Caryl Stern is the President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. She recently visited Bangladesh with Olivia Harrison, founder of the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
We began our day in the slums of Dhaka — somewhat scary to walk through and yet, little children do so alone every day. They have no choice. The homes are made of corrugated aluminum on top of bamboo, and they line both sides of the alleyways that are just 3 to 4 feet wide. It is always dark, as the roofs overhang the alleyways. There is garbage and stagnant water and chickens throughout the alleyways as well. And everywhere there are children who are of school age but are not in school.
|U.S. Fund for UNICEF/2011|
|Caryl Stern and friends at an early childhood center in Dhaka, Bangladesh.|
We visited an early childhood center that tries to prepare these kids for school. What a fabulous place with a wonderful teacher! I taught the children to play “head, shoulders, knees and toes” (not easy when you do not speak the language of the children, nor they yours!) amidst lots of giggles and quite a few hugs. Centers like this, which Olivia and the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF have been supporting for many years, are crucial to UNICEF’s work to promote access to education for all children, particularly the hardest-to-reach and most economically disadvantaged.
Next we went to see a basic education program for working kids. The children here were young — 8, 9, 10 years old — and when they introduce themselves they tell you their “profession.” Some are rubbish collectors, many are domestic help in wealthier people’s homes, others work in shops making garments or sorting fabrics.
One boy we spoke to was a carpenter, and we visited his work site. He uses tools I’d not allow my own children to even touch and he works 8 hours a day with adults who make furniture. The little girl we spoke with took us to her site. She puts plastic netting squares together to be sewn into shopping bags. She, too, works 8 hours a day, sitting on the floor in a very tiny, dark, space in the basement of a building. She works in silence with 3 other children, overseen by the shop manager. She receives a meager wage and eats nothing all day. She then attends the education program a few hours each day. My heart hurt watching her on her knees laying out these squares.
Our afternoon was far more joyful. We went to visit the boat yard where our floating school project is underway. These two schools will serve children who live in remote parts of the north — even during the flooding that occurs during the monsoon season.
The boat designer is working to preserve the country’s heritage of handmade wooden boats. Now the master craftsmen that live along the river are building replicas of the historical Bangladesh boats — they’re magnificent.
It’s so exciting to think that UNICEF is help preserving a culture while providing children the opportunity to learn.