We have all heard of early marriage and arranged marriage and most of us probably agree that the arranged part could actually result in longer-lasting marriages. However, the early part, in Bangladesh, is a result of several cultural and economic forces at work. At least half of the babies born in a given year are born to girls under the age of 18. Most Bangladeshis don't know, or pretend not to know, or ignore the fact that marriage under 18 is actually ILLEGAL for girls. That doesn't stop them from doing it. A recent article gives a good synopsis of the situation:
In the past few weeks, I've had the unfortunate experience of being involved (somewhat) in a case of early marriage. In a previous post, I mentioned our housekeeper, Nazma. Nazma moved into the "servant's" quarters that are located on our roof. It is one small room with one bed. She has a separate small room for a kitchen with a two-burner Coleman-style stove and the bathroom is shared with the family of the housekeeper for the other apartment. Nazma begged to be allowed to live here because she is a widow with three children who had been living off of her family for years. Her husband was hit by a bus 10 years ago, while she was pregnant with the youngest child, Nahid. Her family wanted her to re-marry, but she refused because she says a Bangladeshi man would not support children from another man. Today is Nazma's 30th birthday. Her children are 16, 13, and 9. Nazma was married when she was 11 and had her first child, a daughter named Hasfa, when she was 14.
Anyway, living with the family you work for is a pretty sweet deal, if you are a poor Bangladeshi. That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but you have to think of the socio-economic context of this country. As part of the job, you get free rent and a furnished place and no utility bills. Plus, she gets two new saris or shalwar kameez a year, sugar, tea, milk powder, and 10kg of rice a year and we help her out if she needs anything else - like when her son had typhoid fever a couple of months ago, we paid the doctor bills. Additionally, she lives in a secure neighborhood inside a guarded residence. That's not to make it sound glamorous. It still blows to be someone's housekeeper, in my opinion, because I HATE cleaning.
When Nazma moved in, she brought Hasfa and Nahid. There was a bit of back and forth with her family regarding whether Hasfa should come and live here or not. At the time, they were living in an apartment (a room) in a building with other relatives. In fact, her "brother" (I think he may actually be a cousin, not sure how they do kinship here) is a driver with the Embassy and had asked us to please consider hiring her because she was very poor and needed help. He was primarily supporting her. The issue with Hafsa revolved around the other family living upstairs in the other room. The housekeeper, Anjou, lives there with her husband and small daughter. The problem was that the husband was there most of the day and Hafsa would be there most of the day. In other words, an unmarried, unaccompanied girl would be in close proximity to a male for several hours a day.
But, isn't she in school, you ask? She is only 16 after all. No, Hafsa has not been to school since Year 5, or 5th grade. She attended one of the free elementary schools set up by Sheikh Hasina, but Nazma could not afford to send her after that. And guess why. Because by then she had her middle child, a son, Royshudin, to send. Then Nahid got bigger and that was that. There was never a question of sending the boys, all proceeds go to them. Now, that is not to say that the family does not love Hafsa. On the contrary, she is the only granddaughter/niece in the family and, according to her mother, everyone dotes on her. Hafsa is absolutely beautiful and sweet, gorgeous smile.
The family decided to keep Royshudin living at the brother's place and allow Hafsa to come with Nazma because she could take care of Nahid. While she and Nazma both accompanied him to school in the morning, she could go to pick him and his brother up at school and bring them back. Royshudin took to spending the afternoons here and eating with the family. Hafsa does all the cooking and cleaning for Nazma in their house, and helped her in my house as well. Nazma doesn't do a lot of cooking here, maybe once every couple of weeks, but I think Hafsa spent time down here so that she wasn't near Anjou's husband.
It's a wonder, really, that she made it to 16 before being married. A couple of weeks ago, Nazma and I were chatting in the kitchen and I asked about Hafsa. She said Hafsa "no good, madam. Hafsa very upset. She marry." After a little more discussion, the story came out. Nazma's mother, Hafsa's grandmother, had decided it was time for Hafsa to marry. She is "big" now and if they wait much longer, she will not be able to find a husband. Plus, the dowry will go up. Furthermore, they say because she is big, she is expensive for her mother to continue to support. Since she has no education or skills, her only option is marriage. Nazma told me that she can't even read. How is that possible in 2013??????
