Transcript: Residential child care in Bangladesh

As a forester starting out with no qualifications in social work, Tuhinul did voluntary work with street children and the children of sex workers in Bangladesh.

Podcast Episode: Residential child care in Bangladesh

Category: Young people 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

IW - Ian Watson
TI - Tuhinul Islam

IW Tuhinul Islam is from Bangladesh. Currently he is a Consultant with Action Aid and a part time academic, also working with an NGO for Child Protection. As an under-graduate in Bangladesh studying forestry, he did voluntary work with slum dwellers and street children often using recreational singing and dancing techniques to help inspire the desire to learn. Seeing the harsh world of these children growing up in brothels shocked him and he decided this was where he wanted to work. Although successful in managing and executing projects, he felt he lacked the theoretical grounding that would help him inform policy. In Tuhinul’s words, he lacked the academic speak. So he came to the UK and now holds a PhD from Edinburgh University and has some 17 years now experience of working with children, and particularly children transitioning out of care.

TI Thank you very much. Yes, as you mentioned, I used to work with children, those who live in the slum and the street - so one girl’s painting actually, it was so moving - she painted a picture about her harsh life, the realities. So at one point in one of the paintings, she painted a segment - that is she wanted to be a specialist and rich doctor. And I asked her why she wanted to be a doctor and she said because her brother died and she couldn’t help, because they didn’t have a lot of money. So that was one of the big things. And the whole situation actually was so moving - that helped me to think about work with children. At the time it was an emotional situation, and when I was about to leave one 8, 9 years boy - he just said “oh, you come and people like you, they come here, and they get emotional, they cry, but our situation never changed”. So it was so bold and so strong - but at the time I didn’t have any answer. But that actually locked in my heart, and after working a few years in forestry and environment, I was trying to find an opportunity how I can help and support the children. And after a few years one of my friends told me there was a position to work with sex worker children. At the time I was quite anxious and I wondered whether I could do it or not, because my background is forestry and I don’t have any experience about the children. But my brother, he pushed me, as my friend, he said “as you have a desire to do, you can do it, just to go and met the executive director of the (… unclear) and I went there. And the executive director was also a very, very knowledgeable person. When he knew my background and my desire - he didn’t immediately offer the job, and he said “okay, go and visit our projects”. So I went there and visited the project - especially the sex work of children and the brothel and the children’s home. It was quite moving, shocking - I saw there was a lot of hope I can do things. So immediately I decided if they offered me the job, I would do it. But once I came home and shared with my family, this and that, oh none of them actually agreed - “why do you need to do work with children, and especially sex work of children”. But my heart wanted to do something for the children, and keep the answer of that young boy’s question “what would you do for us?” And so I followed my heart and I listened to my heart and I took the job.

IW Now you have a very good example of how, when you came to the UK to study, you saw quite an important difference between the way young people in care interact with their parents - and that affected policy there - that was when you came to understand attachment theory. Could you talk about that?

TI Yes, after working in that organisation with children of sex workers, street children, all the children - because I was the Deputy Head of the Programme. But after working a few years I thought “oh yes, I am very good at practice, but when I used to go to conference or the meetings, if there is academics, they speak something differently, and that I don’t understand” - because my background is quite different. So at the time I decided to go to school and I got a placement for Masters in International Child Work in the University of East Anglia. When I was practicing in Bangladesh, especially with the poor sex worker children, we inherently discouraged mum to come to the children’s home, because we thought that mum would be whispering to the girls or boys …

And at the time the dropout of the children was quite high, and we didn’t know what to do with it. But when I came to the UK and did my Masters and learned about attachment, I decided “oh, the sex worker, to me or somebody else, that sex worker is mum for that children and they need their support and help”. So then when I went back home and I changed the policy and said “okay, mum can come and visit any time they want - they don’t even need appointment to come”. So it’s like magic - within a month the dropout rate is … it’s nearly gone. So the theoretical base as well as my practice, and it helped them, it worked, and I said “this is quite amazing” - that is the interesting bit of learning and practice and theoretical. And as well as when I was in practice before any of the degree, I found there is a constant battle between the practitioner and the academic, because academics, they think “oh practitioner is not doing the way they should be doing”. On the other hand, practitioner, they are thinking or saying “oh academic, you write the paper in the room - you don’t have any understanding what is happening in daily life”. So that is one of the issues - I tried to bridge the gap between being a practitioner and academic - that is why I did my Master and PhD, to bridge this gap.

