Women of Bangladesh have narrow options for work

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From left to right, Nadia Islam, Morjina Akter and Sr. Lipy Gloria Rozario at the Carlotta Center in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Dhaka, Bangladesh — In a country where rural areas are faltering economically, leaving for the big city is both an allure and a challenge.

Allure because of the promise of new life and experiences. Challenge because living in urban settings can be hectic, pressured and demanding.

This is especially so for women, who often have the starkest of choices to make, as options for them are often the narrowest. "For the women, it is either working as a domestic worker or in the garment industry," said Salesian Sr. Rita Zema, who works in the Chittagong Diocese as an advocate and ombudsman for indigenous people who have left rural areas and migrated into urban cities like Chittagong or the capital of Dhaka.

Women make up nearly eight out of 10 of the country's garment workers, and nearly all of the domestic workers.

Their ranks include Morjina Akter, 22, and her friend Nadia Islam, 26, who spoke recently of the challenges of being young women who left their respective villages of Bikrampur and Gopalgonj to embrace new lives in the capital.

Both are secondary school graduates and domestic workers, and both are taking English courses at the Carlotta Center in Dhaka, which was established by and is run by the Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The center's location serves as a kind of bellwether about the changes in Bangladesh and in Dhaka in particular, said Sr. Lipy Gloria Rozario, who helped create the institution in 1997. Founded as a drop-in center for poor children in an area with substandard housing and empty plots, Carlotta Center now finds itself in the midst of high-rise — and high-end — apartment construction in a city where the population, by some estimates, has from climbed 5 million to 16 million in a decade.

"Only rich people live here now," Rozario said, still seeming a bit amazed at the changes in the area. Those who are not rich still come to the center, however, in hopes of improving their English and receiving vocational training in a number of fields, including cooking. Also attending are the children of laborers, ages 6 to14, who come for a formal Catholic-based education.

Rozario acknowledged that young women coming to urban centers are always concerned, and only too aware, of the disadvantages each type of job entails — the potential of abuse (including sexual abuse) for domestic workers, and the "impersonal" and "cold" nature of factory work.

Neither Akter and Islam want to dwell on that. They wanted to accentuate the positive, bringing a sense of optimism to their experiences, with each saying she believes she's well-treated by her employers. They also agree that the passage from rural to urban life has been worth the adjustment. "If a person wants to change their life, they can do it," Islam said.

Still, economic necessity has undergirded these changes of life. "There is really no other option for young women," said Rozario, a fact confirmed by Akter: "My family is poor, and we needed to work," she said, noting it was becoming difficult for the family to make a go of things in their village, and so a move was made.

Rescue workers pull a woman from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013. The woman, identified by local media only as Reshma, was rescued that day after spending 17 days trapped under the rubble of a Bangladesh factory building that collapsed April 24, 2013, killing at least 1,000 people, police and military officials said. (CNS photo / Sanaul Huq, Reuters)

Two sisters are working similar jobs to hers, and a brother, like many young men without much formal education, is now working in the United Arab Emirates.

For Islam, the move was not accompanied by parents or siblings — she is on her own, a divorced mother of one young son, aged 9.

The pressures she speaks of are real, and tell a shared experience: Rural villages have become difficult places because of the loss of jobs, she said. Farming has become more expensive for those with little land. "It's become too expensive to cultivate," Rozario said. Hence the exodus to Dhaka and other urban locales.

The decisions to leave represent a "'push-and-pull' factor," said Bipul Sarder, a field officer for Caritas Bangladesh, the Bangladesh branch of the international Catholic humanitarian network. With fewer job opportunities in rural area, and with diminished schools and poor access to good medical care in the countryside also factors, the decisions people make to move to urban areas seem almost obvious.

Yet the challenges of leaving villages where families have deep roots, memories and histories and the adjustment to city life — crowded, difficult and noisy — are not always easy to navigate, the two women said.

Still, for both, Dhaka is their locale of choice, and they are not looking back.

Does Akter miss the village? "No," she said. "This is home now." Islam chimed in: "Everything is here." Most especially education — a constant refrain spoken by those who left villages and see educational opportunities both for themselves, and for their children, or for the children they someday hope to have.

Both young women want professional jobs, and "everyday English," as Rozario calls it, is seen as a ticket for those aspirations.

Islam had a brief brush with the garment industry and did not like what she saw: rude talk by supervisors, frequent dirty language and constant pressure "to work faster."

"I didn't want to do it," she said, adding that the industry has a reputation for not paying its workers in a timely fashion. For now, she said, her chosen vocation — a path perhaps towards something else later in life — will help her in her new circumstance. "I want to establish my life," she said, "as an independent person."

How long independence can last is another question. There are constant social pressures for women in Bangladesh to marry, and Akter said women, among themselves talk of the "husband problem" — the fact that often men do not respect their wives.

The stereotype of "home as a safe place" is just that — a stereotype. In fact, women must battle the evils of rape and violence in domestic situations — a fact that is getting more attention in Bangladesh.

(A government study of data from 2011 found that nine out of 10 women had reported some kind of violence, either physical or psychological, by their husbands at some point in their marriage.)

Given that, the need to work is not only about economics — it is about creating spaces of independence and respect.

"If a woman is educated and works," Akter said, "men respect that more."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR's international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

Related stories by Chris Herlinger from NCR:

Survivors still coping with trauma of 2012 factory fire
Bangladesh counts the human cost of the garment industry