Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Mirpur Fire - a daytoday disaster

This blog is focussing on a small scale humanitarian crisis that affected the community we work with. A fire hit one of the refugee camps on Friday, and in under an hour 100 homes were destroyed and two or three hundred others were damaged.

SEEP is providing emergency short term relief, while we get proposals into the donors for proper assistance. We spend the $200 in our budget within the first 24 hours, and are now spending money generously donated by the expat community either here in Dhaka or in Australia.

SEEP seems to be the only NGO working to provide emergency relief. The local MP is providing 2000 taka per family, and the local community are providing some food, but as you can see from the photos 2 nights after the fire, the famillies are still living in very bad conditions.

We have a Community Youth Volunteer Group (20 adolescent males from the 10 refugee camps we work in), and they are co-ordinating relief efforts. We made the decision to work with the 100 famillies who had lost everything, and the CYVG quickly issued them with vouchers, and we have a list of famillies with a voucher.

We are dispensing food every day, and today have started dispensing water. As the famillies have nothing we bought 100 Jerry cans and cups. The photos show some of the boys who have lost their homes, and the CYVG dispensing cans and ticking the famillies off on the list.

As always, the forebearance of the Banglas stuns me. Whilst I was taking pictures of them queuing in the rain, one of them held their umbrella over my head. There are still big smiles for the camera even in the dreadful ruins of their homes.

Currently we are meeting their food and water needs. The next priority is shelter for the women and children, and clothing.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Day to Day Living

Well, its been a long time since my last blog. I have now been a year in Bangladesh – time has flown, but I have learnt so much in the last year I also feel like I have been here forever. It feels strangely like home.

Dhaka is a very interesting place to be at the moment. India is growing incredibly fast, and rapidly moving into superpower status. Bangladesh is tipped by Goldman Sachs somewhat bizarrely to be the next happening place (along with South Korea and I think Vietnam). The city is growing incredibly fast and each year breaks records for size and population density - at no time on the history of the planet have so many people lived in such close proximity as here. Property prices are rising (as is the price of food and fuel) - office rental in some offices in Gulshan exceed Manhattan prices. Goodness knows what will happen if growth actually trickles down to the broader population.

Both Murray and I have settled into fairly comfortable routine. We live in Gulshan, the rather swanky diplomatic area. It is close to the expat clubs (a haven of airconditioning, swimming pools, and western food), and most of our social life. It is also much quieter than other parts of Dhaka, has apartment buildings with hot running water, and supermarkets and other shops with ‘western’ style food. There are downsides – we have a 1 hour commute to work, the beggars here are fairly professional and aggressive, and of course everything is quite expensive – people see a white person, and think we are all very rich (which comparatively we are - just much poorer than the other western workers).

Our apartment is very small by Gulshan standards (two bedroom, two bathroom), and does not have servants quarters, but is more than adequate. There are two front doors, side by side, which had me stumped for along time. I think one is for the ‘staff’ so that we can bolt their door and keep them out if we want to. Above is the view from our apartment building.

In the mornings we get a rickshaw (here is Moti our "driver" outside our building), to Gulshan 2 (10 minutes away), and then take a public bus to Mirpur 10, where Murray and I take separate rickshaws to work. People (including some Bangladeshis) think we are quite daring to take a bus to work, but it is fine. The buses drive wildly – but so do the other drivers, and I would prefer to be in a bus if we had an accident, than a car or baby taxi.

On weekends, we spend a morning shopping. Moti picks us up and we go down to the vegetable market. We always go to the same people – they have good produce and here you are served by the seller and there are no advertised prices. So, if you are new you have to negotiate and check all the produce or get given crap. They charge us a lowish price, and give us the good stuff. We get a young boy to carry the produce back to the rickshaw (for 20 cents - the job helps them pay for their schooling). We then take the rickshaw back to the house where I spend about 1 hour soaking all the vegetables in dilute bleach and then rewashing and drying them.

