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The gangs of Bangladesh: Exploring organized crime, street gangs and 'illicit child labourers' in Dhaka

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Abstract

This article presents a study of street children’s involvement in organized crime in Bangladesh. It is based on an empirical case study conducted in Dhaka and draws on interviews with 22 street children, 80 interviews with criminal justice practitioners, NGO workers and community members and over three years of participant observation of the Bangladeshi criminal justice system and wider society. The article explains how street children work for ‘mastaans’, Bangladeshi organized crime bosses. These children are hired to carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money, commit political violence and conduct contract killings. This article argues that these children are neither victims nor offenders; they are instead ‘illicit labourers’, doing what they can to survive on the streets.
Criminology & Criminal Justice
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© The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1748895815616445
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The gangs of Bangladesh:
Exploring organized crime,
street gangs and ‘illicit child
labourers’ in Dhaka
Sally Atkinson-Sheppard
The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, UK
Abstract
This article presents a study of street children’s involvement in organized crime in Bangladesh. It
is based on an empirical case study conducted in Dhaka and draws on interviews with 22 street
children, 80 interviews with criminal justice practitioners, NGO workers and community members
and over three years of participant observation of the Bangladeshi criminal justice system and
wider society. The article explains how street children work for ‘mastaans’, Bangladeshi organized
crime bosses. These children are hired to carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money,
commit political violence and conduct contract killings. This article argues that these children are
neither victims nor offenders; they are instead ‘illicit labourers’, doing what they can to survive
on the streets.
Keywords
Bangladesh, child labour, gangs, organized crime, street children
Introduction
Criminologists argue that there are certain conditions that predispose a locality, whether
it be a neighbourhood, city or country, to organized crime and gangs (Hagedorn, 2008).
Bangladesh suffers from many of these conditions, notably a fragile state (Riaz, 2005),
endemic poverty and pervasive slums (Lewis, 2012). The stability of the country is
precarious; it is vulnerable to climate change and disasters, both natural and man-made
(Van Schendel, 2009). So what does this mean for the involvement of street children in
organized crime?
Corresponding author:
Sally Atkinson-Sheppard, The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, Somerset House East Wing,
London, WC2R 2LS, UK.
Email: sallyatkinsonsheppard@yahoo.co.uk
616445CRJ0010.1177/1748895815616445Criminology & Criminal JusticeAtkinson-Sheppard
research-article2015
Article
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2 Criminology & Criminal Justice
There have been hardly any studies conducted in Bangladesh which explore gangs or
organized crime. The reasons for this are unclear but the fact remains that while scholars
have long debated gangs in the USA, and increasingly in other countries, this research
offers the first robust empirical study of the gangs of Bangladesh. Because so little is
known about organized crime in Bangladesh, there is no way to assess how these groups
operate, the hierarchies that exist among them or the role children play in these criminal
businesses. This article fills these lacunae.
During an extensive review of the literature, I discovered that children who become
involved in armed conflict or criminal activity are commonly described as gang mem-
bers, child soldiers or victims of exploitation. However, none of these terms sufficiently
explain what happens to children in Dhaka. This article proposes an alternative view:
street children, who operate at the bottom echelon of Bangladesh’s organized crime
groups, are ‘illicit labourers’; that is, unskilled or semi-skilled workers in criminal
enterprises. This article will consider why this proposition better explains the work
children do and why they do it.
The first section of this article considers the relevant literature to this discussion of
children’s involvement in organized crime. The second section deliberates the methods
used in this study. The third section discusses the research findings, including the types
of crimes that street children are hired to commit and the backgrounds of these children’s
lives. The conclusion draws together the main arguments within this article and considers
the implications of this research for policy, practice and future research.
Organized crime and gangs
Scholars have long debated the organization of crime. Mary McIntosh (1975: 7) was
one of the first to do so in 1975 when she argued that ‘crime is a collective activity’ and
that it is important to consider how criminals organize themselves and the crimes that
they commit. But what makes the organization of crime so significant for this article?
First, understanding criminal organizations in Bangladesh helps us to recognize how
criminal groups operate. Second, it enables an understanding of the division of labour
within these groups (McIntosh, 1975: 7). Lastly, it allows the development of a framework
through which to understand how crime groups are managed, how gang members are
ordered and how children are exploited.
