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The narrow River Magra appears naïve and peaceful from the distant as its snakes it way along the villages near Netrokona Sadar. As the sun moves towards mid-sky, village women along with their children are seen taking a dip in the river. While the mothers dry their hairs, sitting on the shore, the children continue their waddle in the water nearby.
A UNICEF study shows that it is during such unwary moments an adventurous child may venture out in the middle of the river and drown, because s/he does not know how to swim. Often another child who runs to his/her playmate’s rescue also drowns as s/he is pulled down by the weight of the child in danger. In most cases these incidents occur between morning and afternoon when elders are not around and young children and toddlers are left at the care of their older siblings.
It was once such afternoon, five years ago, when Bilkis Begum lost her two-year-old son, whose body was later found in a pond near her house. Leaning against a tree, she narrated the story of her child’s untimely death and explained why she enrolled her youngest son, 7-year-old Riad in Unicef’s SwimSafe programme, in Panchananpur, Netrokona. “Now I don’t have to worry about Riad being in danger of drowning. Plus he can rescue others who faces such dangers,” she says.
Riad has received swimming lessons and learned rescue technique last year from his village’s community swimming instructor. “I can swim 25 metres at a stretch and float in water for 30 secs,” said SwimSafe 2012 swimming graduate proudly. “If someone falls into water I would first shout and call elders for help. If possible, I will throw a bamboo, rope, football or any other floating object for the person to grab, by kneeling down at shore. I won’t jump into water to save the person and endanger my life,” he recounted the lessons he learned at the programme.
In rural areas where incident of deaths from drowning is high, the SwimSafe programme, equip children like Riad between the age of 4-10 with life saving techniques through 21 simple steps according to SwimSafe’s manual developed by the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, UNICEF Bangladesh, Royal Life Saving Society Australia, Bangladesh Swimming Federation and CIPRB.
Launched in 2005 the SwimSafe programme has targeted to impart swimming and rescue lessons to 60000 children in eight districts —Rangpur, Borguna, Netrokona, Jamalpur, Sirajganj, Coxesbazar, Khulna and Dhaka— this year. Last year they had taught 63000 children with the help of implementing organisations — Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB) Building Resource Across Communities (BRAC) and Centre for Mass Education in Science (CMES). “Between 2012 and 2016 we have targeted to impart these lessons to 3 lakh children in Bangladesh” said Syed Imtiaz Ahmed, Child Protection officer, Unicef.
Selim Miah, area coordinator of Netrokona, SwimSafe projectsaid that swimming is taught in 61 villages of six upazilas of Natrokona where the project has targets to impart swimming lessons and rescue techniques to 15000 children this year. “In every village there is a young male and a female community swimming instructor (CSI),” he said. “In January and February we carry out the recruitment and pond selection process.” He explained how village meeting is carried out with community leaders and local government representatives to create awareness about drowning and the necessity of the SwimSafe programme. “Villagers then refer young men and women of the community who are good swimmers,” said Selim. “However, while recruiting we check if he or she is fit and can swim at least 100 metres without break.” After recruitment CSIs carry out a baseline survey in the villages to enlist children aged between 4-10, their gender, swimming knowledge and such. “Our survey shows that almost 60 percent children do not know how to swim,” said Selim.
Seventeen-year- old Shapna Akhter was recruited last year as CSI. “I knew dog s wimming. After joining this programme I learned free style swimming, which allows you to swim for a longer time without losing too much energy,” she said. Shapna is one of the adolescent CSIs of SwimSafe. “Before I was just an ordinary girl, now people in the area respect me and come to me for advice when they suffer minor injuries like burns and cuts,” she added. Besides a 5-day long basic training on swimming and rescue, CSIs are also trained on Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid. They are given Tk100 as honorarium for every child they teach.
During the rainy seasons between May to October, swimming and rescue lessons are imparted to children everyday in groups of 15 for two hours. “A child on average needs 12 days to learn these techniques,” informed Mahboob Alam, a 22-year-old CSI who worked in a pharmacy. He took five children to an enclosure in one side of a pond, surrounded by bamboo, which is a swimming structure installed in ponds with a ramp entry into the water and a shallow water platform for children to practice skills before advancing to deeper water. Community support is an integral part of SwimSafe’s programme. “Village people maintain and guard the swimming structure. They also provide their pond for free, forgoing the income they could have earned by leasing it out for fish farming otherwise,” said Selim.
Mohammad Moti Miah had failed to teach his son Anwar Miah swimming because he was afraid to go into the water. But he took up the challenge when he saw his peers taking swimming lessons under SwimSafe. “He can now cross the Magra and I do not have to worry about him getting drowned” Moti said with relief.