When its this hot, that’s about enough for a day. We don’t do a lot of entertaining – it just seems very hard. Many of our friends have cooks, drivers and maids and they look after us very well. There is a very active social scene (including, we are told, a swinging scene around the aussie club) with parties, dinner parties, and balls. There is very little to do socially except this type of event. Having a dinner party is great when you have someone to shop, cook, set the table, serve the food and clean up. I had one of these whilst housesitting – most enjoyable. Here are some pictures of friends of ours (spot the World Bank Economist) at the last Glitter Ball (held by the Australian community). And yes, it was fancy dress. Murray is off to the right - he was one of the Bollywood extras for our Wizard of Oz number (don't ask).The work itself here is wonderful if quite frustrating. I am getting closer to these little street girls, and wish I could take them home. Bangladesh doesn’t allow foreign adoptions, which I guess stops that idea dead. It will be very hard to lose them. One of our good friends organized a day out on a boat for the 15 younger girls. They had a fantastic day, lots of smiles and laughs. They also did some singing and dancing, and performed a ‘psycho drama’ of one of the children’s lives : Sharmin was abandoned by her mother when she was five. In the drama, the mother and children are tossed out of the family home, and she is seduced by a pimp who encourages her to leave the children (aged around 5 and 4). Sharmin’s sister then falls sick and dies and she is left on her own. People help her survive, and eventually she is found by some of our Street Children who take her to our shelter. This is her true story. One of the things SEEP does particularly well is drama – we help the children work through the stories of their lives, and also use street theatre for advocacy work.

Previously, we had organized for them to be invited to a Street Children’s party at the British Bagha club – here are some pictures of the SEEP children (boys and girls) in the pool and having a fantastic time. I was on pool duty, and here I am with the kids.

Thanks to those who wanted to help them – I am still trying to sort out a mechanism for getting money back from Australia to Bangladesh and will let people know once that is set up.

Below are a few more pictures from Murray’s office and also the Bagha party.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Getting up close - the Street Girls

Murray and I have been settling (back) into life in Dhaka. The flat is great – just needing a few more ‘bits’ to make it into a home. My work is going well and Murray enjoys being treated like a filmstar at the Trade Technical School. Socially, things are ok, except over the last month we have both suffered from bouts of flu and dysentery. Its very tiring, and the start of it is a bad bug, leading to antibiotics, leading to a poor immune system, and vulnerability to all the invasive little bugs here. That said, we still managed to get to dinner with the Australian High Commissioner, meeting the latest UNICEF ambassador Gretel Killeen !

Nevertheless, life has been heartwarming and challenging.

My work here is to help my NGO with its monitoring and evaluation. Like all ‘consultancy’ jobs, they want my help but not too much because that would mean too much was wrong. I started out by working on their Street Girls project reviewing the project documents, checking and modifying their indicators and then putting together a very simple daily activity chart which we use as the basis of a monthly report.

The centre houses 50 girls – 15 street girls 8-15 and 35 sex workers aged 14 – 22. The sexworkers are somewhat euphemistically termed ‘floating’ sex workers, which means that they live and ply their trade on the street – they have nowhere to live. A 2003 survey estimates there are 300,000 of these children living in Bangladesh, mainly on the streets of Dhaka.

All these girls are survivors – they have to be to make it into our centre. They are bright, feisty, and great.

Typically their story is one of abandonment by their family, which leaves them defenceless on the street at a young age. They somehow manage to feed themselves (by running errands and such like), but are vulnerable to sexual exploitation or drug abuse. Sometimes they will be encouraged into drugs, and then are forced into sex work to feed their addiction. At other times they ‘marry’ - forming a relationship with a man who gives them some protection. Inevitably, the relationship fails, and then they are seen as ‘spoiled’ and fair game for sexual abuse. One of the children in our centre was raped by 10 men (she is 14) before she came to us. Once abused, getting money for sex seems a reasonable option – at least they are in some kind of control. Drugs often follow. Its one way of getting out of the life they are in.

Of course, their stories vary:
· Some spend time in the Vagabond’s shelter (or state run orphanage). They sleep 100 to a room, and may be beaten or starved depending on the quality of the home they find themselves in. 4 of our girls spent years in these centres before running away.
· Most are abandoned after their parents breakup and form new relationships. The stepparent, because of poverty and the ‘undesirability’ of girl children, may force them out, sometimes abusing them, sometimes leaving them far from home (one of the girls was left at the market aged 5), other times sending them, as young as 7, to work as domestic servants.
· Many of the older girls have worked as domestic servants or garment workers but have left after they were sexually abused. Maybe they figure sex work at least pays.

Their living conditions on the street are lousy, and their options few. Women, especially poor uneducated women, have so few employment options. And street girls are unlikely to find a good husband : family connections, and social context, are vitally important in this country of arranged marriages.

Domestic servants are often exploited. Like in Victorian England, people take in children or people from the village, and give them a home in return for work and food. Sometimes they get paid, but the pay is usually very low. The servants, particularly the children, are often locked in when the family goes out or on holiday (to prevent stealing or running away). One of the volunteers lives opposite a Bangladeshi family – their servant lives on the balcony, sleeping on the floor. Because these girls work behind closed doors they are very vulnerable to abuse. Every day the paper reports another housemaid’s suicide.

Garment workers work 72 hours per week for very low wages in poor conditions. Often their pay is delayed a month. The girls who work there may be abused by foremen exploiting their desperation. Beauty salons offer some employment, building sites employ women as day labourers to break bricks (to make gravel), or carry bricks or remove dirt. There is little else - sex work does not seem like such a bad option. In most cases, our sex workers report they have chosen sex work or have been encouraged into it by their friends - and most of these girls (like the prostitutes in Cuba) would not see themselves as very professional. They provide comfort, in return for protection.

Our centre provides the young children with overnight accommodation, and for all of them a safe place for belongings, education, medicine, and counseling. We refer them to medical facilities when they get sick, and I have found a Drug Rehabilitation centre that uses a 12 step program approach (6 have gone through their program, only 2 are still clean). We also try to find them safe jobs, away from the street. And this is hard. It depends on them having some kind of literacy or education.

Currently our project does not provide food for any of the girls, even the young children. We designed the project this way because we did not want to provide a dangerous welfare dependency. All these kids have survived somehow day to day, and we thought that to provide food would destroy their street living skills.

But, it hasn’t worked like that.

Every day the kids (even the 8 year olds) have to go out looking for work to get food. Malnutrition, and fatigue diminish their ability to learn and develop, and the little ones are so vulnerable every time they leave the shelter. Their options are small but can be increased with education or vocational training. They drop to almost zero once they start to take drugs or are initiated into sex work.

So, having started there as a management consultant, I am now involved in trying to raise money for the 15 young children to get a meal a day, at least until we get new funding for the project in 20 months time. The cost is around $200 for 20 months for each child.

So as you can see, I have abandoned any pretence of objectivity and am now hooked. One of our chldren found a bomb under a bus at Gabtoli bus terminal (big news here), and my heart jumped at the idea he might have got hurt. Poor little bugger is now in custody being 'questioned'.

A positive story here is the fact that cheap domestic labour is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. The Rural NGOs have done quite a good job of keeping girls in school (by giving 'money for school' grants. This has dried up the supply of children into the domestic labour market, and this in turn is increasing wages from a paltry amount to a very modest one.

And by the way, don't think that Bangladeshis are monsters - they are not. The problem I see is utter powerlessness. There is no effective judicial system to prosecute abusers. So the vulnerable are hurt, and the abusers, so long as they are powerful, go free. Its no surprise to me that fundamentalism is starting to take hold in this secular country - the Islamists at least offer 'clean' government.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Work and the Weavers

Its very odd to be listening to all the tales of terror in London, far away in Dhaka. Obviously people have been talking about it. A priest I met – who has been living in a remote community in Dhaka for over 20 years – said that we were in deed fortunate to be living in an Islamic country like Bangladesh at this time. There was an opportunity to reach through all the prejudice and division, and simply connect as human beings. For Bangladesh, although very much an Islamic country, is much more secular and available (I think) than countries such as Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. At Independence, Bangladesh split from Pakistan on the basis of its culture and language – opting for its secular Bengali identity in favour of its Islamic one.