IW Now you did then a substantial piece of research as part of your PhD regarding residential care.

TI This is about comparing and contrasting three types of institution - one type is run by the government, that is around 11,000 children. Then another group is run by the NGOs - they are the most disadvantaged group, like sex worker children, ethnic minorities, street children, trafficked children. And the last group is run by the community people - they are mostly faith based organisations. By some estimates, there are nearly 6 million children in Bangladesh in an institution. So what I tried to understand, when the children left the institution, what is their experience about the institution in terms of their education, healthcare, relationship, being parents, how the institution prepared these young people to join in the mainstream society. And once they left an institution - what was the support they got from the institution or from the community, and what were the outcomes, as you say. I wouldn’t say the outcome that European countries try to measure, but I will see it in a broader sense outcome - how they have been joining the mainstream and how their dream and what is their experience in the whole residential child care. That is the main thing I tried to understand. And the matter of this is qualitative studies and I taught 139 people, including children, the policy maker - but I analysed exclusively 33 children’s interviews, and it is also a bit of ethnographic - I spend 3 months in each institution, 24 hours a day, trying to get a first-hand experience at what his happening in their lives every day - to understand the daily experience, daily practice in the institution, because it is so varied and everything might happen any time and it’s so unique. So that is why you need to spend time with them … not a very short period of time - 3 months is not a big time, but at same time it is not a very small time either.

IW What determines what type of home a young person would go into?

TI In Bangladesh, actually we don’t have any residential childcare policy, so children can go anywhere they want - at the same time, where parents want to send the children. But the interesting bit is that there still is some demarcation, I can tell you - like the government usually direct only orphan, but in reality, not necessarily all the children are orphans, but government give advertisement at the end of the year, and those who are poor and an orphan … poor but orphan, the approach the other children. But altogether there might be 11,000 children in that institution. The other group, the NGOs, this is completely different than the government. Usually mum or parents go to the institution so that government institution can take the children to the institution. On the other hand, the NGO board - they go to the parents and ask the children, because they can select sex worker children, those who are living in the brother. NGOs, they found the children are at risk, so they wanted to rescue them from the brothel, rather than mum wanting to get that kind of understanding. So yes, work has been going on - they are much more conscious about the advice and responsibilities. But this is quite a different dimension the NGOs are doing for the best interest of children in a different way - and the community one, basically the parents send the children to the institution - not necessarily for poverty, they send the children for their education, for the moral development, for the uplifting. And also it also helps the children in Bangladesh to include … like a social inclusion. If the children couldn’t come to the institution, they might be excluded from their education, healthcare support and others, or some of them might get involved with sex profession or drug trafficking or any other thing.

IW I think this is quite an important part of your research, because this third group, the community groups, they are commonly known as Madrassa …

TI Yes, it’s Madrassa.

IW And they have a strong, very faith based, with a strong spiritual element.

TI Yes, because as in Bangladesh, nearly 80% of people are Muslim, so it is not necessarily evolved yesterday - this residential childcare system in faith based, it was actually inherited from the prophet Mohammed 1400 years ago, because at the time it started, and gradually over the time, all over the world and the Muslim world especially who founded it - and as in Bangladesh most of the people are Muslim, and it is culturally rooted and religiously respected. So children go there. And society as a whole support them, even if they are very poor - it doesn’t matter because society as a whole take the responsibility to look after the children by donating money or inviting them to do some ritual in their home and support them in a way. And once they have left the institution, they get a good job in a way. Yes, they may not get the proper kind of job like medical doctor or other thing, because they have narrow set of education - but they are doing well.