The question of what constitutes organized crime has been highly contested over the
years, and the violence these groups commit has dominated political and social rhetoric
in many countries (Levi, 2012). Many academics argue that street-based gangs operate
as the lower echelons of organized crime groups (Levitt and Venkatesh, 2000). In 2006,
Hallsworth and Young proposed that group offending occurs in three distinctive clusters:
peer groups; gangs; and organized crime. They argued that gangs often begin as peer
groups but that some gangs become organized crime groups. This view is supported
empirically in several studies in the United Kingdom (Densley, 2012; Harris et al., 2012),
in Indonesia (Alcano, 2014) and South America (Rodgers and Baird, 2015).
While there is a general consensus that many gangs begin as peer groups involved
in recreation few studies explore the specific involvement of street children in gangs
or organized crime. However, some studies do reference ‘gang-like’ behaviour of street
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Atkinson-Sheppard 3
children and the subcultures they form and develop (i.e. Awad, 2002). In Indonesia,
Beazley (2003) argues that street children create their own subculture and develop
their own norms, values and ways of surviving. In Cape Town a similar picture emerged
from Hansson’s (2003) study, which found that ‘stroller’ bands have distinct hierarchies
and territories and a subculture that helps children survive on the streets. Heinonen
(2011) argues that gangs in Ethiopia do not necessarily provide their members with
consistent support, but children join and leave groups frequently. She argues that ‘they
are not a counter-culture or subculture but a distorted microcosm of Ethiopian society’
(2011: 150).
Street children and child labour
Hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of children live on the streets in Bangladesh
(AUSAID, 2005) and according to the Bangladesh Police Force (2008) the numbers of
street-involved children are set to rise to over 1.6 million by 2024. However, it is necessary
to remain cautious. The term ‘street child’ is problematic for many reasons; children
who live on the streets have different characteristics, backgrounds and personalities,
their lives change and they grow up (Aptekar, 1988). Furthermore, some street children
move from place to place while others remain in one location (Ennew and Swart-Kruger,
2003). To view street children as a homogenous group means that the unique needs they
have may be missed and the realities of their lives misunderstood (Ennew and Swart-
Kruger, 2003).1
Considering the connections that children have on and with the streets is a useful way
to conceptualize their lives and the problems they face (Thomas de Benitez, 2011). Thus
this article uses the term ‘street child’ to describe young people with a range of ‘street
connections’ (ibid.). The child participants of this study did live on the streets, in slums
or in make-shift accommodation. However, they also spent a great deal of time ‘off the
streets and at an organization. I thus propose that if the term street child is to be used, as
it is in this article, then it must be done with a consideration of the nature of life on the
streets, and the connections that children make while living there.
Work is a reality for millions of Bangladeshi children, particularly those who live
on the streets (Ruwanpura and Roncolato, 2006). According to UNICEF (2010: 5) child
labour includes: ‘Work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age
of the child and on the type of work.’ A number of children also work in jobs that exploit
them. The International Labour Organization (ILO, 1999: 1) and The Worst Forms of
Child Labour Convention 1999 (No. 182) define exploitative child labour as:
1. All forms of slavery/sale or trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom,
forced or compulsory labour including forced or compulsory recruitment for use
in armed conflict.
2. The use, procuring or offering a child for prostitution.
3. The use, planning or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the
production and trafficking of drugs defined in the relevant international treaties.
4. Work, which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely
to harm the health, safety or morals of children.2
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4 Criminology & Criminal Justice
However, while the ILO definition does mention the involvement of children in armed
conflict it includes no reference to children who are hired to conduct specific activities
of organized crime groups; something this article will argue is a serious omission.
A review of the literature reveals several things: first, violence is a predominant feature
in the lives of street children (Thomas de Benitez, 2007). Second, there is a gap between
knowledge of gangs, which comes from criminology, and street children discourse, which
usually comes from development studies or anthropology. Lastly, despite the extent of
available literature, more knowledge is needed. There is very little published about street
children’s views on gangs or organized crime, particularly in Bangladesh.
Data and methods
The fieldwork for this case study consisted of several components, broadly split into the
following three phases.
Phase 1: Participant observation
I conducted a total of three years’ worth of participant observation, most of which
occurred while I worked for an international development organization in Dhaka which
specializes in prison and police reform. This observation was essential to understanding
the social, political, economic and cultural factors that provide the context to this study.
Phase 2: Interviews with adult practitioners
I carried out a total of 80 interviews (38 semi-structured and 42 unstructured) and two
focus groups, the first with six participants and the second with five. The participants
included police officers, senior prison officers, military security officers, paralegals,
NGO workers, police and prison reform workers, journalists, diplomats and community
members.
Phase 3: An embedded case study of street children and the organization
that supports them
There were 22 children involved in this case study. There were 10 girls and 12 boys and
their ages ranged from eight to 15. All were associated with an organization that provides
holistic support to children that live on the streets. The organization delivers education
and a variety of other services supporting the children’s development, from food and
clothing to art, social skills and basic counselling. All 22 children reside at the centre
from Sunday to Thursday,3 returning home to the streets at the weekend. This system
provides consistency and safety for the children, saves their parents (or guardians) precious
money in accommodation and food costs and helps the organization to manage health
and behavioural problems.
Consent was gained from all of the children. They were given a consent form and an
information sheet. They spoke little English, so both forms were translated into Bengali.
The children were not paid and were very keen to share their views on this subject.
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Atkinson-Sheppard 5
Participant observation was carried out over 12 months, during which time I visited
the organization on a weekly basis (January 2012 to January 2013). I carried out obser-
vation of the children, their relationships with one another and the organization. I also
held parties and played games to get to know the children and to build trust and rapport
between us.
Five workshops were then conducted with all 22 children. They were designed to be
interactive, fun and young person-led and were used as a precursor to the formal inter-
views. I then carried out eight semi-structured group interviews with the children which
focused specifically on gangs and organized crime. Group interviews were favoured
over individual interviews to encourage children to discuss issues, gain confidence and
challenge one anothers opinions (Lewis, 1992). However, certain issues need to be
overcome in group interviews, such as ensuring that each child has the time and space
to express his or her own views and does not align themselves with others in the group
(Lewis, 1992). I mitigated these issues by asking each child to answer a question and
then asked them to discuss, as a group any differences in opinion. The small numbers in
the interviews helped me to tackle these issues and I made sure that every participant
had the chance to express their views.
Organized crime, violence and criminality were key themes discussed within the
interviews. However, the questions were focused on explaining types of behaviour as
opposed to revealing details of offences. I did not, for example, ask the children to
disclose specifically their association with a mastaan group. I asked participants not to
name any associates or people who may have been involved in previous offending or
reveal any details of the offending of others. This resulted in discussions which focused
on the children’s perceptions of gangs and organized crime rather than on the children’s
individual stories and lives.
Research findings
The study considered the labels that Bangladeshis use to describe organized criminals,
the ‘mastaans’ and hierarchies that exist among these groups. I considered Hallsworth
and Young’s (2006) hierarchy of organized crime but propose a modified pyramid:
organized crime in Dhaka operates via a hierarchy consisting of three main echelons. The
first echelon is mastaans, Bangladesh’s organized crime bosses. The second echelon is
gangs who exist on the streets. The third level is street children, the illicit workers of
these groups, who are involved in some of the worst forms of child labour.
The data demonstrated that mastaan groups operate criminal businesses with clearly
defined roles, responsibilities and ways to earn and divide profits. Groups are headed by
a mastaan who is supported by a right-hand man or assistant who controls the lower
echelons of the crime group. Furthermore, mastaans operate in every slum in Dhaka;
they control these poor areas and the people who live among them by extorting money,
and in return providing slum-dwellers with access to basic services. Mastaans conduct
their activities in collusion with politicians, who provide them with immunity. Mastaans
give politicians a share of the extortion money and provide ‘political muscle’, threats,
violence and intimidation on the streets to secure votes and muster political support.
Mastaans use gangs to control areas of the city and vulnerable children operate the lowest
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6 Criminology & Criminal Justice
echelon of these groups. These children are hired to conduct political violence, ‘grab’
land, carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money and commit murder.
Street children and vulnerability
The fieldwork data illustrated two main factors, both of which are essential in understand-
ing why street children become the illicit labourers of mastaan groups: the children’s
vulnerability and their need to earn money to survive. The children in this study were
particularly vulnerable and thus representative of many street children in Dhaka. Before
their engagement with the centre most of the children lived in make-shift accommodation
in slums or on the streets (and still return to these places at the weekend). In 2012 a report
was produced by an American university4 as part of a review into the effectiveness of the
organization. The 2012 report stated that before engaging with the organization the chil-
dren rarely had adequate clothes and often missed meals. All of the children worked on
the streets. They had never attended school and their families relied on their income to
survive. The children’s jobs included: recycling; street-selling; domestic service; and beg-
ging (Organization Report, 2012). Many of the children suffered from health problems,
including skin disease, injuries resulting from traffic accidents, respiratory infections and
hepatitis (Organization Report, 2012). Drug use and domestic violence were prevalent
among their families and nearly half the young people reported regular physical abuse by
a sibling, parent or guardian (Organization Report, 2012). The children also reported
many instances of police brutality both in the Organization Report and this study. Sexual
abuse was also described to be prevalent on the streets (Organization Report, 2012).