Nazma's family is in Barisal district, in southern Bangladesh near the coast. When Nazma first moved to Dhaka, Hafsa stayed with the grandparents. About two years ago, she came to Dhaka to be with her mother. She loves living in Dhaka and hates the rural living. I guess that's understandable for a teenager. Now, the grandparents have found a suitable husband and are determined that she will marry.
Nazma told me that Hafsa did NOT want to get married. She wanted to go back to school and travel around the world. I told Nazma that Jeff and I would pay for Hafsa to attend school. Later, Hafsa said no, she was embarrassed to go to school with little girls. By a stroke of luck, I happened to watch the BCS championship with a handful of Bangladeshi Notre Dame alumni (I was the only one rooting for Bama), one of whom is a human rights and legal advisor at BRAC (a local NGO that is HUGE and very successful and has its hands in a lot of pots). She immediately got on the case and called Nazma and started looking for options. They tried to find a technical school that Hafsa could attend where she could learn some skills, but that would require her going back to Barisal, where she didn't want to go. They were really working hard and fast to stop the marriage, talking to Nazma and making sure she understood it is illegal. Jeff and I even offered to take Nazma on as a daughter. Bangladesh won't allow foreigners to adopt, but we said we'd just pay for her needs as if she were ours.
The day came when Nazma said her mother had put her foot down and said it was time. Hafsa had been refusing to eat and was laying in bed crying all day for several days. So, the grandmother said to lie to her, tell her she was coming to Barisal, but they were not going to force her to marry. It may have been none of my business, but I told this human rights advisor. She got on the phone with Nazma and convinced her to at least tell Hafsa the truth. So it was that Hafsa left, defeated, to go to Barisal to marry. She was to be married in four days, on a Friday. For me, I felt that I had done all I could do as an outsider. It is the family's decision, and not mine. Several alternatives had been given to them, but they still felt that marriage was the only option.
Next day, I asked Nazma how it was going for Hafsa and again tried to persuade her to let us that we would take her on, and she wouldn't be a burden on the family and could still live with her mother. Nazma said no, the grandmother said "Madam is good" but Hafsa needs to marry. Feeling totally worthless, I at least offered to help Nazma go to the wedding. That's when I realized that Nazma was not supportive of the marriage, either. She was almost crying when she said it would be too hard for her to go and see it.
As this story cycles, we hit yet another up the next day. Apparently, Hafsa had cried and refused to eat in Barisal, and even threatened to kill herself. The grandfather and brothers put their foot down and said no, she will not marry and she was supposed to come back to Dhaka. I was so relieved! As I'm sure Nazma and Hafsa were.
Three days later I had still not seen Hafsa, so asked Nazma where she was. "She married, madam." And that's it.
So far, they've only exchanged rings, but the ceremony will be in the summer sometime. The boy, 22, has also said that Hafsa will stay with the grandmother for one year before he takes her into his home - a fact that upsets Nazma because she's given away her daughter and she'll still have to pay to clothe and feed her for another year.
On top of that, the boy's family has demanded a huge dowry - or at least it sounds huge to me. At first, they wanted 60,000 taka. Nazma said no. Then they said give us a motorcycle. Nazma said no, she's giving her only daughter. As it stands now, they agreed on even more, I guess the boys' family demanded it and Nazma's parents were feeling desperate to get her married. Now they will pay 50,000 taka plus a motorcycle worth 200,000 taka. That's about $3140 USD. A fortune in Bangladesh. Luckily, Nazma worked for an Indian lady some years back who really took a liking to Hafsa and promised to help pay for the marriage. She has given $50,000 and the wedding jewelry. The rest of Nazma's family is helping to gather the remaining 2 lak (1 lak = 100,000). For our part, I am torn on this one. I don't support this marriage at all and don't want to give any money to help it. Nazma has not asked for help with the dowry.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Here's what I was writing.....
