What it is to be a child in Bangladesh

Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad | Published: 00:00, Nov 05,2019 | Updated: 00:34, Nov 05,2019


IN BANGLADESH, people idolise childhood. Most adults wish to remain a perpetual child. As it is not possible, at least biologically, they yearn for a way to get back to childhood, because they envision it as a time of eternal happiness, free from pressure or duty. In the meantime, children’s spine bends as their school bags get heavier. Their energy flags from the endless circle: school, coaching, dance class, home, school. ‘Strong’ ones make it through; ‘fragile’ ones burn out, or, in extreme cases, take their own lives, unable to meet unrealistic family expectations. ‘Dad,…I made a promise to you to get A+. I couldn’t. Forgive me.’ — reads the suicide note of Shafa Alam, a candidate of H.S.C exam (Bangladesh Pratidin, May 6, 2018) . The romanticised idea of childhood and its grim reality don’t add up. So, we need to delve deep into the construction of childhood in order to reconcile with the reality.

The idea of childhood has an eternal ring to it as if it somehow escaped the corrosive influence of time. In fact, it didn’t. The concept leapfrogged through time, adding up new layers of tenets, while keeping some of the old bits.  The modernists’ claim that childhood is ‘a mere 200-year-old invention’ is not true either. Some concepts surrounding childhood can be traced back to as early as Greco-Roman period, whereas some are of as late as last century, or somewhere near it. Thus, childhood is ‘a problematic social construction’ in that it brings home ideas, some of which are obsolete, ambiguous and often contradictory.  Even worse, the rhetoric of childhood fails to acknowledge the different social situations children are in.

Greek civilisation circulated negative ideas about children. Plato thought children lack capacity of thought and logic. Aristotle believed them to be ‘incomplete’ adults. The idea that children are incapable of handling their own affairs, and thus dependent on adults, came into being during that time period.  Two millenniums went by. Still, dependence is one of very important attributes we associate with childhood even today.

An example will elucidate how rooted the idea of dependence is in our social imagination of childhood and how much power it exerts in our current child policy. On 20 November 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Children, a promise to every child to safeguard and fulfill their rights. Bangladesh signed it within three months, with two important reservations. One is article 21, which is about the adoption of children due to the misuse of the law at home right after the liberation. The second reservation Bangladesh made is to the article 14, paragraph 1, which says: States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This reservation was discussed at some length in ‘Reservations to the Convention on the rights of the child: A Look at the Reservations of Asian State Parties’. The paper says:

‘The first thing to notice about the reservation is how broad it is. CRC article 14.1 not only protects the child’s right of religious freedom, but also protects “freedom of thought [and] conscience.” From the drafting history of this article, it  is clear that Bangladesh was concerned that Islamic law would be violated if the  CRC permitted children to change their religion. Many other Islamic states had this same concern. But Bangladesh’s reservation could have been worded narrowly to take care of this concern. Instead, it eliminated the entire paragraph, including both the right to “thought,” which includes political, historical and scientific ideas, as well as “conscience,” which includes more than religion.’

Bangladesh made an observation regarding it. It holds that as a country, Bangladesh recognises the rights of the child regarding freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is true constitutionally, but the society believes a child is ‘unable to make a free and voluntary choice of its own’. This utter disbelief in the ability of children to make decisions on their own is one of the most important ways how the society interprets what childhood is and it leads to dispossess children of their life. As we think children cannot make their own decisions, we, adults, make decisions for them. The level of dispossession will reveal itself if we answer the following questions:

Can children decide which school or college to go?

Can they decide who to make friends?

Are they heard when they are sick?

Do they get to choose when to go out and when to come home?

Can they make the decision of going on a study tour?

Are they taken seriously when they come out and talk about sexual harassment?

Can they choose whether they will study science or arts?

In most families, the answer to all the questions is a resounding ‘No.’ Many families even choose the university and field of study for their ‘adult’ sons and daughters. As if that were not enough, recently Magura police chose hair-cuts for teenagers (Dhaka Tribune, August 23, 2018). This is the level of intrusion on the lives of children that goes in the name of ‘care’ and ‘protection’. Interestingly, all these are clear violation of article 12 of CRC, that is, children’s right to be heard on decisions that affect their life.  We came to know from media report that, before banning ‘flamboyant’ hair-cuts, the police consulted the guardians, as well as saloon owners. But did they care to talk to teenagers in order to know what they think about it? But hey, they are children, ‘they don’t know anything’. In the name of implementation of article 12, the government sometimes include some children in workshops and policy meetings ‘where one or two children cannot open up their mind’ and ‘become the victim of child  participation’, as Manusher Jonno Foundation puts it in their 2014 report.

