This may not be the best time to return to Bangladesh. The monsoon is only days away, the temperature is nearing 100, and the political climate is not much cooler. India has exploded five nuclear bombs (sorry - devices) and Pakistan is threatening retaliation.
The capital, Dhaka, has certainly expanded in six years and, impossibly, appears even more crowded. I am here as a consultant to the Commonwealth, which has organised a regional meeting on good practice in implementing the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It is the most widely ratified human rights treaty protecting children's civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in the world. The participants at the meeting will include representatives of governments and non-governmental organisations from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Maldives.
The conference is opened by the minister of women and children and by a reading from the Koran. Dhaka has become more Islamic in the past six years with an increase in the number of mosques. Bangladesh is keen to protect the rights of children, whom it sees as its future. It has made great strides in increasing child literacy. To overcome cultural stereotypes it is providing free scholarships for girls living in rural areas. This makes sense, but one wonders what happens to girls living in urban slums.
I present the opening paper, and the governments appear particularly interested in the possibilities of a national children's budget, an ombudsman or commissioner for children and the recent criticism of Egypt and Indonesia by the UN committee on the rights of the child because of the proportion of the national budget both countries spend on defence as compared to social issues.
The different countries report on their own examples of good and innovative practice in protecting children's rights. There are obvious tensions between some of the Indian and Pakistani delegates and between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is eager to demonstrate just how much it has achieved since independence from Pakistan and is very open to advice. Six years ago the Commonwealth organised a workshop in Bangladesh on the sexual exploitation of women and children. At that time it was very much an undiscussed problem. Now the newspapers carry pictures of women demonstrating on the street against sexual abuse. This is extraordinary progress, as you do not see many individual women out on the streets in an average day. Why there is so much sexual violence against women and girls in Bangladesh has never been properly investigated. Every day the newspapers carry three or four stories about rape, and sometimes the girls commit suicide. In an attempt to deal with such abuse Bangladesh has passed the Oppression of Women and Children Act but, incredibly, some of the attacks have been in the courts and in the police stations.
The Maldives are asked how they deal with children working in factories. Their answer is simple. They do not have any factories. A Bangla cultural evening has been arranged. It is opposite the University of Dhaka. The children are all from an academy devoted to Bangla culture, and the dancing and the rhythms are exquisite. They have also composed a piece on children's rights. It is a very heartwarming feeling to see children responding so enthusiastically to a treaty that you helped draft. In the final dance, which is described as a dance of national liberation, a girl appears on stage carrying a gun. I brace myself for the inevitable British foe but am told that the dance symbolises 1971 and liberation from Pakistan. Bangladesh regards itself as "twice liberated" - first from us Brits and then from Pakistan. The dance is not so well received by the Pakistani delegation.
I search out a Bangladeshi boy, whom I saw begging on the street yesterday, to give him some takas. Yesterday his eyes looked so desperate as he graphically mimed his hunger by the act of feeding with his hand.
I notice the boy is not in his usual place today and hope he has bought some food and shelter. An agenda for action has been drafted and one of the provisions calls for a regional forum to cooperate on the implementation of children's rights. The conference closes with a formal dinner. I am seated next to a Bangladeshi minister who compliments me on the Bangladeshi hand-embroidered salwar kameez that I am wearing. He advises me on the different types of saris that I should wear. I try to imagine his male British ministerial counterpart being so knowledgeable about British couture.
Geraldine Van Bueren Director of the programme on the international rights of the child, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.