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.


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