As part of the Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia Bangladesh team, it is my role to collect and document the stories of the children. These are not just any stories; they are stories from children caught up in the worst forms of child labour. And they have a story to tell. Yet, it is hard to hear them, let alone write them.
We knew the stories what we would hear would be sad and, in many cases, harrowing. The task of documenting these stories accurately and in a way that reflected the complex experiences of the children did not feel small. But I kept my favourite quote at the front of my mind throughout: “Fear of failure is the only thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve.”
Collecting stories in the pandemic
This was set amidst the global pandemic. Even in crisis and fragile settings, we must create space for children to share their stories, to advocate for themselves and ultimately empower them to determine their own future. We cannot let the changing environment prevent us collecting these stories – in fact, the pandemic means these children are even more vulnerable. Listening to what seems like innocent and easy wishes for life: “I want to continue my studies” or “I want to go back to my countryside(village)” just brought home how far removed these children are from achieving their dreams.
It is not as simple as collecting the stories and then writing them up. As I transcribe the stories after meeting them, even the recorded voice reminds me of their faces and turmoil. The pain they are bearing was so clear and it stays with me. It was hard not to feel emotional.
Where is the magic?
As we all navigate COVID-19 restrictions and challenges- my small anxieties of going out without a mask or access to hand sanitizer pale in comparison. These children have no choice but to work, with high risk of catching the virus. They told us about their long working days and conveyed that they had no other choices. They believe that the given situation is their fate. Nothing can change their life. They have accepted their life: “This is how we should live; what magic is there waiting for me!?” These children face persistent abuse, yet many live with the fear of going back to parents who have huge loans to pay off and rely on their income.
Balancing the emotional with the practical
Naturally, I want to protect these children. But keeping within our important safeguarding practices is also important and for their protection. Yet right now when I meet with these children, it just hurts. I don’t feel I am doing enough for them. I hope in the long run that the work of this programme will not only help them and their peers. But the lessons will go far beyond CLARISSA and underscore the importance of listening to children and hearing their ideas for what can change.
But for now, the question in my mind, is how do I strike the balance between emotional and being practical?