In Bangladesh, death stalks children in broad daylight.
Between the sunny hours of 9am and 1pm, while mothers and fathers are busy with work, children are at risk from a deadly menace.
It is neither malnutrition nor disease that kills most children over a year old in this country. It is drowning.
This has been perhaps the most neglected threat to children’s lives … until now.
Sitting on one of the world’s largest river deltas, Bangladesh is a country of rivers, ponds, canals, ditches and other water bodies. Picturesque as it may be, for unsupervised rural children it can be deadly.
One way to make the perils of the countryside safer for children has been to institute rural daycare centres. Until the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB), began its free rural daycare initiative, there were no comparable institutions anywhere in rural Bangladesh.
The daycare centres, staffed by hundreds of local women, has changed the lives of Monohordi upazila’s children.
Nine unions in the upazila are now better aware and better equipped to prevent childhood injury and drowning because the infrastructure and know-how has been put in placeIn participating villages, a series of safe houses called Anchal – referring to the protective fold of the sari that is draped over the shoulder like a cape, a symbol of motherly vigilance and protection – is keeping children safe from straying into dangerous territory.
Over ten thousand children are kept safe while their mothers can attend to work without anxiety about their welfare.
“Anchal is a place where children’s morality is developed, pre-schooling imparted, women empowered, drownings and other accidents averted and parents’ productivity enhanced – the benefits are global. This is the kind of project the government should take up, scale up and implement,” Dr AKM Fazlur Rahman, executive director of CIPRB, said.
In the small village of Arjun Char in Monohordi upazila, this correspondent discovered the profound difference Anchal has made to the lives of the residents.
“Anchal is not just for the children, they are for everyone. Children are teaching their illiterate parents what they learnt in school and parents are sort of compelled to learn the poems. The most important advantage of Anchal is that it is a sort of pre-schooling for children,” Afroza Begum, a resident of the village, said.
Monohardi upazila boasts 550 Anchal centres in nine unions, overseen by 550 “Anchal mothers” and an additional 550 assistants. Some 13,350 children, aged 9 to 42 months, enrolled in the Anchal daycare system.
Every morning, Anchal assistants or the parents bring the children to the daycare centres.
From the time they arrive, to the time they are picked up, these children belong to a fortunate minority of children in Bangladesh who are removed from the risk drowning.
Most drownings in Bangladesh take place when unsupervised children fall into ponds near their homes. Some 75% of drownings occur within 20 metres of the home, usually between the hours of 9am and 1pm, when many carers are busy with housework.
Armed with these statistics, the CIPRB launched a carefully targeted intervention in the highly concentrated upazila of Monohordi, home to hundreds of little water bodies.
The results have been staggering.
Before the project began, there were 12 recorded drownings in as many months; after the project, there have been just seven drownings in 20 months.
Crucially, not a single victim was enrolled in any Anchal centre.
During visits to several centres, this correspondent found children passing their time singing songs, reciting rhymes, telling stories and learning to read. As daycare centres, Anchal is successfully beginning the pre-school education process, in addition to protecting children from injury-related deaths.
Anchal mothers meet parents once a month to raise awareness about injury prevention.
Mosleh Uddin, the union parishad chairman, said: “In the villages, quarrels between husband and wife usually take place over the children. But believe me, in the last two years, we have not had a single such incident in the whole union. You will not find even a single general diary at the local police station over such a dispute.”
Wahida Aktar, an Arjun Char village housewife, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Even inside a house there are a number of risks: children can get electrocuted, fall into water, get burned by the cooking stove, fall off the bed, or get hit by cows or goats. We are now aware of these risks and know what to do if an accident occurs.”
The CIPRB project has distributed 11,233 playpens to ensure child safety after school.
Anchal premises are homes volunteered free of charge by local residents. Local women in the area work as “Anchal mothers” in exchange for a small salary.
Banker Tuhin Ahmed and his wife Sufia Akter, a school teacher, swear by the Anchal initiative. When this correspondent visited their house, their daughter Tabia, six months old, was sleeping in a CIPRB playpen surrounded by her toys and feeders.
Tabia’s aunt, Husne Ara, said: “While I do the chores, I know she is safe.”
The CIPRB provides the wooden playpens at no cost but regularly monitors whether they are properly used.
Saiful Islam, ward councillor of Arjun Char, said: “Women here usually do household work. But now many women are employed: they work as Anchal mothers.”
Shirin Sultana, an Anchal mother, is studying for higher secondary certificate at a nearby vocational college. She is unmarried but the mother to around 20 children.
Asked why she chose this profession while still in college, she said: “You will only understand why after spending a day with my angels.”