It was never meant to be a home for little girls. SIM’s Children’s Uplift Programme, initially a drop in centre for mothers on the streets, established a night shelter for women in crisis. This centre has been used by many in need: women about to give birth, women nursing newborns, women with mental health issues, and physical issues; women escaping from pimps; even recovering from a suicide attempt. But as CUP opened it’s doors to women in crisis, they couldn’t say no to the young girls from the streets who came too.
Rekha’s* mom was pregnant without a husband, unacceptable in Bangladesh society. She left her baby with a woman who didn’t keep the child but instead passed her on to a woman who lived near the Mirpur Mazar, a religious site as well as a hub for criminal activity. Rekha was raised to beg to support herself and her foster mother. Approaching people on the streets and going door to door can bring in a reasonable amount of money, but there are dangers too and Rekha was frequently a victim of sex abuse. Her small shoulders also bore marks inflicted by her foster mother.
She first came to Children’s Uplift Programme with another young friend from the streets in 2009 when she was around six or seven years old. They were enticed by free food, warm affection, and a first interaction with foreigners! When she first arrived at CUP she sought love the only way she’d experienced it- through inappropriate touch and sexual gestures. Gradually she responded to the redirection, parental affection, clear boundaries, and safe environment. She started school, ate three healthy meals a day, formed friendships with other children, and for the first time, was able to just be a child.
Eventually the woman who had raised her realized the income she was losing and tried to take her back. Because she wasn’t a biological child, CUP was able to file a case with the police and keep her away. Angered, this woman spread rumours that CUP was trying to sell Rekha to a brothel. The reality was that that was likely her own intention.
Rekha continued to do well in school. She participated in counselling with the other girls. She flourished in school, often earning the highest marks in her class. Yet she was still being exposed to other women in crisis on a regular basis, still facing the threat that her foster mother could take her, still living in a crowded city in a crowded night shelter.
While younger children were able to go to boarding schools, Rekha and the other seven girls over six years old were not eligible. Multiple facilities were sought yet these girls were excluded from everyone’s eligibility requirements. There seemed to be no alternative to the Dhaka shelter. But then an email was sent to people around various entities working in Bangladesh. A boarding school for visually impaired girls had relocated their programmes to Dhaka and wanted to rent out their facility. With ten rooms, a garden, trees and nearby schools, it seemed the perfect site for both the girls hostel and a third office for Basha. The staff from the blind school were trained and ready to step into a new position as well. Lota didi had loved the blind girls and cared for them as a mother. She had mourned their loss, and was more than ready to have new charges.
Rekha and the other girls wasted no time settling in. They moved in right before Christmas and participated in community events with gusto. Instead of being stuck in an urban apartment, they are making trinkets from local clay, climbing trees, picking fruit. They are attending a local private school and have tutoring after school. They are learning to play the harmonium and learning traditional dances.
In Dhaka, the reminders of their lives on the streets, facing abuse, fending for themselves, were always present. Being in a new place, participating in community life, having opportunities to play freely has allowed them to have a childhood.
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” — Tim Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker