MONI'S STORY: WAITING FOR THE EASY DAYS TO COME
Duaripara Slum, Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh
An advocacy piece for UNICEF on the impact of the garment industry on one child and her family
Bangladesh is second only to China as the world’s leading ready-made garments exporter. The country’s 4,300 garment factories employ 4 million people and draw many thousands of people each year from the rural areas, who come in search of jobs and a better life for their families. The majority of those employed are women, for whom the factories represent a singular opportunity for them to work outside the home and earn an income.
At 7:25 sharp Umeh Saleha and her 17-year-old daughter Brishti leave their home in Dhaka’s Duaripara slum. They weave through the trash-strewn, muddy lane passing children playing on the parked rickshaws and rickshaw vans on which many of the slum’s families rely, in whole or in part, for their income. They walk fast, ducking under the eaves of the still closed vegetable stalls at the open-air market, before turning onto the main street adjoining the slum and entering the flow of pedestrians and rickshaws heading to work.
As the pair turn onto a less crowded street, we seize the opportunity to ask Saleha a few questions. She is a tiny woman, small and very thin, but she walks so fast we have to run to keep up with her, all the while dodging cars, rickshaws and other pedestrians in an effort to get the recorder close enough to pick up her voice. “I’m sorry, I have to hurry,” she says. “If I am late I could lose a day’s wages.” That is only about 200 Taka (US $2.50), but for Saleha and her family, this small sum is critical. Life in Dhaka is expensive. The family of five — mother, father and three daughters — lives in a single rented room in a narrow open air corridor shared with seven other families. And despite having three earning members —Saleha’s husband, Azharul Islam, 45, is a rickshaw puller, her daughter Brishti works in a garment-related printing house and Saleha stitches trousers in a factory that exports ready-made garments to the US and Europe — the family finds is finding it difficult to make ends meet, and saving is currently out of the question. This is Saleha’s biggest concern, but not for the obvious reasons.
“My daughters are my main worry,” she says. While Brishti is already working in garments, Saleha wants better for the last two, Moni, 14, and Aduri, 7. “We have to save for their education so that they never have to be involved in garments work.” But more than that, as Brishti is almost 18, it is nearly time for her to get married, and Moni is not that far behind. Saleha is worried about their future marriage prospects. “I am always thinking about their proper settlement [dowry and marriage],” she says. “It is a huge cost, and we haven’t been able to save for it.” Her husband Azharul, 45, later puts this into perspective for us: “Here, there is no way to arrange your daughter’s marriage without money,” he says. “The first question the boy’s family will ask is ‘How much do you have?’ The boy may have nothing: no business, no land, no work experience. Maybe he is a rickshaw puller, and he doesn’t even own his own rickshaw. Like me, he has nothing. That kind of boy is the lowest cost, and we would still have to give his family 100,000 Taka (US $1250). If we wanted a boy who has some land, and maybe he also owns a rickshaw, the demand would be far higher, something like 300,000-400,000 Taka (US $3750-$5000). For us, that is out of the question.”
Brishti says goodbye to her mother and turns off towards the garment printing company where she works. We continue on with Saleha. Asked what time she expects to return home today, she says she has no idea. It depends on the orders they are working to fulfill. “Sometimes I am home by 6 or 7 pm,” she says, “but last night I arrived back at 11 pm, and slept at 12.”
As we join the colorful river of women heading towards the garment factory where she works, there is time for just one last question. We ask Saleha how she feels about her job. “It’s hard work,” she says. “You have to work very fast all the time, and that is tiring. And because I am always at work, I don’t have time to care for my children. They need their mother sometimes, but what can I do? This is reality. We are poor and we don’t have many options for a better life. I am just glad that I have a job, and that it allows me to earn some money.”
* * *
Back at home, Saleha’s daughter, Moni, feeds her younger sister, Aduri, and helps her get ready for school. “It really hurts me to see how my mom sacrifices for the family,” Moni says, pulling a comb through Aduri’s hair. “I remember when we first came to Dhaka and we struggled for food. My mother was making very little when she started working in the garments factory. Some days she would fast because we didn’t have enough food.”