Peer groups
Street children often join or form groups with other street children because of the risks
and vulnerability they face on the streets (Conticini, 2005). These groups offer solidarity
and companionship and are necessary for survival. However, many of these children
quickly become involved in criminality. Differentiating between groups that were
involved in crime and those that were not proved difficult for the child interviewees, but
they did feel that it was unlikely that crime is carried out alone.
In this instance, comparisons can be made with the ‘adolescent peer groups’ (Hallsworth
and Young, 2006) discussed earlier; these children are adolescents, they have ‘peers’, they
operate in groups and some are involved in low level offending. Analysis of the fieldwork
data suggests that the types of crime that small groups of street children commit include
pickpocketing and shoplifting. Young street children carry out robberies on pedestrians or
on people riding in rickshaws. Children also fight with other children, either within their
own group or with children from neighbouring areas. They take and sell drugs, such as
phensidyl, an illegal painkiller, and locally made alcohol. These children have no direct
relationship with gangs or mastaans.
Child labour
Street children also carry out crime because they are hired by mastaans and gang
members to do so. They have roles, responsibilities and a boss. They are exploited and
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Atkinson-Sheppard 7
are a commodity; they work for mastaans and are engaged in some of the worst
forms of child labour. There are two main components necessary in order to understand
street children’s involvement in mastaan groups. First, the interviewees conceptualized
involvement in crime groups as work for street children rather than crime. Second,
mastaan groups have clearly defined structures, hierarchies, bosses and mechanisms for
sharing profit. This means that the children who work for them believe themselves to be
engaged in a business.
Perceptions of work. The interviewees were well informed about the practice of hiring
children to commit crime; they described it as a normal and intrinsic part of Bangladeshi
society. Children can be hired to work, which also means that criminals can hire children
to carry out crime or violence for them. A community member explained further:
They are poor, this is their job. As they get older they look to see who is making the money
and they see gang members earning money by selling drugs and because they need the money
too, they will join. The street boys are very poor and hungry, they need to get money. They see
selling drugs as their job.5
This shows that poverty draws young people in to crime and how crime is perceived.
A strong theme to emerge from this study was that the participants conceptualized involve-
ment with mastaan groups as work and made no mention of the fact that the work that
street children are hired to do involves committing crime. The following quotation, from
a young person explains how it is possible to rent a child to conduct a contract killing:
You can rent someone to kill someone else for you. You can hire a 10-year-old to kill someone for
you! But it goes up, you can hire older children too. The age is not fixed, it’s more dependent on
how much you can pay them. But it is possible to just rent someone to kill, actually, it’s really easy.6
Hiring someone to commit crime is relatively simple, but having money determines how
easy this process is. Furthermore, the children involved in this study normalized this behav-
iour and explained that hiring children to conduct murder is part of life on the streets.
The structure of mastaan groups. The structure of mastaan groups relates closely to why
the interviewees conceptualized crime as labour. Divisions of work mean that people
within mastaan groups have roles and responsibilities that transfer all the way down to
the streets and the children who live there. The children often have specific roles such as
drug runner or weapon carrier. A young person explained further:
There is a boss, a group leader and there are jobs for people, like you are going to a market and
you will steal this thing and you are going to a shop and steal this. The boys steal things and
then give what they stole to their boss. This is their job; in this way they earn some money.7
Other participants spoke of how labour is divided which is often based on the age and
abilities of the workers:
For fighting, mastaans use children eight to 15 years old. This is because these boys are so
small. If these boys are caught and are punished and if they are beaten then they could die and
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8 Criminology & Criminal Justice
this is one of the reasons why the mastaans don’t use them for killing. When the mastaans want
someone to do something like stealing or murder they will use older boys because if someone
tries to catch them and beat them they can run away fast and they can tolerate a beating much
better than the younger boys.8
Furthermore, because mastaan groups operate as criminal businesses, they have
structures to share profits and commission. A female aged 14, explained further:
They work together and when they get something or when they earn money they have to give
it to their boss and then their boss gives them some commission. And then they share it within
their group and this is the way they earn money.9
The fieldwork data demonstrated that the street children who work for mastaan groups
always have a boss. One young person explained that children commit crime because
‘they do it like a job, the boss orders them and they have to follow them. Just like a job.’10
The boss controls the group and is distinguished from other members because he often
has weapons that he may use to threaten or control the group: ‘the boss has the gun, the
power. That’s why the juniors obey him. That’s why he is the boss.’11 Younger members
are often fearful of their boss:
They are scared. The boss makes them do things: he shows them the power and shows that he
has the gun so they have to do what he says. The boys do their duty, they commit crime and they
give the boss the money.12
Nevertheless, the fieldwork data also illustrated that some children actively choose to
join gangs because of the earning potential these groups provide:
Boys do it to earn money, they don’t sell flowers because it is more profitable to sell drugs, that
is why the 15 to 18-year-old boys join bigger groups, then they make bigger plans for crime and
earning money.13
In making these decisions, children demonstrate a degree of control over their lives, and
consider which jobs are most likely to help them survive.
