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The untold struggles of women in Dhaka’s Bihari camp

  • Published at 10:01 am April 7th, 2021

A case study of women empowerment in the Geneva camp in Mohammadpur

Bangladesh in recent years has shown much interest in the Rohingya refugee crisis. But the struggles of another set of refugees, the communities living in the Bihari camps since 1947, has been overlooked. This community is struggling since that time and their struggles have proved never-ending. Life within the Bihari camps is unimaginable for the mainstream population. The Bihari community is living in various camps all over the country and the Geneva camp in Mohammadpur is the largest of all the camps. 

The Geneva camp consists of more than 25,000 people with up to 10 family members living in a single room. In a confined space like the camps, women are living in the worst condition. They do not have privacy; sanitation conditions are poor and lack of nutrition among the women is visible. The Bihari camps have the worst living conditions one can imagine; with one drinking water source for the 25,000 people and another water source from WASA for household purposes, this water reeks with bad odour and dirt. Also, the houses are so congested that even during the daytime the alleys are dark and air hardly passes through the houses.

To write this article on the Mohammadpur Bihari camp, I met some strong women who fought against all odds. Here, I would like to portray a regular scenario of the women’s life within the camps, that is yet unknown to the rest of the population. The story of Hamida Begum collected with the help of a local youth Latifuzzaman Faisal, a University student living in the same camp, sheds the light on life in these camps.

Hamida Begum, a 50 years old lady was cooking for the family when I entered her home. She does embroidery works along with managing her house. Losing her father when she was 6 months old, this family started to adapt to everyday struggles. Her mother remarried and four of her siblings could not have any academic education. She got married at the age of 14. At such a young age, she started to take up the responsibilities of a new family. She further described that the camp is like a small pond with lots of fishes crowded within a confined space and nowhere to go to support themselves. 

"Even though she is not aware of global warming, she certainly feels its effects"

From a very young age, she was introduced to hardship and struggles. Her husband Kamruzzaman used to work as a barber and she complained about him not being attentive to work and was always taking leave. Observing such a condition, she decided to contribute to the family as the money earned by her husband was not enough to support a family of five members. 

When asked about the issue of flooding and extreme heat stress within the camp, she went back to her past days. One could see through her eyes how hard it must have been for her to get through those days. She started to explain that now she is living in a three storied concrete house. But it was not the same 10 years ago. She had one room and five members to live in the same room. The alleys were not more than one meter wide and they remain like that to this day. 

During those days, the alleys were flooded every time it rained. She continued saying that it was common to be submerged by water and that they used to bring all the household utensils above the bed. Above all, the house used to leak from the ceiling. To add to their plight the camp lacks space even to walk in the alleys. Even 10 years ago, the summer heat was bearable, she explained. But nowadays, it seems that the heat is rising every year and they cannot even stand outside for fresh air. The camps are now congested more than ever and there is hardly any space for airflow. Even though she is not aware of global warming, she certainly feels its effects. She further added that there was hardly any assistance from any NGO or government to get them out of this situation. 

Giving up was not in Hamida’s dictionary, she started to work by embroidering clothes. Her children also contributed to her work and with her savings and loan from a bank, she was able to expand their house from one single room to a three-storey building. She also educated her children that she was deprived of. Her eldest daughter is now married and completed her master’s degree. One son is also studying for a bachelors and the youngest son is currently a college student. Hamida Begum is currently the breadwinner of the family and she is continuously working hard to pay off the loan she took earlier for repaying the house.

To sum up my experience from this interview, I found that life in the camp is full of hardship and you can expect little help from the outsiders when you need them. It is because of the detachment of the Bihari community from the rest of the population. 

However, the women of the community are more hardworking than men. Despite that, their contributions are unrecognized. I believe more can be done to provide employment to the women and give them financial stability. As they lead a separate lifestyle from the mainstream community and there is a difference between the two, women are the ones facing more challenges if anything happens to the male member of the family. 

To add to the woes, women seldom get formal education and their network with the people outside the camps is always difficult. So, they fall in a helpless position whenever their male earning member is no longer able to support them. Therefore, it is necessary to train these women to develop their skills, education so that they become resilient to adversities. Stories like Hamida’s, however, do tell us that women’s perseverance and leadership can go a long way to hold a family together through extremely harsh situations. 

Fatema Akter is Intern at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development. Can be reached at [email protected]

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