Bangladesh is home to 64 million children who make up approximately 40 percent of the population. Here, children face unthinkable hardships every day due to living in extreme poverty.

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In the middle of a warm afternoon in Bangladesh, five-year-old Susanto often spends his time playing with his neighbours while waiting for his parents to return home. Susanto’s parents, Baylu and Santony, make a living through their daily begging in a neighbouring village. Baylu is blind, while Santony struggles with her speech. Their disabilities mean they are unable to find work.

However, one afternoon while having fun dancing with his friends, Susanto’s scarf accidentally brushed the naked flame of a nearby kerosene lamp, which left him with severe burns from his stomach all the way down to his knees. Amplifying their panic and fear, Baylu and Santony knew they couldn’t afford to pay for the medical treatment their son would require.

That’s when local Compassion Project Manager Deliance stepped in. Without a second thought, he rode straight over on his bike. He gathered Susanto up and began cycling to the nearest hospital which was 12 kilometres away. At the hospital, the doctors discovered Susanto had third degree burns and needed urgent treatment. Due to the Compassion project’s strong relationship with the doctors, Susanto received immediate care.

Baylu and Santony desperately wanted to be with their son while he was treated, but the reality of poverty meant they still needed to earn an income to bring food home at the end of the day. So, instead, they continued to beg from morning until sundown, leaving their son in the caring hands of the project staff and hospital workers.

Many people in Bangladesh, like Baylu and Santony, face extraordinary hardships every day due to the daily struggle of living in extreme poverty.

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What is the need in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh was born out of conflict in the region and founded in its modern form in 1971. It is home to over 160 million people, and the 64 million children make up around 40 per cent of the population.1

A predominantly Muslim nation, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with more than 160 million people living in a land area roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Victoria. Most of the land is low-lying delta and is vulnerable to flooding. Bangladesh is also regularly affected by tropical storms and heavy monsoonal rain that contributes to these flood events.

In recent years, urban areas—especially Dhaka, the capital—have experienced a population surge as rural communities have found life increasingly difficult in their hometowns. This has led to the growth of urban slums around major cities as families look for safer ground to build a home and the prospect of work to build a life. But in these slums, children are more vulnerable to malnutrition, child labour, child marriage, violence, abuse, poor sanitation and pollution.

Despite a government focus on education and healthcare in recent years, the poorest families struggle to get access to the classroom or to a doctor.

Around 15 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty (less than US$1.90 per day) and around 85 per cent live on less than US$5.50 per day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Bangladesh in a significant way. According to the World Bank, in addition to the impact on health, the country’s GDP growth decelerated and poverty increased.

What does child poverty look like?

There are many challenges that face children living in poverty in Bangladesh.

While Bangladesh achieved one of the world’s most rapid rates of decline in mortality of children below the age of five, its success is undermined by the inferior progress in reducing deaths of newborns.

A further challenge comes in the form of ensuring the use of safe drinking water. A considerable number of people in Bangladesh, drink from faecal or arsenic contaminated water, adding to the potential spread of disease and illness in their communities.

The practice of child marriage in Bangladesh remains common—nationally, nearly 60 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18.2 Child marriage is a violation of country law and human rights. It can create social isolation, often halts education opportunities and increases the risk of early pregnancy and domestic violence.

Despite some advances in eliminating child labour, over 1 million children are still in forced work in Bangladesh, with the majority employed in the agriculture and the manufacturing sectors.3 Research has also shown that a significant proportion of children in the urban industrial sector work as long as 16 hours a day in environments that have an abundance of workplace hazards.4

Working in these hazardous environments has long-term adverse effects on children. They are exposed to dangerous substances, agents, high or low temperatures, high noise levels and vibrations, damaging their health and well-being.5 The International Labour Organisation found common health disorders that occur each year in children in these environments, including musculoskeletal damage arising from carrying heavy loads, lung disease from exposure to dusts, and cancers and reproductive disorders due to exposure to pesticides, insecticides and industrial chemicals.6

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Compassion’s story in Bangladesh

Compassion started working in Bangladesh in 2003. In 2021, there are over 39,000 children registered, with over 170 local partners outworking Compassion’s programs across the country.

While Compassion’s local child development centres have experienced closure periods throughout the pandemic to abide by local guidelines, most have now resumed activities for children and youth for small groups in outdoor settings.

For centres that remain closed to group activities, staff members maintain regular contact with children and caregivers through home visits and phone calls. Local partners have been able to send over 441,000 food packs and over 454,500 hygiene kits to beneficiary families. Additionally, they have provided medical support to over 18,500 people.

In the northern villages of Bangladesh, the communal pond is a favourite for locals who use its waters to wash clothes, water rice fields and bathe cattle. But since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and social distancing became essential, accessing the once popular communal pond proved to be risky.

To ensure the safety of the community, staff from Compassion’s child development centre distributed leaflets outlining the appropriate measures to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But despite these efforts, locals found it difficult to stay away from the pond.

Access to clean water became increasingly difficult. Summer came early, evaporating the groundwater, which left muddy water from tube wells as the only viable option.

But a gift changed everything.

Through Compassion’s Critical Needs, the child development centre was able to construct a water tank and basin to support the children and the wider community. The underground pump and tube-well system is located outside the gates of the child development centre, allowing over 500 families to safely access fresh water.

Find out more about how Compassion has been helping families in Bangladesh through the pandemic.

How you can help

Compassion’s child development centres have been working to help families and communities living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh. Families like that of Baylu and Santony.

After almost a month of treatment, Susanto was finally ready to return home from the hospital. For the preceding four weeks, Baylu and Santony had begged from village to village, not even stopping to eat so they could pay the hospital bill they knew was coming.

“The two of us have gone around all day long covering the neighbouring villages as much as we could to collect money. We drank water all day to keep our stomach full,” said Baylu.

The evening when Susanto was ready to be discharged from the hospital, Baylu’s heart pounded as he heard the doctor approaching. However, what happened next was completely unexpected.

To his surprise, the doctor told them that due to the hospital’s good relationship with the local partner and the Compassion project, Susanto’s treatment would be free of charge. To Baylu, it felt like as if the world had turned upside-down with happiness. Within a week of being discharged, Susanto was back to mischief and ready to return to school.

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So many children living in Bangladesh, children just like Susanto, need our help and support. Only when we come together as good neighbours can we hope to be a part of a solution more powerful than poverty. We all have a part to play.

Find out how you can be a part of the answer.

Would you like to learn more about poverty and Compassion's response in other parts of Asia? Read our blogs below:

Words by Sidhara Udalagama with field reporting by J. Sangma.

1 UNICEF (n.d.). Children in Bangladesh.

2 UNICEF (n.d.). Children in Bangladesh.

3 Bureau of International Labor Affairs (2018). Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports; Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.

4 Bangladesh Labor Welfare Foundation (2016). Report: Baseline Study on Child Labor in the Keraniganj Apparel Hub.

5 Ahad, Md A., Mitu Chowdhury, Yvonne K. Parry, and Eileen Willis (2021). "Urban Child Labor in Bangladesh: Determinants and Its Possible Impacts on Health and Education".

6 International Labor Organization (2017). Global Estimates of Child Labor: Results and trends, 2012–2016.