Street children for hire
This section considers the types of crime that mastaans hire children to commit. It begins
with a discussion of land grabbing, and then moves on to deliberate street children’s
involvement in political violence. However, street children are also hired by mastaans to
sell drugs, collect extortion money and commit contract killings so this section also
explores the ways in which these offences occur and the role that street children play in
these crimes.
Land grabbing. Bangladesh has struggled for years with land ownership conflicts
(Feldman and Geisler, 2011). In many instances the term ‘land grabbing’ is used to
describe ‘involuntary land transfer’ (Feldman and Geisler, 2011: 3) but land grabbing
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Atkinson-Sheppard 9
is a contested term (Borras and Franco, 2010). However, Feldman and Geisler (2011)
argue that whatever it is called, land grabs disproportionally affect the poor.
Land grabbing often occurs in slums where ‘violent disputes over land result in evic-
tion, arson, loss of property and lives’ (Shafi, 2010: 138). This leads to a breakdown in
security in these areas and affects poor people who struggle to protect their land (Shafi,
2010). Street children are often hired by mastaans to ‘grab land’ by occupying a piece of
land to which they have no legal right. Young people, on the direct orders of mastaan
bosses, literally occupy space in slums. They remain there until the landowner is forced
to give the land up. This physical presence and threat of a mastaan means that people are
often quickly coerced into relinquishing their land. The plot can then be sold or occupied
by slum dwellers. One young person was particularly well informed about this practice:
Sometimes they hijack the land. Say a man has land and the documents are in his name then a
mastaan will go to the man, with his group, and say ‘give me the land otherwise we will beat
you’. Then what is the man supposed to do? He has to give his land to them. If he refuses the
mastaans use young street boys to stay on the land and fight for it. The mastaan always wins.14
Another participant, an adult, agreed and explained how land grabbing occurs:
If there is some land that I have purchased but I am not using the land they [the mastaans] can
get the land forcefully and since I don’t have power then I cannot get them out of my land. It is
a huge business. They use street boys because it is easy. If the opposition is stronger and there
is a killing while occupying the land it doesn’t matter because they kill the street children, not
the mastaans.15
This indicates the vulnerability of street children and the consequences of their involve-
ment in land grabbing. Many discussions held about the worst forms of child labour
highlight the importance of protecting children from work that harms them (The Hague
Global Child Labour Conference, 2010). Street children face many risks when engaging
in land grabbing because mastaans know that in the event of a dispute, it will be the
children who will face the repercussions.
Political violence and ‘hartals’. Bangladesh has a chaotic political situation and political
parties often call ‘hartals’ (enforced political strikes) to bring the country to a standstill.
Hartals are conducted for days and even weeks on end, include mass political rallies and
a shutdown of public transport (‘Violence marks Jamaat’s Hartal’, 2012). Hartals are
widely feared among Bangladeshis because they repeatedly result in violence on the
streets. It is common practice for people to stay at home during these demonstrations,
rather than go into work or school, to avoid the unrest. The fieldwork data illustrated that
street children are hired by mastaans to work on behalf of politicians to cause disturbance
at political demonstrations, burn buses and throw bombs:
When there is a call of hartal then street children are hired because they can easily set fire to a
bus, it doesn’t matter to them. Because they are living by the rules of others, they don’t have
their own resources to live. They think there is no difference in going to jail or living on the
streets.16
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This quotation highlights that these children are a vulnerable, cheap and easily accessible
labour force. It also demonstrates the predicament of these children and their state of
mind by highlighting how prison is not a deterrent due to their living conditions on the
streets. Furthermore, street children rarely have any specific association within politics,
despite engaging in political violence as another participant explained:
They [the children] have no political ideology; they are the bottom of the criminal pyramid.