IW And I think in your research you found that sometimes these community based services, Madrassa, are not so well resourced - they don’t have as good … the food is not as good, the accommodation is not as good, sometimes the healthcare is not as good - and yet your research suggests that the young people leaving there have better mental health and better job prospects … is that …

TI Yes, that’s the interesting bit, because before starting my PhD, although I tried to be neutral at the time and I wanted to just promote the NGO model - but data guided me in a different way. And what you mention is I found children are not getting good food in the Madrassa, there is some very poor quality food, healthcare is not good either - and they are much more happier than the children and those who are in the other two types of institution. The one of the reasons I found they have the dependency on God, they can tell “okay, what will happen, happen”, and the religious mind-set that helps to uplift their spirituality and they can accept the reality. So that is why they looked very happier, much more calmer and they are not thinking too much about their future, what will happen, and they can accept what is happening for others. So just like coherent and coexistence kind of things - and once they left the institution they get support from the community - because in Bangladesh there is a lot of mosques, and every school they have religious teaching. So it is much easier for them to get a job - and people support … yes, pay may not be very good, but always they say “oh we are not doing it only for money - we are doing it for the preaching of religion - we are the spiritual doctor”. In Britain, in the 70’s there was a Faith Matters, so that is maybe on the issues I can relate with this, and I think it is one of the important findings, in western somehow they are going towards the secular, and somehow religious is side-lined - so that may have some sort of implications if the children have some sort of spirituality - that might help to be mentally more stable.

IW Are you aware of anywhere else in the world where you have a similar sort of faith based or spiritual underpinning?

TI Yes, in the middle east are some of the organisations - they have the spiritual - in Indonesia they have faith based organisations, and in Africa. But as such, none of them have any scientific research. So what I have found and explored, they have some sort of journalistic report or some NGOs that produce as a report. But I wouldn’t say that very much scientific research. But if you see in a positive way that helps, but that needs to work more and more to know exactly what has happened throughout the world. But yes, in Russia there is a lot of the militia, even in India and Pakistan - but unfortunately I found, especially the community based faith based organisation - it’s media is always supported in a negative way - that may not necessary always be the case. So journalistic report and scientific research is completely different. So that needs to be worked on.

IW You mentioned in your experiences of UK social work that it seems to be much more desk-bound and the social workers don’t get out and about.

TI Yes, because during my stay in the UK - altogether in my Masters and

PhD and coming, I spent nearly 8 years in the UK. And during this time I worked part time as well as a lot of voluntary work I did. So my experience is social care, or the children and families or the adult care - it is getting much more desk based rather than spending time with what you call here is the client. Because the time you have spent to writing your file not, writing the incident report, writing this and that and a lot of (… unclear) they are producing - you can spend this time with the people you are supporting. Yes, I am not saying it is not necessary, but I think it is much more important to work with them to know what is happening there. So in our countries it is not the case - they spend a lot of time with the children.

IW I think you argue in your research also that secularism in the UK has damaged family connections, leaving vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

TI Looking after children, you don’t need to get nursery - either there will be grandparents, there will be the aunties, uncles, but in here you don’t have that opportunity - and the secular society is making the family more nuclear. So on the one hand you are saying children need a good attachment, but parents leave home 8 o’clock in the morning, they just send the children … or if became a bit harsh, I would say they are dumping their children in a nursery and the children are there up to 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock. So in all you are sending children to the institution rather than doing the real emotional thing. But this is not necessarily your fault, because the system actually is driving you to do this. So I don’t think this is a good way to accept the secularism in Bangladesh or other developing countries - those who have beautiful family ties - I think that is very important, to growth and development for the children.

IW Do you think this notion of faith and spirituality - can that be separated from, say organised religion? More and more people in the UK declare themselves not to have any religion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have spirituality. Do you think the two can be separated?

