In Bangladesh, children learn how to swim - and how to survive

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The SwimSafe programme was started in Bangladesh to prevent drowning deaths by teaching children to swim.

By Raffat Binte Rashid

The 2013 Progress Report on Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed shows that major progress has been made in lowering child mortality in all regions of the world and at all levels of national income. Nonetheless, even bigger gains are needed if the world is to meet Millennium Development Goal 4 – reducing under-5 mortality by two thirds by 2015.

Drowning claims the lives of thousands of children in Bangladesh every year, but a UNICEF-supported programme aims to prevent drowning deaths by teaching children to swim.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 9 October 2013 – Monsoon season in Bangladesh can be brutal. While bodies of water swell with bounty during the rain-soaked months, strong currents and floods threaten to bring catastrophe to the inhabitants of this riverine country. Drowning becomes a serious risk, and few are more aware of the danger than Belal Hossain, a father of three.

Mr. Hossain’s son Shuvo was 11 when tragedy struck the family. Shuvo was at his grandparents’ house playing with the other boys his age around a nearby pond. He jumped into the water, or maybe someone pushed him, but he never surfaced. No one around him could help, and the boy drowned.

“I used to work overseas. That monsoon season I came home for vacation and decided that I would at least teach my boys how to swim,” Mr. Hossain says. “I took them to the nearby pond, but the water was very deep. I myself could not touch the bottom.”

He promised them that after the water receded, he would teach them to swim, but there was no chance.

“Within a week, my eldest son drowned,” Mr. Hossain says with tears rolling down his face. “I don’t know how to console myself even today, three years since the accident.”

Staying afloat

According to a survey conducted in 12 districts of urban and rural Bangladesh by the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB), around 18,000 children die from drowning each year. It is a staggering figure.

To help address this issue, UNICEF, in partnership with a local NGO, has undertaken a project called SwimSafe to provide children with swimming lessons and to teach survival techniques.

Around 112 students are admitted in each course, which lasts two weeks. Lessons are held in seven shifts throughout the day, with a maximum of 16 students per shift. At the portable swimming facility in Amin Bazaar, a suburb of Dhaka, 180 children have graduated since July.

SwimSafe’s programme recruits and trains Community Swimming Instructors (CSI) to teach children aged 4 to 10 swimming and survival skills. Through a 21-step process, children are taught to be confident in the water, to develop the ability to float and swim, and how to rescue somebody who is drowning. They are also taught to identify life-threatening water hazards, explains Sakander Ali, CIPRB Field Manager at the Amin Bazaar pool, one of four portable swimming pools in Dhaka.

“So far, we have taught more than 300,000 children to swim since 2006,” Mr. Ali says.

“To graduate, a child must prove they can tread water for 30 seconds and swim unassisted in open water for at least 25 minutes and can demonstrate basic survival techniques,” says Sabrekun Nahar, an instructor at Amin Bazaar pool.

“Learning freestyle swimming in a pool is different from actually swimming in a pond or a river,” she continues. “An unknown fear factor always creeps into your mind: What if you drown? That is why it is important for all students to be able to tread water for at least 30 seconds.”

There are currently four portable swimming pools in Dhaka to enable children from lower-income communities to learn to swim. In rural areas, classes are held in local ponds, which are cordoned off using specially designed bamboo structures; the structures resemble a swimming pool and have two sections – a shallow, fenced-off platform area where children can gain confidence, and a deep end for open-water swimming.

Happy faces Children living in poor urban areas have limited opportunities to learn to swim. There are few ponds or swimming pools in their communities, and the school curriculum does not include such activities. When these children go to smaller villages or near any body of water, drowning becomes a serious threat.

In Amin Bazaar alone, three young boys drowned within a six month period. Their absence and the grief of their parents are strongly felt at the portable pool, where anxious parents bring their children to learn this basic survival skill.

Tahsin, 11, boasts that after learning to swim from SwimSafe, he went to Turag, a mighty river snaking through Dhaka.

Meanwhile Tashnoova, a young girl, proudly exclaims: “I learned to swim in six days and swam at a big, tiled pool when we went on a school picnic. My friends were all surprised with me swimming, and now they all want to enrol here next month.”

Ruma, hardly 6 years old, is ecstatic as she steps down from the pool. “The swimming lesson makes me excited,” she says.” Today is my third day, and I think I can float.”