As Bangladesh celebrates its 41st independence day, the nation cannot be blinded by the few women who have risen, to forget the many who remain disempowered
Part Two: The Dichotomy of Development and Poverty*
This week, Bangladesh celebrated its 41st anniversary of independence. In four decades, it has witnessed much growth and development, particularly for the women of the country. Bangladesh is a globally recognised rising economy, with a booming middle class. Its capital, Dhaka, has become a veritable forest of new luxury flats, all of which are occupied, often even before construction is complete. The streets and roads have become congested beyond endurance as each day hundreds of glossy new cars join the throng of the millions already clogging the highways. Many of these homes and cars are now owned by a growing class of wealthy women: business-women, academics and women who are now working in the elite commercial and corporate offices that were previously dominated by men.
Yet while the empowerment of women in Bangladesh has come a long way for some, others remain left behind in the dust of a hierarchical and deeply divided society. Most of the advancements for women have been concentrated in urban areas, for women of a background wealthy enough to earn a high-class education and the supplementary tutoring essential in this part of the world. Meanwhile the rural districts, home to 79% of Bangladeshis, continue to suffer from the throes of female subjugation as a result of underdevelopment.
In part one of this series I discussed the circumstances and challenges faced by the rural-urban migrants I met that served in the homes of Dhaka. Here the focus will be shifted to their village roots, to explore the difficult circumstances that have forced many to the often-merciless toil of working class urban life.
Among those I met was Rowshon, a housemaid who has worked in the house of her elderly employer since childhood. A heartfelt and sincere woman now in her mid-thirties, with evident love for those she works for and was raised around, Rowshon has endured much suffering. From a marriage to a grossly neglectful husband to the social stigma of divorce, from raising her son as a single parent in poverty to the arson of her village home and property, and more recently, the failure of both her kidneys. Hers is a shocking tale for any privileged individual unaccustomed to such tribulations.
It was the poverty of Rowshon’s circumstances that led her to seek work in Dhaka as a child, the poverty of her circumstances that made her return as a single parent, and indeed the poverty and debt from which she suffered that forced her to work regardless of her fatal illness. Her suffering is plain from her softly spoken fears and simple hopes for her son: “I just pray that my son grows to never lust after another’s wealth…if I die, I hope my employers will look out for him.” The trauma of losing all to arson – the product of a family feud built on greed and jealousy that left both her and her mother penniless and homeless – is palpable, yet her circumstances are all the more jarring for the matter-of-fact manner in which she relates them. It is not merely a recognition of her poverty – “My treatment costs Tk20,000 a week. My husband doesn’t even make Tk10,000 a month” – but also the sheer absence of hope in ever recovering and rising from her circumstances.
Yet Rowshon is still one of those more fortunate. In her stricken circumstances, her employer offered her a job and also arranged and funded her remarriage to a kindly young employee of the same house. Her employers are now supporting her treatment in hospital while continuing her wages in spite of her inability to work. Rowshon’s experience of poverty is characteristic of many like her, yet most do not share in the small fortunes she has been blessed with.
Like Rowshon, Rani is another young girl brought to Dhaka to work as domestic staff. The 11 year old is a sharply intelligent and cheerful child whose endearing smile occludes the difficult circumstances that led to her arrival. In her village home, Rani’s mother left her family while her father went on to remarry. The young Rani and her even younger sister were left uncared for by an absent mother, and a relatively wealthy yet neglectful father whose second wife prevented him from acknowledging his children. Taken in by her maternal aunt, Rani was then brought to Dhaka to a home where she was promised employment, while supporting her long-term welfare in the form of education and funding of future matrimony. In spite of such circumstances, Rani displays a positive disposition and never refers to her troubles, almost as if the circumstances are normal and to be lived with as such.
Poverty leads many children to Dhaka, seeking to earn a living for themselves and their families. While some, like Rani, are accepting of their situation, many dream of an education and do not wish to face the hardship of long hours, strenuous labour, and unequal treatment that their family members have been forced to endure. Quresha, another Dhaka housemaid, spoke to me of her sister, Rahela. The daughters of a village rickshaw rider, her father’s diminutive income led Quresha to find herself in a Dhaka home at the tender age of 12. It was a circumstance she frequently laments – working life effectively deprives children of childhood and education – yet acknowledges was necessary.
Rahela refuses to take the same route, insisting she wishes to continue in her education. However, her father finds himself unable to fund this, thus preferring to marry his daughter off, something Rahela has reluctantly agreed to. Marriage will not only reduce the financial burden upon an impoverished family, but will also establish his daughter and ensure her care in a society where women’s long-term security is inextricably linked with partnership to a man.
Nonetheless, in rural Bangladesh, marriage is another financial burden many, especially the father of daughters, cannot bear. ‘Jowtuk’, a form of dowry deeply ingrained in Bangladesh’s rural culture, is a sum payable by the father of the bride to the groom’s family. It is a culture that has left a poverty-stricken society financially crippled. With a minimum demand of BDT30,000 [£230], the meagre wage of a villager can barely support it, yet without this daughters cannot be married. In unusual circumstances, Quresha’s own husband did not demand Jowtuk. “They didn’t ask for anything,” she comments with evident relief, “that’s why we survived. But my father still gave them BDT15,000 (£115) in gratitude.” I ask Quresha why her sister does not come to work in the same Dhaka home, where the employer funds the servants’ marriages. Her reply is simple: “she doesn’t want to work hard and suffer as I have.”
The reality of young girls like Rahela is telling: many seek education and betterment, many fathers and guardians wish to provide it, yet the cycle of poverty coupled with sociocultural norms, diminish the very dreams so many of us in the West take for granted as a basic human right. And so the cycle of poverty and disempowerment continues.
The circumstances surrounding Rowshon, Quresha and Rani are astoundingly common amongst the rural poor, to the extent that it is barely noteworthy in Bangladesh. While the wealthy of great cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong hire servants to chase around their children with plates of rich food, the rural poor are left struggling to provide basic nutrients for their families; ultimately they send their own children to feed the children of the rich to survive.
As Bangladesh celebrates its independence and the opportunities that have been achieved by many women of the modern nation, the majority left behind must remain at the forefront of the discourse. If Bangladesh is to truly break free of poverty and endure as a developing and modern nation, it must first and foremost address the deep dichotomy in society created by the cycle of poverty that prevents most of the country’s women from realising their dreams and potential.
*This article is second of a two-part series on urban working-class women in Bangladesh. Part one can be found here.
Image from: http://blogs.vsointernational.org/index.php/2012/03/07/rural-womens-vision-for-development/
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