A lakeside tree and a plastic bag containing a folded bed sheet, some plastic sheets for roofing, a few dirty clothes and some other odds and ends comprise home for seven-year-old Sabina Akter Kulsum.
She lives on the streets with her grandmother Fatema Begum. While Fatema, 50, begs to make ends meet, Kulsum sells chocolates to pedestrians in the area around Dhanmondi lake.
The highlight of her day is attending a school for street children, located in the lake compound.
She is frequently sexually harassed by men.
At her age, Kulsum is not only unprepared to deal with such situations, she does not understand why strange men often offer her chocolates and food in exchange for her to cuddle with them or to go away with them.
Instinctively, however, she has always refused.
Fatema worries for her granddaughter. She fears the boys who roam the streets at night. “I have heard that they forcefully take away little girls and rape them,” she said, adding: “Sometimes, men corner her when I am not around and try to touch her and fondle her.”
Unsure of how else to keep Kulsum safe, Fatema is trying in vain to rent a house.
Far from easy street
Kulsum’s case is not extraordinary.
Almost every street girl lives with the constant risk of sexual harassment, especially at night.
To make matters worse, many are married off by their parents by the time they reach 12 or 13 years of age, because their parents believe that is the only way to keep their daughters safe.
A street girl sells books near the Kakoli intersection of Banani in Dhaka. There are no surveys on how many girls live on the streets of Dhaka. The photo was taken on September 23, 2014 Mahmud Hossain Opu
Though there are a few night shelters in the city, most street people are either unaware of them or cannot take advantage of them because of overcrowding. There are no surveys on how many girls live on the streets of Dhaka.
According to many of the people living on the streets, park areas like Ramna Park, Anwara Park and Chandrima Udyan are hubs for criminal activities. Many groups take advantage of the street girls there, especially those who do not have parents or guardians. Sometimes the street children are forced into becoming sex workers, drug traffickers or child labourers.
Similar allegations were made by those who squat in the areas around the Dhaka airport and Kamalapur Railway Station.
Many of these homeless people migrate to the city from their villages, either with the hope of building a better life for themselves or because they have lost their homes or have been cast out by their families.
The city, however, is no friend to them.
Not only do they fail to find shelter or jobs, their children are forced to suffer with them.
Who is helping the helpless?
According to Unicef child protection specialist Shabnaz Zahereen, the number of rural migrants is increasing every year.
“For those who have already migrated, the government has a responsibility to protect them and to minimise the threats toward the girls. These girls live in unsanitary situations, with no access to bathroom facilities and often fall prey to physical assault. The government and NGOs should work together to take proper action,” she said.
Shabnaz added that according to International Labour Organisation definitions, more than one million children are child labourers.
“We know that most of them are street children but we do not have any specific statistics on how many are girls,” she said.
When questioned about this, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki failed to come up with statistics on underprivileged girls.
Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum Director Abdus Shohid Mahmud blamed the government. “Despite having a budget, the government does not seriously work on this matter. There should be a survey and a strong monitoring team to protect these unprivileged girls.”
He suggested that the Department of Social Services take an initiative to run shelters staffed by women for street girls.
Aparajeyo Bangladesh Executive Director Wahida Banu said three shelters in Dhaka are home to more than 150 girls of varying ages.
However, the number of shelters for the homeless is dwindling as there is a marked lack of donations, and NGOs are not able to continue running the shelters.
Another major barrier to helping the street girls is that landlords do not want to rent out houses to NGOs who want to convert them into shelters for girls, she explained.
“There is a syndicate that captures girls,” she said, adding that they use these girl children for activities like drug trafficking and the sex trade.
“Another factor is, since they become used to the freedom of living on the streets, it is hard for us to keep them in the shelters. Sooner or later, the children leave,” said Wahida.
“Neither the NGOs nor the government can tackle this problem alone. We all need to work together,” she said, stressing the need for government support, especially in terms of funding, so that NGOs can continue to work to help these girls.