They are often killed, taken to prison and because they have no direct political backing they
are often sent to jail. Their motivation is purely monetary to survive. They are for sale, to the
biggest bidder.17
This quotation outlines why it is important to conceptualize street children’s involvement
in mastaan groups as illicit labour, rather than crime. Vulnerable children need money to
survive and one way to earn it is to become involved in political violence. There is no
consideration for the rights or safety of these street children. A journalist aptly described
these children as ‘the pawns in the political situation’.18
Drug dealing. Bangladesh is an Islamic country and prohibits the use of alcohol. However,
reports suggest that wine and spirits are produced illegally and that alcohol is abused
(UNODC, 2005). Opium, heroin and cannabis are regularly consumed in Bangladesh but
the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, which often enter from India, pose the country’s
largest problem (UNODC, 2005). Analysis of the fieldwork data showed that mastaan
groups play an important part in this drug market, smuggling drugs into the country and
selling them on the streets.
Street children often act as drug dealers, sometimes for small groups, but more often
as the runners for mastaan groups. One participant explained this in more depth:
A mastaan buys drugs at a wholesale rate and then he sells it. By doing this he earns huge
money but it is boys aged 18 to 20 who do this, the smaller ones just help them, they just carry
the drugs and the bigger ones sell them.19
In terms of the division of labour, it is common for gang members to hold different
positions and have varying responsibilities related to selling drugs:
There are different roles for different people in the group: one is a supplier, one is a look out,
one is for home deliveries. Now people don’t want to go to the spots so they get drugs delivered
to their homes. There are lots of altercations regarding distribution of profit.20
The current study found that children’s involvement in drug dealing is conceptualized,
by many young people, as a job and a viable way to make money on the streets. Children
act as the workers of crime groups, they sell drugs for a share of the profit. Their bosses
are gang members, who act on behalf of mastaans.
Extortion and ‘toll’ collecting. Mastaans are involved in large-scale extortion where they
exploit slum dwellers and force them to pay a ‘toll’ or ‘tax’. Because the areas in which
they carry out extortion are so large – slums with often millions of inhabitants – they hire
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Atkinson-Sheppard 11
gangs and street children to collect the money for them, an example of one of the worst
forms of child labour. The children were well informed about this practice as the follow-
ing quotation explains:
There are so many sources of earning money. Mastaans collect money from stalls and stores,
they collect tax, they say give me the money or you cannot open your shop; and if you don’t
give them money then you are not allowed to open your shop. There are so many hawkers,
people selling things on the footpath, and they take money from all of them. In our word we call
this ‘chanda’. It’s like a tax or a toll.
Researcher: Who do they collect the money for?
They collect the money for the big mastaan.21
The practice of toll collecting can occur within a structure of organized crime but the
participants also gave other examples of how young people use it as a source of earning
and as a way to control and exploit others. A young male participant provided an example
of how this occurs:
A few days ago, I was near a pond which is close to where I live. In the pond there are many
fish, so me and my friends went to catch them. After catching fish we always sell them. We
were sitting on the road and boys kept coming to us and saying give me the money, give me the
chanda.
Researcher: What is chanda?
Toll collecting, they are always collecting the tolls. It’s like a rent. The mastaans say if you want
to sit here you have to give me the rent. I didn’t want to give them then rent so I just sat there
and thought I won’t give them money because it is mine. A few minutes later I saw the big boss
who I know because he is from the same area as me. Every day I see him and give him the
salute. The boss asked me: ‘What’s the matter?’ and I told him that I was just sitting there and
the boys asked me for chanda. The boss said to the mastaans, ‘he is a nice boy, leave him alone’
and the boys didn’t take the money from me.22
This quote is important for several reasons. First, it outlines how life in slums, on all
levels, is controlled by criminality and that extortion impinges on every part of life.
Second, it illustrates how having connections and influence can help a young person
to navigate such situations and why these connections are necessary for survival and
mobility on the streets.
Contract killings. The media have documented the rise of contract killings in Bangladesh.
Newspapers allege that organized criminals use young gang members to commit murder
for them as a way for older members to evade criminal prosecution (Khan and Shaon,
2014). The current study considered the role of mastaans in contract killings and how
they conduct these acts. Analysis of the fieldwork data suggests that individuals hire
street children to carry out revenge killings.23 However, in many cases it is necessary for
the hiring to be arranged via a local mastaan. A police officer explained: ‘They do murder
or ransom, they are hired killers; they kill on the instruction of their boss.’24
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12 Criminology & Criminal Justice
One particularly worrying aspect of this research emerged during discussions held
about child killers. Several participants used the term ‘chocolate boy’ to describe a child
who is hired to commit murder. An interviewee explained further:
It is a 14 to 16-year-old, they have guns and are working for the mastaans, who will show them
a picture. They will have a beautiful face and they will follow the person, to and from their
work. They will be waiting at the victim’s home, but the victim will not be worried because they
will have a smiling face and a smart shirt and tie. But they will take the gun and they will shoot
and kill them. This is the chocolate boy.25
The appearance of the child is important; as this quotation illustrates, the chocolate boy
is a particular type of child killer who dresses and looks a certain way and helps lull the
victim into a false sense of security by providing them with a gift, such as a box of choco-
lates. The child then shoots the victim. This is associated with Aptekar’s (1988: 47) argu-
ment that ‘smaller [street] children are often more economically productive than the
older ones because younger children are seen as less threatening and because they have
a “cute image”’. It is improbable that older mastaan group members could fulfil the role
of a chocolate boy in the same way, as the victim would be more likely to react to their
appearance and perceive them to be hostile. The example of the chocolate boy demon-
strates how street children are hired because of their appearance, their age and demeanour
thus showing how these children have unique characteristics, associated with age, which
are exploited by mastaan bosses.
