Iqbal Sabery has designed an after-school program for rural communities in Bangladesh that allows children to take charge of their free time and to contribute to the communities in which they live.
Iqbal understands that children in rural Bangladesh lack opportunities to try out new ideas that would allow them to develop leadership skills and contribute productively to their families and communities. To address this need, he has started after-school centers in areas served by the nonformal schools that he established through the Center for Rural Child Development. His program includes 67 centers and involves more than 1,600 young people. It is largely run by children and offers a wide range of activities from sports to community building, for boys and girls, ages 8 to 16.
Iqbal envisions linking these centers in a network that will reach across the country. Members will elect a national children's parliament to convene shortly before the national parliament meets. The Children's Parliament will pass laws and make recommendations to the parliament's working committees as well as to relevant government departments.
Iqbal's program generates local resources in the form of service fees from parents and community space for the centers, thus making it less dependent on outside funding. Children are put in charge of activities like immunization-awareness campaigns, motivating others to attend school, and organizing sports competitions–activities from which they learn important communication, decision-making, and leadership skills while at the same time guarding against trafficking and other serious problems.
The contribution that young people can make to society has been largely unrecognized in the rural areas of Bangladesh. The government has made strides in preparing young people for modern citizenship with education in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic, but the idea of developing children as participants in the community has yet to penetrate rural Bangladesh. Over the past 20 years, rural areas have adjusted to the idea of boys and girls attending school from an early age, and now, citizen-led organizations operate nonformal public schools that prepare children to enter the government elementary schools at the third grade level. There is now a high public acceptance of the idea of children, even poor girls, going to school. Some students drop out for family reasons–girls more frequently than boys–but many, if not most, remain in school. However, the country's focus on child development does not reach far beyond academic education.While Bangladesh has developed an extensive network of primary and secondary schools in rural areas, there has been no real systematic effort to provide activities outside the classroom. During the planting and harvesting seasons, children spend most of their free time in agricultural activities. However, at other times of the year children are unoccupied after school. Concerned about idleness and mischief, parents have expressed a growing interest in having planned activities for their children, but they have not found an affordable option.
There are also traditional concerns about appropriate activities for young boys and girls. Questions have been raised as to whether organizing activities will spoil children, and if any effort of this sort is alien, foreign, and therefore unacceptable to the culture. In such a climate, outside groups with top-down programs have less chance of making an impact.
Iqbal is building children's centers in the rural area peripheral to the port of Chittagong, a major trafficking center in South Asia. Iqbal works through the children's centers and with the local imams to help the community organize watchdog groups to guard against child kidnapping and sale.
Each of Iqbal's centers has 25 members, 20 from fee-paying families and five from families who are not. Each village has two centers–one for girls and one for boys. The 25 members elect five ministers: a Prime Minister, a Minister of Sports, a Minister of Information, a Minister of Health, and a Minister of Education. Each minister is responsible for five members within his or her ministry.
Iqbal provides each group with basic sports equipment, cricket bats and balls, as well as board games and jump ropes. He keeps this equipment at the home of the Prime Minister, where there is also a small lending library. Each center has a college student facilitator, who visits once every two weeks to plan activities, talk with the mothers, and coordinate games or competitions with other centers. For their work facilitators collect dues from the mothers and receive a salary from Iqbal's organization. Under the supervision of the relevant minister, the children are responsible for planning and carrying out each day's activity. Activities range from sports to debate, to writing competitions, to health education. As an offshoot of each center, Iqbal's organization has set up mothers' groups. Sometimes these groups meet to discuss the functioning of the centers. At other times they meet to discuss issues of general concern.
Iqbal has surveyed the surrounding area and believes that there is the potential in nearby villages to increase the number of centers to 450. He will need to train another 35 facilitators, but Iqbal feels that the expansion will be quick, as most of the program design has been tested. Nearby villages are aware of his program and have even visited to see it in action. There is now a backlog of demand for Iqbal's centers.
Iqbal is also working with other civil society organizations to expand his program to other districts. The key to the program's success will be the trust established between the civil organizations that run local nonformal schools and their communities. Iqbal will screen and choose those organizations that seem to have the highest quality standards and the most motivated staff. He plans to subsidize his expansion work with a "set up" fee charged to the citizen sector organization that he trains to replicate his program.
Iqbal also feels that the Shishu Academy (SA), the government department that works with children, and Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the only national child's rights forum in the country, are strong potential partners since SA has offices in all 64 districts and BSAF has 130 members spread across the country. He believes that the sustainability of the program will generate great interest. In the next five years, he envisions each of the other divisions having at least one branch, i.e., a total of 450 child centers, and every year 20 children will be selected from the respective branches to form a children's parliament.
Iqbal's talent for organizing young people manifested itself when he was young. As a class five student, he established Kachi Kachar Mela to organize children to clean roadside culverts. While still a child, he led other children to help clear remains from a village fire and organized a football team using his own Eid festival money. In class eight, he was elected literature editor and established a wall newspaper. And, in 1981, as the student council's elected Assistant General Secretary, he arranged a winter sports competition.
While studying at Sir AT College, Iqbal continued to focus on village-level activities for youth by organizing art, essay, and debate competitions for nearby schools. From 1988 to 1996 he coordinated youth volunteers to organize innovative four-day village fairs that focused on health, sanitation, education, and other development issues. He helped support these fairs by selling lucky prize coupons and by collecting in-kind material donations. Around the same time, between 1986 and 1993, Iqbal also pursued his master's degree in accounting.
In 1989 Iqbal established a community clinic providing EPI (immunization) services to mothers and children through which he held an EPI fair to build awareness about immunization services and benefits. A survey found that his EPI program had the best coverage in his working area. This community clinic later evolved into CRCD in 1991. Through the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Iqbal gained support for establishing much needed nonformal schools. After working in the villages over a number of years, setting up 150 schools, Iqbal gained the trust of the people in the district. When Iqbal saw the need for after-school services, he approached the mothers in his school communities to see if they would be willing to pay a small fee for children's centers. Their trust in him is a fundamental part of his program's success.