Adolescents in Urban Slums and Low-Income Settlements in Dhaka During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global crisis of unprecedented scale, both in terms of public health and the world economy. The world came to an economic stand-still, and the poor and vulnerable populations are still bearing the brunt. This study was conducted under the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme, which explores “what works” to support the development of adolescent capabilities. It is a real-time study of the lived experiences of adolescents residing in slums amid the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis response has generally ignored adolescents as a separate group. This study explores how the crisis has affected adolescent education, livelihoods and psychosocial wellbeing. It also examines how adolescents were coping with the situation using their social networks, the support from parents and their access to services. 

Researchers: Alvira Farheen Ria; Samira Ahmed Raha; Sajib Rana; Prantik Roy; Taslima Aktar; Saklain Al Mamun; Mehedi Hasan Anik; Farhana Alam; Sarah Baird, Jennifer Seager, Shwetlena Sabarwal, Silvia Guglielmi; Maheen Sultan

Partners: Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE); BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health; Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA)

Timeline: 2020

Status: Completed

Contact: Maheen Sultan


Report: Adolescent Experiences in Chittagong and Sylhet Divisions, Bangladesh – Baseline Report

Policy Brief: Adolescents’ Experiences of COVID-19 in Chittagong and Sylhet Divisions, Bangladesh

Policy Brief: Revisiting the Impact of COVID-19 on Adolescents in Urban Slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh: Round 2

Policy Brief: Adolescence in the Time of COVID-19: Evidence From Bangladesh

Policy Brief: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Adolescents in Urban Slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Presentation Slides: Adolescents’ Experiences of COVID-19 in Chittagong and Sylhet: Findings and Policy Implications

Presentation Slides: Adolescent Experiences in Chittagong and Sylhet Divisions – Baseline Report


COVID-19 has created a crisis of an epic scale. The WHO declared the situation as a pandemic on 11 March 2020 and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared that it is a crisis unlike any in the UN’s 75-year history. The virus spreads fast and has a high mortality rate, threatening to infect millions across the world within a short span of time.

Bangladesh was not at the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis initially; yet the number of detected cases has multiplied during the course of the pandemic. Experience of other countries tells us that without strict measures, the situation may get out of hand. High density of population, large number of migrant workers returning from pandemic-affected countries, and an unprepared health system makes Bangladesh a high-risk country. Combined with confusion and lack of information among the masses, this has created widespread panic in the country. The country is already experiencing the adverse effects of COVID-19  in terms of both public health and the economy.


The study aimed to conduct a real-time study on the lived experiences of adolescents residing in slums amid a pandemic. What has been, and will be, the impact of the pandemic on adolescents?—this was the central question. The COVID-19 crisis response has generally been to target households, with less importance given to individuals within the family. Adolescents have been mostly ignored as a separate group. As GAGE partners we were particularly interested in how the crisis would affect adolescent education, livelihoods and psychosocial wellbeing. We also wanted to examine how they were coping with the situation using their social networks, support from parents and access to services. The rapid qualitative assessment and repeated follow-up interviews with 10 adolescent street dwellers aimed to find out about low-income adolescents’ anxieties and struggles with managing households, helping parents with income sources, borrowing from local lenders, and adult responsibilities (i.e., taking care of children, taking on occupations like driving auto-rickshaws, etc.) 


A rapid qualitative study was approved by the Ethical Review Board of BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, with the researchers strictly following ethical standards and taking verbal consent for interviews and recordings of conversations. Since the objective was to conduct a real-time study on the lived experiences of the adolescents residing in slums amid a pandemic, we adapted the data collection method accordingly, keeping in mind the countrywide lockdown and emergency. The team made a qualitative in-depth interview guideline for the phone interviews, with questions addressing relevant themes such as education, work, family, psychosocial wellbeing, coping mechanisms and available support/services. Phone top-up of an amount of BDT 100 was provided to the adolescents, to compensate for phone costs. 

Findings and Recommendations

The study found younger respondents to be aware of the coronavirus, the disease symptoms and preventive measures, although they lacked detailed information. Older adolescents were able to provide more specific information about the spread of the virus and its symptoms. Some adolescents discussed the stigma and fear about COVID-19 in their communities, and that people in their areas were not following social distancing rules set by the government. They also found studying at home due to the lockdown far more challenging than in school. Some of the respondents were taking help from family members or from digital learning content, but most of them reported not following fixed study routines. The additional free time on top of a lack of structure and routine was causing them to be more distracted. Compared to pre-pandemic days, respondents mentioned being less engaged with study material. A number of them were also concerned about the government’s decision to allow “auto pass”, i.e., getting a pass grade on the board HSC examination on the basis of SSC results.

Establishing a medium-to-long term recovery plan to address educational gaps caused by the disruption in learning due to the pandemic—while maintaining continuity of learning at a feasible level—should be a high priority. This includes developing a plan for safe reopening of schools and disseminating student assessment proposals in order to reduce stress among students regarding imminent board examinations. Longer-term attention needs to be directed towards strengthening online learning facilities along with the ICT infrastructure of the country. This should also include equipping teachers with the training and IT skills necessary to conduct remote/distant teaching.

Reducing internet and data costs would facilitate greater and more equitable access to information, and adolescents’ fears of mounting expenses could be mitigated with greater access to digital distance learning tools. It would also increase adolescents’ access to their peers, thus improving their psychosocial wellbeing. Similarly, to help students, parents, schools, and communities effectively deal with mental health risks, awareness of the issue and possible services should be increased. 

A comprehensive database of vulnerable populations by area needs to be prepared so that social protection benefits can be efficiently rolled out during emergencies. Moreover, access to healthcare should be increased to include all health needs—COVID-19 and otherwise.