Actively seeking protection
This study was plagued with issues of moral agency. For example, if street children
commit crime on behalf of mastaans, where does the culpability of these children lie?
Are they victims, offenders or both? This study considered the ways in which mastaans
actively recruit street children into their groups and coerce children into crime using the
threat of violence. Mastaan groups also prevent street children from working in other
jobs, leaving them immobile and unable to make choices about employment on the
streets. This then encourages street children to engage in organized crime as a way to
secure an income. Additionally, mastaans work in collusion with the police to recruit
children by threatening young people with arrest; the young people are then forced
to turn to mastaans for protection. Finally, the fieldwork data demonstrated that street
children are often recruited into mastaan groups while incarcerated in one of Bangladesh’s
three juvenile correctional centres or in adult jails. These centres and prisons fail to
protect the rights of children and leave them vulnerable to the advances of mastaan group
members. All of these examples contribute to a victim perspective and demonstrate how
street children are coerced into organized crime. However, this victim lens does not
explain the whole story of the child labourers of mastaan groups. While these children
lack autonomy and control over their own lives they do exert some agency over the
decisions they make, and at times these decisions involve committing crime.
Some children actively participate in gangs because of the earning potential these
groups provide. The child interviewees explained that crime often pays more than other
jobs and that income is paid more frequently, particularly compared to jobs, such as
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Atkinson-Sheppard 13
selling flowers or chocolates on the streets. Additionally, mastaan groups use weapons
and engage in disputes over territory and drugs which makes them comparable to many
gangs around the world and demonstrates the often violent behaviour of their members.
So if street children who work on behalf of mastaan groups are neither victims nor
offenders then how is it possible to understand the work that they do? What these children
seek is protection, and their involvement with mastaans is primarily driven by their need
to secure an income, build connections and ensure their survival on the streets.
Conclusion
Vulnerable children are hired to work within mastaan groups and are tasked to commit a
variety of offences, including political violence, land grabbing, contract killings, drug
dealing and extortion. The children interviewed perceived crime as work. Furthermore,
the organization and structure of mastaan groups support the conceptualization of crime
in this way: these groups have clearly structured hierarchies, a division of labour and ways
to share profits and commission. Street children perceive that they are working within a
business, albeit a criminal one.
The current ILO definition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour is inadequate because
it fails to include a specific mention of children involved in this type of organized crime.
This oversight means that vulnerable children and young people possibly numbering
millions – are not being protected. However, amending the ILO definition is only the first
step. Children involved in organized crime must be made more visible in policy and
legislation. Extensive reforms are needed to better protect street children. These reforms
should ensure children’s safety, protect their rights and guarantee their access to education.
A crime prevention policy, closely aligned with the thinking and practice of the UN
Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), could be developed in Bangladesh
and incorporated into wider child protection policies and the new Children Act 2013.
Furthermore, families should be supported to become more resilient against poverty.
Recent reductions in the number of child workers worldwide suggest that it is possible to
reduce child labour, but this requires policy changes, global commitment and a real
understanding of the problems child workers face (ILO, 2013).
There is a lacuna between criminology and development studies. As a result, little
is known about street children’s involvement in organized crime. By expanding the
boundaries of criminology to include concepts such as social protection and child
labour, the understanding of organized crime can be significantly enhanced. Associations
between these disciplines should be widely encouraged and collaboration ought to
occur so that we can learn more about street children’s involvement in crime and violence
to better inform law, policy and practice.
