Children are boys and girls under 18. The UN Convention of the Rights of Children (UNCRC) treats every human being below the age 18 years as a child. UNCRC allows every society to consider its own laws and customs. Children in Bangladesh are grouped in three categories: shishu - anybody under 5 years of age, balak or balika - a child of 6 to 10 years and kishor or kishori - a child of age between 11 and 14.

In 1997, Bangladesh had a total population of 124.3 million, of whom the number of children was 61.75 million. The population below 18 years constituted 49.6% of the total and below 14 years - 40.63% of the total. At present (2010), there is almost 60.30 million population is under the age of 18, which is 45% of total population.

The family system in Bangladesh is mostly patriarchal, except in some ethnic minority groups. The father is responsible under law for taking care of the children. But the children remain close to their mother, whose role in shaping their character is predominant. Generally, boys start getting away from their mothers in their kishor age, when they are guided by the father or other male guardians. Girls remain close to the mother or female relatives.

The birth of a child is a joyful event for the family. Muslims observe aqiqah, a ritual for the welfare of the newly born child sacrificing cattle. The Hindu's social ritual for the occasion celebrated is annaprashana. The birthday of children in better-off families, especially in urban areas, are now observed in the western style. Parents love children and often give top priority to fulfilling their needs but traditionally, ignore their opinions, arguing that they understand little. In some cases, poor parents cannot take care of their children due to the hard struggle for bread.

Children in Bangladesh, especially in the rural areas and in conservative families, are often subject to gender discrimination. Many parents think that the male child represent heredity. The birth of a male child in a Muslim family is marked by Azan and in a Hindu family, by blowing the holy shankha conchshell. In the Aqiqa of a girl, a goat is sacrificed, but in that of a boy, the requirement is a cow or two goats. A kishor (boy) enjoys more freedom than does a kishori (girl). The boy is allowed to go outside of the house more frequently than a girl, who is to remain with her mother or aunts to help in a household work or is to imply stay inside because of purda and 'security'. From very early age, boys and girls in Bangladesh society wear different dresses. Boys wear pants, shirts, lungis, pijamas, panjabis, etc. and girls wear salwar-kamijes, urnas, saris, etc. The girls are to keep long hair from their early age.

Traditionally, only the father in a nucleus family or a senior male person in a joint family acts as the legal guardian, earlier only the father's name is put in the school register, government forms and elsewhere. Recently, the government has made compulsory to put the mother's name along with the father's name in all government documents including the school-register book. Child marriage, although officially banned, continues to take place in many parts of the country. Arranged marriage is still the prevalent feature and the opinion of the girl regarding the selection of her husband is largely ignored.

In Bangladesh, children have little scope for enjoying their childhood. Most village boys help their fathers in the farming from an early age. The girls are engaged in household work. Slum boys and girls have to earn own livelihood, most of the time, for themselves and often, for their families.

A large number of children are born with physical and mental handicaps. Such children are neglected within the family as well as in society. Although some schools and training centres have been established for these children, entry to these institutions is restricted to the under privileged group.

Bangladesh was one of the first countries to sign and ratify UNCRC. In addition, the Constitution of Bangladesh protects child rights through its various articles. For example, Article 14 of the Constitution prohibits all kinds of exploitations. Article 15(d) ensures the right of social security of people of all age groups. Article 17 provides for adopting effective measures for the purpose of establishing a uniform, mass-oriented and universal system of education for all children. Labour laws prohibit child labour in Bangladesh. Primary education is now free and compulsory. Girls enjoy special facilities and stipend in studies up to the higher secondary level. However, all rights of children or of girls are practically ensured in the society.

Every year about two and a half million children are born in Bangladesh. About three-fourths of all children in the country live below the poverty line. Child mortality rate is still very high. In the early 1990s, child mortality rate within several hours of birth was 12 percent, 8 due to birth trauma and 4 due to prematurity. A further 23 died within a week, 16 due to prematurity and 7 as a result of neonatal tetanus. Poverty, inadequate accommodation, malnutrition, shortage of pure drinking water, sanitation, primary health care, immunisation and inadequate knowledge of hygiene, teen-age motherhood, etc are causes of the high infant mortality. The infant mortality rate in rural areas is higher than in urban areas.

Cross-country and internal child trafficking has become a regular phenomenon. Children are being trafficked to the Middle East and other countries for various exploitative and abusive purposes. Bangladeshi children are found in large number in brothels at home and abroad. Children are also being used as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries.

Bangladesh officially launched the Education For All programme (EFA) in March 1992. Most of the children have enrolled in schools but a large number of children still remain beyond coverage of primary education. Children of rich families in urban areas attend kindergarten, which are divided into two categories, English medium and Bengali medium. Children of lower classes of urban areas go to conventional primary schools. Rural children go to primary schools and to ebtedayee madrasahs. Solvent families in rural and urban areas employ private tutors for their children. In urban areas, coaching classes are organised, where children take extra lessons. The children of Muslim families learn the Holy quran at home and in mosques. Interested guardians in urban areas send children to music schools for lessons in music and dancing. In many towns there are specialised libraries for children to read books. In addition, there are organisations, which develop children's literary and cultural faculties.

Children in Bangladesh do not have access to facilities in games and sports as all schools do not have adequate sports and indoor games arrangements. Whatever little provisions exist, are created by communities. They consist of some open space in the village or town for boys to play football, cricket or traditional games like hadudu, dariabandha and kana machi bho bho. In rural areas, children also play within the house premises. Because of the lack of space, indoor games like table tennis, carom, chess and video games are the privileges of urban children only, but that too only for those having access to medium and large educational establishments. Girls are virtually excluded from the benefit of playing outdoor games. In villages they play with dolls and in urban areas, some of them play indoor games.

Despite the fact that existing labour laws prohibit child labour, a large number of children are employed in the formal and informal sectors, eg small industries, workshops, restaurants, sweetmeat shops, motor garages, bus and tempos, construction, tea plantations, agriculture, domestic work etc. Their employment however, is rarely secure. Sometimes they receive only subsistence rations for survival. And these, in many cases, are considered as favours. In some cases children are used as merely bonded labourers. They are often overloaded tasks beyond their physical capacity. Many of them work in hazardous conditions among dangerous fumes, gases, asbestos, lead, sodium etc. As a result, they have to suffer from skin diseases, heart diseases, bronchial problems, etc. In domestic service the child, especially a girl child, has every possibility of being abused. A large number of children die from fire, accidents by machinery, toxic substances, injury and violence.

The most vulnerable category of children is known as street children or street urchins commonly known as tokais. These children survive by picking things from the street, dustbins and other places. Street children have no parents. Actually, they are born on the street, live on the street and die on it. Some of them have parents but have no contacts with them. Factors forcing children to the street are mainly poverty, broken family, running away from family, and sexual abuse. Nobody takes care of vagrant children. They live at stations, bus terminals, office premises and in parks, streetsides etc, or under the open sky.

Children policy The government formulated the National Children Policy in December 1994 piloted by he Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. It was further updated in 2010. Policy is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter states the detonation of children.

Chapter two, three and four deal with the scope, the fundamental target and the objective of the policy. Chapter six contains the provisions of formulating specific plans and programmes to implement the rights of children. The next chapters deal with the rights and development of juvenile children, steps to abolish child labour, programme implementation strategy, responsibility of focal points selected from different ministries and divisions, coordination between the government and non-government organisations, formulation and implementation of development projects and formulation of draft law related to the children issue.

The children policy concludes with the declaration that it was the objective of the policy to ensure that all children of the country, irrespective of their caste, colour, gender, language, religion or belief, social status, wealth, birth or any other status, enjoy all rights and opportunities equally. [Golam Kibria and Abu Syed Khan]