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Building on hope and beyond

  • Published at 12:32 pm April 23rd, 2015

The latest figures from the ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh reports that in the financial year 2013-14, it provided 4.2 million direct jobs, 16% of GDP, and more than 75% of foreign exchange earnings. These are pretty hefty numbers that continue to impress the world. Now let’s try and put a numerical value to the lives of all those people who sit behind the wheel, driving the machines that push this country forward in the global economy.

First, consider the situation right after a disaster of any kind hits Bangladesh. One can surely and immediately identify the monetary loss of the disaster, but how does one statistically calculate the loss of the victims concerned in terms of their psychological and physical conditions alongside the repercussions to their immediate family and community?

The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh brought issues surrounding workers’ rights back into the limelight. Policies were revised, international relations reworked, and giant corporations questioned. An unfortunate reality in the subcontinent is that following any disaster, our resources for rehabilitating the survivors seem to be quite limited. Where are they now, what are they doing, and how exactly are they living?

Immediately after the Rana Plaza incident, it was quite obvious that the survivors, as well as the rescuers, needed immediate trauma counselling. The psychological impact of the whole experience is, of course, long-lasting. In Bangladesh and elsewhere, psychological problems come attached with social stigma.

There is also a lack of psycho-social counsellors to provide the necessary support during a crisis. A handful of counsellors from Brac rushed to Enam Medical College immediately after the collapse and began attending to some of the survivors, and all they did was listen to the victims talk. And we soon realised how heavily outnumbered we were to the endless lines of survivors being carried in through the hospital corridors. 

Brac selected a certain number of survivors and offered a three-day psycho-social counselling session. The survivors were sceptical about what to expect and the counsellors were not entirely sure on the best method of dealing with a group of people who did not quite understand the concept of trauma counselling. Most survivors had to deal with the fear of entering buildings or tolerating loud noises, and had to fight back those recurring nightmares.

The counsellors learned that they had something to offer which could not be quantified, and yet could make a significant contribution to an individual’s life. Group therapy sessions are still ongoing and these survivors are learning to rebuild their lives in their own terms.

Of them, the toughest to deal with were the victims of amputation. Some lost arms or legs or both. Apart from the associated social stigma, the helplessness of not being able to function normally has affected their will to fight back. These survivors were the bread-earners and, in some cases, there was no one else to provide for their families.

The female victims were the most affected as they feared being of little use as mothers or wives. When we joined the special committee set up by the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office to rehabilitate survivors who had gone through amputation, Brac’s Limb and Brace Centre (BLBC) immediately began working with selected survivors. BLBC specialises in upper limb prosthetic support but they ensured that all challenges associated with developing prosthetic limbs were addressed thoroughly.

The trauma of going back to working in garments in addition to the limited movements due to physical injuries they suffered from, called for alternative sources of income for the survivors. Fearing that there would be no one to support them financially, sitting idly at home was never an option for these groups of hard-working individuals.

Brac put together a team to identify alternative livelihood options for these survivors and the necessary set of skills they could use to cope. With the selected group of survivors, Brac began providing small enterprise and skills training. The participants were grouped according to their choice of livelihood option. The most commonly chosen skills involved managing a grocery store, tailoring, or rearing livestock. The training curriculum was comprehensive and customised accordingly.  Participants were taught how to interact with customers to help manage their business. And to answer the most important question: Yes, they were given a seed capital to launch their business.

Immediate response to the aftermath of a disaster is a crucial requirement for any country. In the Rana Plaza factory collapse, of the thousands affected, Brac has only managed to reach out to a bit more than 330 survivors. It was not due to a lack of effort, but rather a shortage of sufficient resources. We need to ensure that the affected can overcome their loss and get back to contributing to the economy of the country. As a nation, it is time we focus on improving our scope in dealing with survivors and their rehabilitation. 

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