Questions of moral agency remain unanswered. Children who operate at the lowest
echelon of mastaan groups should be conceptualized as illicit labourers, but what happens
if these children progress on to become gang members or mastaans themselves? The
term labourer is only useful to describe young people on the fringes of mastaan groups,
because it accurately describes the types of work that these children do (which is often
menial, unskilled or semi-skilled and on the instruction of a boss). When the work
becomes more skilled, young people stop being labourers and become gang members or
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14 Criminology & Criminal Justice
perhaps the skilled workers of a crime group. Where does the culpability for these young
people lie? The focus must be on prevention to ensure that everything possible is done to
prevent child labourers from becoming the mastaan bosses of the future and to halt the
spread of organized crime.
The time is ripe to generate debate about street children’s involvement in organized
crime groups. In 2014, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were each awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize for their work on child labour in India and access to education, respec-
tively. In the same year, the UN agreed a General Comment for street children (Thomas
de Benitez, 2014). But there remains a great deal to be done to realize the rights of, and
to provide proper protection for street children, particularly those who engage in organ-
ized crime. From an early age the lives of street children revolve around survival: finding
shelter, food and protection from the harsh realities of life on the streets. They are denied
their right to education and the work that they do affects their moral, social and physical
development. The children who participated in this study are resilient, inventive, astute,
intelligent and assertive. They have to be in order to survive. These qualities must be
embraced and celebrated. But first we must do our duty as adults and protect them. They
deserve the right to be children.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
Notes
1. For more a more detailed discussion of street children see Aptekar (1988, 1994); Ennew and
Swart-Kruger (2003) and Thomas de Benitez (2007, 2011).
2. For more information about children involved in hazardous labour in Bangladesh see ILO
(2006); Patwary et al. (2012); UNICEF (2010).
3. The Bangladeshi working week.
4. The name of the university and of the report have been intentionally excluded from this article
to protect the anonymity of the participants and the organizations. Thus the report is referred
to as Organization Report 2012 in the text.
5. Semi-structured interview 2.
6. Group interview (number 5) with the children.
7. Group interview (number 1) with the children.
8. Group interview (number 5) with the children.
9. Group interview (number 5) with the children.
10. Group interview (number 6) with the children.
11. Group interview (number 6) with the children.
12. Group interview (number 3) with the children.
13. Group interview (number 3) with the children.
14. Group interview (number 8) with the children.
15. Semi-structured interview 18.
16. Semi-structured interview 17 (case study of a man who lived on the streets as a child and was
involved with a criminal gang).
17. Semi-structured interview 5.
18. Semi-structured interview 5.
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Atkinson-Sheppard 15
19. Group interview (number 1) with the children.
20. Semi-structured interview 5.
21. Group interview (number 2) with the children.
22. Group interview (number 3) with the children.
23. Which is also reported in many newspaper articles into the subject. See ‘Crime gangs
grip city’.
24. Semi-structured interview 11.
25. Semi-structured interview 9.
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Author biography
Sally Atkinson-Sheppard is a criminologist and strategist with experience gained from both the
UK and the developing world. Her areas of expertise include organized crime, mafias, gangs,
issues faced by street children, policing, prisons and prison reform, strategic planning and change
management.
by guest on February 24, 2016crj.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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This paper investigates what children in street situations in Dhaka value as important, and how they protect and promote their livelihoods when living on the street. It argues that, despite the common belief held by many people in mainstream society, in the realm of policy and in NGOs, these children are not destitute. They have dynamic portfolios of assets and show complex coping strategies generally managed in a group. Men considering policy implications, this paper argues that to be effective, sustainable and respectful, intervention has to abandon the focus on children's deprivations often fostered by a strict interpretation of children's rights. On the contrary, a more systematic investigation of children's initiatives to improve their lives when on the street should guide interventions on how to help them strengthen their assets, rather than to create substitutes for them. "People think we don't have anything because we live on the street. They don't see the many things we can have even if living here... You can say I am poor but I'm not a 'kangali'.((1)) NGOs give us what they want without asking us what is important for us. But we could not live without certain things we value important and we do what we can to get them." (Fumala, 17-year-old girl).
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Bangladesh is a new name for an old land whose history is little known to the wider world. A country chiefly famous in the West for media images of poverty, underdevelopment, and natural disasters, Bangladesh did not exist as an independent state until 1971. Willem van Schendel’s history reveals the country’s vibrant, colourful past and its diverse culture as it navigates the extraordinary twists and turns that have created modern Bangladesh. The story begins with the early geological history of the delta which has decisively shaped Bangladesh society. The narrative then moves chronologically through the era of colonial rule, the partition of Bengal, the war with Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh as an independent state. In so doing, it reveals the forces that have made Bangladesh what it is today. This is an eloquent introduction to a fascinating country and its resilient and inventive people.
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