Creating a New Reality, One Street at a Time

Photo by: Plan International USA
Written by Dr. Tessie San Martin, president & CEO, and Kate Ezzes, Program Manger of Youth & Economic Empowerment, Plan International USA

If you closed your eyes you would believe you are listening to a group of experienced urban planners outlining their solutions to bring sanitation, lighting, and a sustainable water system to one of Dhaka’s largest urban slums. When you open your eyes you quickly realize that you are listening a group of experienced urban planners; however, they are all volunteers and no member is over the age of 20. Their insights do not come from years of education, but from a keen ability to reflect on their daily struggles and turn those challenges into actionable solutions.

Match Colony is a well know slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is called Match Colony because of the match factory that used to be located in the area. Everyone in the community worked at, and depended on, the match factory. The factory either moved or closed down, depending on who you ask. But, when it closed, it left the land to area workers. Other factories are now located there, including tool and dye factories, which spill toxic chemical waste through the alleys, creating smells and a burning sensation to the eyes. 

To some, this may sound like something out of Charles Dickens. But, it is not even close. The youth of Match Colony will not be deterred. They have big dreams for improving the conditions in their community. The youth group in Match Colony, with support from Plan International Bangladesh, are making plans to improve their community and make it safer for children and youth, specifically girls. They have developed, with the support of Plan-provided sanitation engineer advisors, plans for a cost effective solution to address water-logging in the main thoroughfares (“water-logging” is an increasingly common phenomenon in the slum where many main streets remain flooded after the rains due to poor/nonexistent drainage; the stagnant water breeds disease and precipitates accidents). They have also developed detailed mapping of all the existing water connections, water collection, and distribution points in the neighborhood with a view to improving water access and water quality. They have developed plans for well pump renovations and latrines. They are also seeking to create a more secure environment for children, especially girls. One of their projects is putting lights in the darker main thoroughfares to drive away crime. 

They shared with us their plans, drawn with an astonishing level of detail. They call themselves champions. They are seeing possibilities to improve life for themselves, their families, and their friends.  They do not accept today’s reality as permanent.

Plan is raising money to support some of these initiatives. But, ultimately, their long-term success and sustainability will depend on obtaining the support of the South Dhaka City Corporation. It is the city that needs to provide the money and resources to address drainage, pay for the city lights and maintenance, and improve water quality. But, the youth are raising awareness about what needs to get done. Their surveys on water connections and water quality are shedding light on the community’s problems and creating a case for action; they are holding the government accountable. The politics of city hall can be pretty intense but the youth are not deterred, they are determined to create an opportunity to be heard by those in power.  

Match Colony is Plan youth programming at its best. It is not about telling the youth what needs to be done, but about building their self-confidence and creating space for them to articulate what they want to see happen. Sure, we provide experts to support some of the more technical aspects of their planning and survey work, but the staff and technical experts are not the ones in control. We are in a supporting function. The Match Colony youth group will not be deterred. This is all about their future. And, they have taken control.