisations have done little to provide these children with learning opportunities and much needed healthcare, according to sources and stakeholders.
There are around 100 NGOs and volunteer organisations supporting homeless children across Bangladesh. Among them, about 50 work in Dhaka city, according to the Street Children Activists Network (SCAN), Bangladesh.
Recent data from the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) have further revealed that there are around 16 lakh homeless children in the country, and only a small fraction of them used to get any support from the state and NGOs before Covid-19 struck the country.
After the pandemic hit Bangladesh, what little amount of care these vulnerable children used to get from such organisations became mostly non-existent.
Dr Abul Hossain, programme director of Street Children Rehabilitation Programme under the women and children affairs ministry, told The Business Standard, "The ministry has conducted no surveys on street children to this day.
"We provided some support to these children at two shelters in Dhaka during the pandemic. However, it would be good if we had the capacity to do more for them."
Commenting on the matter, Dhaka Ahsania Mission's Deputy Director Jahangir Nakir said "Homeless children are one of the most vulnerable segments in our country during this crisis, as they have had almost no access to education or medicare.
"They do not know about the devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus. We have failed to raise adequate awareness among these children. The government's initiatives in this regard were not satisfactory at all."
Mohammad Aftabuzzaman, executive director of Apon Foundation, said the foundation had been providing education to 400 homeless children in Dhaka, but the initiative got shut down in March last year.
Govt initiatives since March 2020
The government held a meeting in August last year with more than 30 NGOs which have been supporting homeless children for a long time. Output from this meeting is yet to come to light.
Moreover, the government did not launch any special measures on providing education to homeless children around the country, said sources present at the meeting.
Dr Abul Hossain, programme director of the Street Children Rehabilitation Programme, said support and accommodation had been provided during the pandemic to 150 children in two shelters situated in Kamalapur and Karwan Bazar.
"We are also trying to provide education to 500 children in our nine schools located throughout Dhaka. But this initiative is part of our regular programme, and not a special measure taken amid the pandemic."
'Special care for homeless children a must'
People working with vulnerable children have pointed out that the level of poverty in Bangladesh will go up due to the pandemic shock, which in turn will increase the number of homeless children.
Therefore, the government needs to initiate a special care programme to ensure their education, they added.
Jahangir Nakir, who is also the president of SCAN, said homeless children would become a matter of concern for the government if the state failed to meet their fundamental needs. "The government must take special projects and sit with NGOs to transform homeless children into perfect citizens for the future," he said.
Commenting on the matter, KM Enamul Hoque, deputy director at Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), said the government did not focus on vulnerable children in its Covid-19 response plan.
"Homeless children are sons and daughters of the state. The government must take measures for their development," he said.
Human Safety Foundation President MA Mukit said, "It is a matter of grave concern for us. The future of homeless children will be engulfed in darkness if the government does not play an active role on the issue."