Little by Little, Bangladesh’s Invisible People Claim Their Own Space
By Anne O‘Mahony, Director of International Programs for Concern Worldwide
Dhaka, Bangladesh—For most of the last 14 years, Hazara Begum has lived an invisible life.
Each night, this single mother sleeps with her three children on the same square patch of sidewalk where I recently visited her, where she has slept for the last 14 years. Each day, she hides away her meager belongings to make way for the pedestrians, and works when she can as a substitute garbage sorter, earning no more than 30 cents before sun sets—usually far less.
Dhaka, one of the world’s most over-crowded cities, grows by an average of 1,418 people every day, and its slums are grim. But “pavement dwellers,” who cannot afford even a life in the slums, survive with a harder level of grimness on the city streets. Sometimes treated as human debris, their socio-economic, political and human rights have been shattered—in no small part because they are the unseen.
And yet, it takes an effort to ignore them. Visit certain areas of the city in the hours after dark, and you will find men, women and children sleeping on the sidewalks without an inch of space between them. Still, the city’s approximately 40,000 pavement dwellers face social ostracism and have remained largely unacknowledged on an official level until Concern Worldwide drew attention to them six years ago with the start of a program called “Amrao Manush,” or “We Are People Too.”
Hazara, a small woman with a worn, determined face, ended up on the street when her marriage fell apart. She traveled to the capital city from Syhlet, 270 kilometers to the northeast. In Bangladesh, women lose their place in the family of their birth when they are married. If a partnership fails, a woman, left with her children, often has to find her way forward alone.
Since March 2008, Concern Worldwide has reached 14,476 pavement dwellers like Hazara, among them 7,466 men and 7,001 women. Working with partner organizations, Concern Worldwide has established life-changing programs, including twelve multi-purpose centers for pavement dwellers that offer daycare services for children ages two to six; tutorial support for children of elementary school age; night shelter facilities for women, children and adolescent girls; basic healthcare services; and bathing and toilet facilities.
The groundbreaking program also has included intangible support, helping pavement dwellers reclaim their self-respect and advocating successfully on their behalf with government officials. The government has begun to recognize them in national documents, to allow pavement dwellers’ children to obtain birth certificates, to provide stipends to children who have found their way into primary school, and to allow some to obtain voter registration cards. The official papers are especially important because pavement dwellers need them in order to escape the streets and find a place to rent. For Hazara the education of her children is her passport off the pavement.
Shahnaz is among those who have made the journey from pavement dweller to renter. Her mother died when she was 8-years-old. Her stepmother beat her up and denied her meals on a regular basis, so Shahnaz finally ran away from home, claiming a place on the pavement at the National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka.
She worked as a maid and then at a garment factory, but was constantly subject to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. She became part of the Concern program in 2010, and was given training two years later to enable her to open a food cart and start her own business selling snacks like egg rolls. Building on this success, Shahnaz has rented her own home.
She is still the exception. Pavement dwellers live on the same patch of pavement for an average of 12 years, surviving the monsoons that span June to September by covering themselves with plastic bags stitched together, the only shelter they have. Concern Worldwide works at night to distribute plastic sheeting and blankets.
Bithi Kahtun moved to the pavement with her two boys, Mehedi, now 9-years-old, and Romjan, 4-years-old, after her husband abandoned his family to marry another woman. Concern Wordlwide has been helping her since 2012. She, in fact, remembers the specific date that year that she moved into one of the shelters: November 10.
“I lived on the pavement in front of Comfort Hospital on Green Road,” she said. “I used to beg on the streets… People never treated us as human beings. They often beat us up…I had to face so many indecent proposals from the local thugs that I feared for myself and my little boys all the time.”
Now she has a job as a maid, earning under $15 a month, and even more importantly, she has hopes for the future. “I am no longer scared for my children or afraid of my belongings getting stolen,” she says. “With Mehedi already in school, hopefully I can earn more once Romjan gets older.”
To see how we are helping Hazara, Bithi, Shahnaz and those like them reclaim their own lives warms my heart. I’m proud that our team in Bangladesh has taken the lead in letting the government know these people exist. But there is more to do. Pavement dwellers are among the silent, undocumented, unprotected poor. If we don’t create a noise around them, they will be forgotten not only for their lifetimes but for generations.
About Concern Worldwide
Concern Worldwide is an international, non-governmental humanitarian organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty, with approximately 3,000 personnel working in 25 of the world‘s poorest countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Concern Worldwide targets the root causes of extreme poverty through programs in health, education, livelihoods and microfinance, HIV and AIDS, and emergency response, directly reaching more than 6.5 million people. For more information, please visit concernusa.org or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
All photos provided by Concern Worldwide.