Like most families in Duaripara, Azharul and Saleha migrated to Dhaka from the rural areas in search of a better life. In their home district of Nilfamari, Azharul had pulled a rickshaw van carrying agricultural goods and Saleha had been a ‘housewife’. They had a small house and only enough land to have a little home garden. Azharul came to Dhaka first, trying his luck as a rickshaw puller, and sending money home to the family, but after three years of going nowhere financially, it was clear this strategy wasn’t working. He decided it would be better if they all moved to Dhaka. Then he could continue to work as a rickshaw puller and his wife and oldest daughter (who is now married and living with her husband) could work in a garment factory. Five years ago the family made the move. Saleha and her daughter worked full time, each making just 1500 Taka (approximately US $25 at that time) a month. The couple’s second oldest daughter, Brishti, worked as an intern learning marketable skills like embroidery and hand stitching. Without anyone at home to look after Aduri, then just two years old, the job fell to nine-year-old Moni.
Moni had finished class two in her village school. Just last year, with Aduri starting school, she was finally able to return to school. Last year she repeated class two. Now she is in class three. She feels ashamed to be the oldest person in her class, but her father, who studied to class 8, encourages her to continue, whatever it takes. “In education there is no shame,” he tells her. “It will always bring value in your life.”
But he does feel there is shame in being a rickshaw puller. When they are ready to go to school, Azharul puts them into his rickshaw and drops them off near to, but not in front of the school’s front gate. “I don’t want anyone to see their father taking them to school in a rickshaw,” he says. “Then everyone will know their father is a poor man.”
After school Moni and Aduri walk home together. Moni is still like a mother to Aduri. She feeds her lunch, takes her to and from the madrassa, and keeps an eye on her. She also takes care of all of the household chores like cooking, cleaning and washing the clothes and dishes. “These things are my duty,” she says. “I don’t like to see my mother and my sister and my father all working so hard day after day. Their earnings are a blessing for us. Now we have enough food—it’s not great food, but we can eat three times a day.”
When Azharul returns home in the middle of the day, Moni gives him his lunch. Then he does the shopping for dinner and works with Aduri on her homework for a while. “I know that being here I am missing the opportunity to earn,” he says, “but it is important for me to be here when the girls are home alone as much as I can. I have to take care of their security. The landlady can keep an eye on them when I am not here, but I can’t rely on her all the time. Plus, I need to be here to guide them. ‘…don’t go next door and watch TV,’ I tell them. ‘We are here for a better life. You need to study and go far. You have to earn a good degree so we can get a better life. We are in a difficult situation and this will be changed by you.’”
Twice each week Moni has the opportunity to be an ordinary teenage girl for an hour at the UNICEF-supported adolescent club. This afternoon, 35-40 young people, mostly girls, line the walls around the decorated room. In this community, there are no other safe spaces for adolescents — especially girls — to gather together. The group’s facilitators lead discussions on gender and personal development, they help the young people to develop and perform dramas, lead songs, and allow time for playing games, reading, dancing and “…learning good things for our lives,” says Moni. “There is no other place we can do this sort of thing. I really like it.”
As Moni returns home and starts to cook dinner, her father is preparing to go out to pull his rickshaw. He reflects on how things have changed for his family since their move to Dhaka. “It is like the difference between the earth and the sky,” he says. “Maybe there I was not getting proper food, but we had close relationships with one another and with the people in our community. Everyone took care of each other because we all knew each other. But in this life here, everyone is busy. People don’t have close relationships with others, even their neighbors, because we never have enough time. Home is no longer the priority. Work and earning money are the priorities. There we had everything except money. Here there is money but nothing else.”
Asked if this ever causes tension within the family, Azharul says, “Yes, my wife and I often clash over money. Recently, I was sick for several months and I couldn’t work. I took out a loan and she shouted at me: “I am always working so hard to arrange a marriage for them, why are you taking out loans?” Sometimes I feel like we are just passing the days. Maybe in the future the easy days will come.”
Watching her father leave, Moni sighs. “My dream is that one day I will get a good job and earn enough money so that I can take care of them. I really want them to be free so that they can take some rest.”