The way our society thinks about children and childhood shares another uncanny similarity to Greek thoughts. Greeks were not great lovers of childhood, rather they admired adulthood. For them, childhood was just a preparatory stage for adulthood, an in-between stage without any intrinsic value. This attitude manifests itself when families in our society try to crush children under books so that they may end up in the desired university, as if all their childhood is a long wait until they land the correct job, at which point their life will start.

True, the Greeks thought children to be ‘pure’, for which children were good candidates to be oracles, the voice of gods. While the Greeks considered children to be a medium to reach gods, the Hindus saw god in them. The playfulness and mischief of Krishna during childhood comes to be seen as divine manifestation and thus should be indulged. This indulgence in child-rearing is still an active practice among people in this area.

The ‘purity’ in Greek sense has something to do with ‘innocence’, an attribute associated with childhood by the champions of romanticism in 18th and 19th century. Unlike the Greeks, the key exponents of romanticism, like, Rousseau, Blake, and Wordsworth celebrated childhood and turned the religiosity into spirituality. However, religious aspects still popped up every now and then. For example, Wordsworth called children ‘Nature’s priest’ in one of his poems. Rousseau believed and popularised the innocence of children and wrote about the corrupting influence of society and institutionalised education. In Emile, he proposed an education system away from classrooms and in close proximity to nature.  Rabindranath wrote along the same line in his essay on education. In his writing on nursery rhymes, Tagore dubbed children ‘fresh’, ‘sweet’, ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘clean’, and ‘Nature’s creations’. His poems are replete with references like these. The romantic idea of the innocence of children had its spillover in our literature via Rabindranath but the later representation of children as sexually aware by Freud didn’t make it.

As a result, we conceive children as sexually innocent to the extent that any activity on their part to prove otherwise meets with serious consequences. We criminalised love affairs by children and banished it from schools and colleges. At schools, teachers do not hesitate to physically assault children for the ‘offence’ of writing love letters to other schoolmates. In 2016, a video of a confession of love and answering it got 2 students expelled, and 9 other had their admission cancelled from Dhaka Commerce College (The Daily Star, May 16, 2016). The authority of the college said it was “breach of discipline”, and against the “interest of the institution”. A hug-free and love-free school and college campus is all they want. Chapters on reproduction in biology in secondary and higher secondary level mostly go untouched as teachers are too embarrassed to teach them. We are embarrassed to teach the name of sex organs to children and use euphemism like lojjasthan (body part that embarrasses), but our collective embarrassment never seem to come into our way when we molest and rape them. This is a riddle.

This is the impact of the association of innocence with childhood in social level, but the innocence of children in the hands of big NGOs is a whole new ballgame. At first, I want to call into attention the close up photos of needy and vulnerable children in the cover of big NGOs to build an ‘innocence-based solidarity’, a term coined by Hugo Slim. The apparently innocent practice breaks their own guidelines. For instance, Save the Children instructs photographers: ‘Do not show children as helpless victims, such as closely cropped pictures of children with sad eyes looking up to the camera. We should be truthful not sentimental’. In reality, these types of pictures still ease their way into humanitarian campaigns, just because they grab the attention of target audience effortlessly. Apart from dehumanising children and robbing their autonomy, these photos reinforce colonial power structure, portraying ‘one part of the world as infantile, helpless, and inferior’.

No matter how negative the pioneers of romanticism were at schools, even school life of children had their colourful portrayals in nineteenth century. In this depiction, children were shown engaged with education and play, ‘free from burdens of work, care and onerous responsibilities’. And you are not the only one who wants to be a child again. As we can see, Lewis Carroll is also waiting in the queue, with the same desperation, if not more. He wrote in his poem ‘Solitude’:

I’d give all the wealth that years have piled,

the slow result of life’s decay,

To be once more a little child

for one bright summer day.

Let me be clear: adults, not children, thought up what childhood is, and should be like. Children seen as dependent, innocent, immature, incapable of making their own decisions and free from burdens only offers a narrow, rosy and distorted view into the lives of children. We disbelieve in their agency but how can we forget that they launched road safety movement, one of the most peaceful, organised, massive movement in our history? Maybe deep inside, the adults know and fear their agency as they can threaten the monopoly of adults’ decision making? The passionate speech of Greta Thunberg and the snappy comebacks of ‘world leaders’ point towards that possibility.

So, instead of weaving these sugarcoated and absurd fantasies about childhood, we should try to understand them. Before wishing to be children, we should see for ourselves what kind of repressive and coercive society we put them in.  Why don’t we see, the supposed ‘safety’ endangers children, ‘protection’ confines them? Before teaching them, we should have the courtesy to learn from them at first. Instead of dishing out riddles and resorting to euphemism, we should approach them with ‘brute honesty’ when we talk about our monstrous adult world, so that they can navigate safety. Because right now a child may be dealing with the experience of rape, all on their own.


M hammad Abul Kalam Azad is one of the organisers of Lokayoto Bidyaloy.

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