The arrest of street children following the tragic killing of traffic police constable, Md Maniruzzaman Talukdar, on 1 July 2023, by members of a snatching gang in Dhaka, has brought to the forefront the crucial legal and social issues around this vulnerable demographic. According to a UNICEF report published in 2022, there are 97,9728 children living on the streets in Bangladesh, aged between 5-17 years. By 2024, this number is expected to rise to 16,15,330.
The wretched conditions these children live under are visible to every passerby on the street. But these problems are complicated and defy simple solutions. Often, as the recent case shows, these children end up becoming scapegoats for crimes and are easy targets for police excesses.
The findings of the 2022 Survey on street children reflect this. The survey, conducted jointly by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and UNICEF, uses first-hand reports from a sample of street children aged between 5 and 17 years across the country, including Dhaka. According to the report, 82% of such children are boys while the remaining 18% are girls. 30% of the sample live without basic amenities. Eight in ten such street children experience abuse from pedestrians, while 71.8% are illiterate and unaware of support services. The picture that emerges from these grim statistics is one of incredible vulnerability.
This absence of social and economic protection makes street children easy targets for persistent police brutality. For this reason, they are often falsely implicated in criminal cases. In 2017, Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organisation, joined hands with three other NGOs to conduct a survey among street children below 18 living in Dhaka, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Cox's Bazar. They found that street children are reportedly routinely illegally detained, beaten, tortured and framed in false cases. In rare circumstances, the police involved are brought to justice through departmental action, resulting in suspension or legal action. In most cases, however, they get away with impunity.
In July, seven students of Pother Ishkul, a Dhaka-based organisation working for the empowerment and education of street children, were arrested following the tragic killing of traffic police constable, Md Maniruzzaman Talukdar. The children were accused in five cases registered in different police stations in Dhaka. The allegations pertained to preparations for dacoity and robbery under sections 399 and 402 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, 1860.
However, an investigation recently conducted by a national daily 'Kalbela' on these cases claimed that they had been falsely implicated. The investigation reported that the police had falsely attributed crimes to fabricated locations, and subjected the children to unlawful detention for 5 to 7 days before making a formal arrest, thereby violating Article 33 of Bangladesh's constitution. They had also reportedly misrepresented the ages of the seven boys, portraying them as being above eighteen years old so they could be tried as adults rather than as juveniles.
To prevent such incidents, there is a need to create widespread awareness and offer protection to vulnerable street children. These children are often victims of poverty, neglect or abuse. It is important to understand that these conditions are what can push them to engage in criminal activities, rather than some kind of inherent criminality. NGOs, civil society organisations and the media can play a pivotal role in advocating for empathy and in campaigning for changes.
The most urgent need is for the country's apex court to intervene suo motu and hold law enforcement agencies accountable for their unlawful actions towards street children. Additionally, rigorous training on child rights and sensitisation programs must be made compulsory for the police so they can understand the unique challenges faced by street children.
There is also a need to establish institutional mechanisms to report police misdeeds and false accusations, with strict consequences for those found guilty of misconduct. Overhauling existing laws with cogent penalties for police misconduct is needed to protect the rights of street children.
There are positive notes to take heart from, such as the case on 14 September 2022 in Chattogram. Here, Metropolitan Magistrate Jewel Deb initiated legal action against two police officers for fabricating charges, providing false testimony and submitting a false police report that implicated a street child of smuggling two gold bars. Instances like these can restore faith in the judicial system for these children who struggle to find support in our official mechanisms.
Furthermore, full-fledged children's courts need to be set up in accordance with the provision of the Children Act 2013 to handle cases pertaining specifically to children. The Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal, currently entrusted to try cases under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000, is already overburdened with cases involving children in conflict and contact with the law. This makes the need for a specialised children's court even more urgent.
Efforts should be made to provide state-sponsored support and rehabilitation for street children to help them reintegrate into society. Vocational and technical training programmes can equip them with the necessary practical skills to lead self-sufficient and dignified lives.
The injustice towards street children in Bangladesh, primarily through law enforcement actors, is a serious wrong inflicted upon them. These children are the most vulnerable section in our society and deserve protection, care and opportunities to rebuild their lives like other children.
It is time for Bangladesh to reaffirm its commitment to justice, compassion and human rights by ensuring that street children are not left behind in the shadows of society. By doing so, we can work towards a brighter future for these innocent souls and for our country.
Tarek Rahman is a Legal Officer Legal Officer at iProbono.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard