By Iqbal Ahmed
The schoolchildren in Dhaka took to the streets on July 29th 2018, after a public bus ran down a group of their peers near the international airport, killing two and injuring many more. What followed was both extraordinary and unprecedented. Schoolchildren started a citywide blockade, demanding road safety and justice for the students that were killed.
The chain of events that spread over the next few days, not only in Dhaka but also in other cities around Bangladesh, are important because this is the first time children in Bangladesh have taken to the streets in order to start an effective movement for change. Furthermore, what makes this movement unique is that students took over the role of law enforcement duties on the streets, as they started to check the validity of drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, and controlling traffic. To this end, children’s agency and capacity for participation in influencing policy makers, civil leaders, and organising campaigns needs to be acknowledged and discussed.
This is the first time children in Bangladesh have taken to the streets in order to start an effective movement for change.
Among academics, children’s rights and participation are subject to constant debate and discussion. Broadly speaking, these topics are seen through western intellectuals, conventions and perspectives. To them, children in the global South are construed as too vulnerable to talk about the issues that are important to them. This argument cannot be disregarded considering children’s issues such as lack of education, health, hygiene and child labour are prevalent among societies. This is not just in the developing world but also in developed countries.
Yet, the recent children’s movement in Dhaka has told us that the younger generation are capable actors – to organise events and movements, to have their voices heard regardless of issues that are important for their safety, education, growth and development. As they see it, they want not to be just citizens, but citizens with citizenship.
There is a notable difference between the two concepts – whilst being a citizen implies being a member of state, citizenship has a ‘political dimension’ that requires exercising rights, having dignity as a member of the society, and developing capacity to make decisions and actions.
Children in Dhaka demand a nine-point agenda, including requirements on road safety for children.
Having said this, children in Dhaka demand a nine-point agenda, including requirements on road safety for children by installing speed-breakers and overpasses near schools, to reform traffic laws with effective engagement from the Bangladesh Police, who are responsible for maintaining and enforcing traffic laws.
Bangladesh has a weak system of governance, accountability and transparency. The government institutions are responsible for maintaining order and civility. Yet corruption and invincibility of power among many powerful brokers (i.e. ministers, high-ranking government officials) has betrayed the nation, its leadership, and its people for some time now.
An example of the power and fear of losing influence is the infiltration of various groups – presumably from the opposition – among the schoolchildren to destabilise the movement. It has been reported that the selling of school uniforms during the last few days spiked. The infiltrators are apparently taking part in the demonstration by disguising as school students and taking part in the beating of students, whilst vandalising cars and buses.
Politics aside, there is another cultural issue that people in Bangladesh are generally reluctant to discuss – that they hardly look to themselves for their own wrongdoings. Regardless of the number of streets, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as unsafe were people doing their part – that is to use the overbridge, and to stop crossing the street haphazardly, force rickshaw-wallahs to go against the traffic and bus conductors to stop wherever they want. Going forward, people of Bangladesh need to take collective responsibility for installing law and order. To this end, the children of July hit the pulse of the nation. They have had enough with unruly policy, politics and practice.
The July movement is an extraordinary example of children’s voice and agency in Bangladesh. Children, through their participation in the 2018 movement, have pointed their fingers to the policy makers to focus on a nation-building agenda, particularly addressing strategies to remove malpractices within politics and policy-making. This is critical to the ongoing development and the rise of Bangladesh as a proud sovereign nation that gained its Independence at the expense of three million lives in 1971.
Photo by Nahid Sultan vis Wikipedia Commons