TI It’s a bit tricky because there is a slippery line between the spirituality and religiosity, really follow any religion, because to me those who are following spirituality, they are also following a religion. But if you see what they are following - that is either part of some religion - so they come either from Buddhism or for Islam or for Christianity - and they proceed a fundamental principle of all religion is more or less the same. So I wouldn’t suggest to go for either spirituality or full religious understanding or religious belief - I would expect, or I would suggest to see the culture, the values, the norms, and think how it works. Try to think a bit deeper - if you close your eyes and if you can think about what is going to happen in 20 years, 30 years, then you can take a good decision, a good plan - otherwise people just think about tomorrow - there will not be a very good plan for the children of the future. That can also … I can relate with the religion and the spirituality part. And separation, it is not very easy, because still - how many people even in the UK they say “we are spiritual”? They are saying “okay, we are not practicing a religion, but we do believe in God - we do believe in this and that”. So that indicates that people still believe in God or something - the children ultimately will go to a society where they have a practice of religion, they have everything. So if they do not learn this kind of thing, that might have a negative impact once they have left the institution.

IW Now when you contacted Iriss a few months ago you were very clear and it came over very strongly, you were very passionate about the research that you have done, the experience that you have and how that could be used. What would you want to see happen now?

TI Well this is the million dollar question - and I have been dreaming to do something - and what I mentioned earlier, because there is a big gap between the practitioner and the academic. So what I wanted to do, after spending so many years to understand what is happening in residential childcare and children’s experience. Now I am trying to convince the government and international NGO’s to do a project and try to develop (1) my project will be to disseminate my research findings in different groups of people - those who are involved in residential childcare policy making, and civil society. So this is one of the projects I have been trying to do. And second thing after that, I am trying to develop a project for developing an international childcare policy in Bangladesh. As I mentioned, there is no childcare policy in Bangladesh, and I haven’t found anything in South Asia. So it is not very easy because the government and the NGOs have their different priorities, and many of them are saying that residential childcare is a bad thing - but I haven’t found that … not necessarily everything is bad. But what I have found is - the children are benefitting from that service. Yes, still there are some shortcomings that need to be overcome. And that is possible once it is placed in a policy. If there is a group of people that do something to develop a policy, it will help ultimately the children. Because in culture and the context is very different in South Asia about residential childcare than in the West - because nowadays in the West you are doing a bit of social pedagogy and this and that, and I think we have been practicing this for years - and we cannot immediately stop residential childcare in Bangladesh, or even in South Asia, because this culture will be rooted - because not necessarily children are going there only for poverty - they are going for education, they are going for development. So this is the thing I am trying to convince the NGOs and the government. And in that project it may take a bit of time for 5, 10, 8 years, because I have a clear vision of what actually I want to do first phase - because as we don’t have any data, how many children are there and how many in the institution are there. So in first phase there will be a data bank, developing a data bank, and the second phase throughout this, the issue base or theme base work to double up the more evidence and it may be education, healthcare, abuse, neglect, management, training - it could have 50 things. And that will be academic writing as well as case studies to show the government and South Asian people what is happening. And from there we can do the advocacy, to give the pressure to the government - “okay, you need this kind of thing as a policy” - children in the Madrassa, the institution - they don’t even get food. And they don’t have good accommodation, but that is very important - you can tell very easily. So if there is a policy in place, so they will get more support, and I can expect much more better outcome than those who have got the support like NGOs or government. So those are the things. And also I have a plan if, over the time, that would have a Centre for some sort of residential childcare in South Asia that could be half for Bangladesh. And I have been trying to develop some sort of joint project, or the relationship with Iriss or the CELCIS or institutions like Edinburgh University, Stirling University - those who have good grounding of residential childcare - because you can learn many things from the developing world, as we can learn from you. So even the knowledge exchange - it will be helpful for both of us - because children are the children … so ultimately the children will be benefited. And for that, the West can send staff, the student to do their dissertation, or even for practice experience. So we can help them to get an understanding what is happening there - and if there is opportunity, we can send staff over here to get experience what is happening in the developed and developing countries. And also I have been trying, and I will urge the people who have the experience and understanding - those who want to do some joint work - this could be research, this could be workshops, seminars or even writing in the developed world - so they can contact me and I would be happy to help and get involved with these projects. It is important in looked after children, residential child care and anything in the family setting.

IW Thank you very much Tuhinul, I think there is an offer there to any of our colleagues in CELSIS, University of Stirling, Strathclyde, Glasgow.

TI Thank you very much for having me here.

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