Islam is still very present and Bangladesh is called the city of mosques. I work in Mirpur, a working class area in the north of Dhaka. There are at least 4 mosques close to my office, and 2 or 3 times a day the call to prayer echoes from each. I like Mirpur. The people in general, although curious, are very hospitable and welcoming. Friendly, but not intrusive. Its also a very interesting place, full of markets and stalls and stuff. Like, this peanut seller - you see these stalls all over Dhaka. He is wearing a lungi (like a sarong), and a 'gumpsa' on his head. Its like a Bangladeshi towel, and the rickshawallers and street sellers use them to soak up the sweat and as a sun protection.

Here is the view from my office, down into the market. As you can see, there are very few cars off the main street – travel is on foot or by rickshaw.

Here is my office building, with some of the office people outside,

and here is my actual office.

Note the computer neatly wrapped for the night to protect it from the dust.

There are 3 computers in the NGO (there is a total staff of around 65 in the NGO). There are about 8 other office centres around Dhaka, and only the head office has a telephone. We have one printer cum photocopier, and any printing or copying must be recorded in the accounts ledger. The printer is also 4 flights up – a bit of drag if you are in a hurry, and it isn’t turned on. Most people send up Kobir (the office man) to fix it up, or shout up the stairs, but my Bangla is not quite that good yet.

My NGO has been working in the area of child rights and education for about 20 years. We also do a bit of Micro credit and community health. One of the projects I am involved with is our Bihari project. This is one of the other volunteers outside one of the SEEP schools in Mirpur.

The Biharis are called stranded Pakistanis, although they are nothing of the sort. They left India at partition in 1947, and in 1971 fought with the Pakistanis against the Bangladeshis in the War of Independence. Many of them lost their property at this time, and since them have been living in refugee camps in Dhaka. There would be in excess of 500,000 of these people, living in conditions of absolute squalor. They have no passport and no rights. Pakistan has little interest in them. They lack the normal extensive network of kinships and family, as their families were splintered between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the aftermath of war.

However, they do have a traditional craft, handloom weaving the Benarasi sari. These Saris are made in only a few places in the world – Varanasi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, a small number in Pakistan and Mirpur in Bangladesh. The master weavers in the weaving families can trace their origins back to a single heritage.

The Benarasi saris are traditionally used for wedding saris. They are made in a gorgeous fabric, with old motifs (both Victorian and Moghul in their origins) woven into the design. Sometimes the saris are embroidered to improve their gorgeous look. The work has a gender separation, with men working as weavers and usually women doing the embroidery in the home.

There are around 100,000 people engaged in this craft in Mirpur, many of them children. Child labour is a fact of life in Bangladesh, but is deemed as ‘bad’ when it negatively affects the children (either through its hazardous nature, exploitation, or its effect on their long term development and education). There are a number of reasons for child labour : poverty, the contribution that the child can make to a family income (in Mirpur on average children contribute 38% of household income), lack of schools (so work becomes a defacto day care centre), and a culture that sees working as ‘good’ for the children.

We address the issues of child labour on a number of fronts. Firstly through 10 slum schools for the Bihari children – operating from 7.30am to 10am in the morning to fit around their working hours. Here is one of our schools – the kids here are between 5 and 12. Each school comprises a small room (right in the camp), where 30 children learn seated crosslegged on the floor. More than half of them work at least 8 hours a day in the weaving factories or as embroidery workers.
We also help the children conduct awareness raising activities, and educate the children, parents and the employers about the negative impact of child labour. The employers are very poor mostly – they are the parents, neighbours and relatives of these children, and we have been relatively successful at reducing the negative impacts of the work, by for example reducing the amount of abuse and the working hours of very small children. We also run Microcredit groups, and a Community Health project.

Recently some small weaving factory owners came to us through our Micro Credit groups. They were going broke. Their designs weren’t profitable, Indian saris were taking their market. Could we help them improve their profitability by assisting with Design ? By luck, I had recently met an English woman with 25 years experience of teaching handloom textiles, and design. She agreed to help us. A long road of discussion and experimentation has led us to the decision to somehow fund a redesign of the sari for a particular factory owner – to demonstrate that a different bold approach would work.

This is the factory owner. He lives in one room, about 10 foot square, with his wife and children. He also has a TV and Fridge (which is very unusual). One of his designs is below – all handwoven in polyester and rayon and covered with every possible motif you could imagine!

So currently I am involving in putting together a plan and budget, and exploring funding, for a very exciting and wonderful project – I am learning about weaving, and the lives of these people, plus how you can identify a silk sari, and differentiate between a hand woven and powerloom weave !

After we do the redesign, Pauline has agreed to run a design course. We also plan to try incorporating design elements into their education curriculum (relating maths, english, history, geography etc. back to their traditional craft). You see, there is no craft training centre here, and the displacement has meant that many of the master weavers left during the war. The craft has been cut off from its roots, and there is little innovation and development. They copy and repeat. Each year master weavers come from India for 3 months to develop designs. The Mirpur Benarasi is seen as both old fashioned, and poor quality. When they are sold in the market they are sold as Indian saris ! If we can improve the design skills here, and develop the skills of the children, they have a greater opportunity of avoiding exploitation, and getting out of this miserable poverty cycle.

That’s all for now – there are some more photos of the Biharis and their lives in Mirpur:

A typical 'street' - note the scraps of fabric everywhere. A child doing embroidery. Its actually quite crude work - there are few skilled people here to teach them.

Above is a 'typical' Mirpur Benarasi - whilst traditionally woven in silk with real gold thread, this has been handwoven in polyester and rayon. The 'glittery stuffy' is embroidered by the girls.

This is the child of the factory owner, inside the 'factory', typically around 7 or 8 looms. You can just see behind the first loom, some cardboard oblongs hanging up. This are the Jacquard Cards - they have holes punched into them which tells the loom what to weave - this binary system was the origin of computer binary code.

This photo shows an important part of the design process. The sketches are transposed carefully onto graph paper and it is this that is used to provide the map of how to punch the Jacquard Loom cards.

The pink design is the red border below. As you can see, more is more. The Saris tend to have silver, gold, and many many motifs. Our design will be a little different. The motifs look almost victorian, as of course many of them are.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

First Blog from Dhaka

I have finally figured out how to set up a blog site, so that I can publish some of my photos.

Dhaka doesn't have alot of tourist sites, but just living here provides plenty of opportunities for photos. The photo of rickshaws is taken from Farmgate bridge - this is a major road transport point in Dhaka, with many buses, cars and people going in all directions. Rickshaws are no longer allowed to go along major roads or through major intersections, so they often 'hang' at either side. For the people who rely on them for transport (like myself) it makes things very difficult as it means they have to take you a complicated route via tiny sidestreets, or you have to get off and walk across the road. This is not so bad at the moment, but when the roads are 1 foot under water, it will not be pleasant. Apart from this, they are a great way to travel - I love them.

Taking photos is not a problem here - everyone likes to have their photo taken. In one of my first weeks, I took a photo in a market, very shyly, and was mobbed by people wanting to have theirs taken. As you can probably guess, the butcher doesn't have a fridge for the meat, so you buy your meat early in the morning, and they hack off a piece for you. If you buy chicken, they will slaughter the chicken on the spot. Personally, I have kept away from buying meat in the market - it is a little too 'bloody' for me, and have resorted to the one German butcher in Dhaka, or the occasional mince meat and tuna fish from the 1/2 dozen supermarkets in the city.

This photo from the brick building factory was taken on a boat trip - everyone wanted to have theirs taken, so we obliged. These people live and work around the brick 'mounds' (behind), which are like huge ovens. They are very hot to walk on or around. I'll talk a bit about child labour in another blog - suffice to say, most people don't have the luxury of keeping their child out of work.

The river trip was beautiful. Dhaka is built on a huge river basin, which is fed by 2 or 3 major rivers coming from India (the Ganges), Nepal, and China. It really does shape the identity of the country. This is a fishing boat which looks like it also serves as shelter for the fisherman. He is wearing a working version of a lungi - usually worn similar to a sarong, but labourers often wrap them between their legs so that they are more like shorts.

Lastly here are a couple of photos of me, one in my Benazir Bhutto outfit (enjoying a rare moment of illicit public affection), and one in the Mirpur Bihari refugee camp. Jesmin, with her head covered, works with me, as does Panaan standing next to me. SEEP does alot of work with the Bihari refugees and the camp is 10 minutes walk from the office. Whenever I go there I am followed by children - it feels very much like being a film star. Will write more about all that soon.