Even though we still don't have a good camera, I constantly take pictures. Since the pictures won't always fit in with any topic, it seemed like a good idea to put them here. So here are some random pictures from around.
|This is a school bus in Dhaka. No kidding. Notice the uniforms.|
|Most are blue, but some are green or black or other colors.|
|School trolleys aren't the only thing on wheels. This is the garbage man.|
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Bangladesh is now known, thanks to a recent study published by the Economist, as the least livable place in the world. That's right, and we just moved here. For us, however, it is very livable. We are expats and have all the amenities we need. It may be difficult to attain them at times, but they are there for us. Most of us have help in the house; many households have three or four people working for them: housekeeper, nanny, driver, cook, and/or gardener are the five types of household help that most people employ (though it is rare to find all five in one home). In fact, we have hired a lady, Nazma, who cleans and cooks for us. As expats, it's totally affordable and absolutely not something anyone could ever afford back home in the States, or most other countries, for that matter.
We foreigners are very lucky, and very stinking rich, in the eyes of the average Bangladeshi. The other day, I learned that even in the upper quintile of the socioeconomic scale, 25% of children have stunted growth! That's phenomenal. Around the country, 1 in 10 people are disabled. Since we do not have a car yet, we walk a LOT to get to the club (a very treasured amenity), market, embassy, restaurants, stores, etc. We may live in the diplomatic enclave, but there are still plenty of beggars and homeless people right by us. Less than a mile away is a slum. Why wouldn't you come to beg in the rich people's neighborhood if you could see the wealth so blatantly in your face?
(still looking for the pictures I took of the slums on the water near our house)
Bangladesh the country, receives billions of dollars in foreign aid each year, but is still in middle school on how to properly handle it and use it - corruption plays a huge role in that. I read somewhere recently that there are 44,000 NGOs in Bangladesh! Of course, anyone can form an NGO and many of these are probably not working out well. There are plenty of Bangladeshis who want to help their fellow countrymen and work tirelessly, and without pay in a lot of cases, to help out. In recent weeks, thanks to the motivation of some awesome folks who have done all the arranging, I've visited an orphanage and a school run almost entirely by volunteers and donations, and heard talks from two other similar programs/schools.
If I had to choose one thing about my children that I love, it is their empathy with those less fortunate. For all the ranting I do about how spoiled they are and how much they don't appreciate what they've got, both of them are very sobered by poverty and needy children and animals. So it is that Asa is completely chagrined that I am not handing out money to beggars here. "Mom, we always gave something to the beggars in Mexico. Why aren't you doing it here?" I have to tell him that there are so many, we will be mobbed. One day, I bought a small bread at the store to give to an old woman. By the time I turned around, there were two old women. When I handed the bread to one, the other snatched it - I snatched it back and made it clear they were to share. Luckily, the transaction was quick or there would have been a crowd in seconds. Still, I think we will carry baggies of rice and hand them out when we see lone beggars.
Just as the streets are teeming with the poor and homeless, so they are teeming with packs of Deshi Dogs. These dogs go back generations and generations (in one year, you could have 3-4 generations) of living on the streets, running in territorial packs, fighting over scraps, etc. Many Muslims think of dogs as dirty and do not want them as pets, at least in the house. Furthermore, here, in a country where a majority of people are undernourished, having a pet is a burden. In the States, we would be aghast at the amount of street dogs and the lack of programs to spay and neuter them, but in Bangladesh that would be a luxury, and would take away needed volunteer resources for the people. There are organizations that rescue dogs, but it is even hard to find a vet who can "fix" a dog because so few people own pets (other than the expats and the wealthy Bangladeshis).
Frequently, expat families who move here for work want to get a dog and think that adopting one from a rescue is a great idea, that they are helping a creature less fortunate. As the dog grows up, the family realizes that the street roots run deep, and it is hard to domesticate them - it requires dedication to the training. Sometimes, these families will put the dog back on the street. And sometimes, in the Foreign Service lifestyle, a family finds that it is easier to release the dog than take it with them to their next post. So it is that we now have Lucy the Deshi Dog in our home.
|The vet put the t-shirt on her and bound it with a |
cloth to keep her from licking the incision.
|Jeff has warmed to her :).|
While we are in the country, we all want to do something that we hope will be meaningful and make a difference in at least one individual's life. We have helped a dog, but we also want to help humans. The day we went to the orphanage, Sage and Asa went, too. Even though it required getting up early on their weekend, neither one complained once I told them where we were going. The Marines who are posted at the embassy here have taken on this orphanage as a kind of service project. We visited it a couple of weeks ago and hope to make many more trips with the Marines as they go every two weeks.
There are over TWELVE HUNDRED children in this place! I think it is kind of like a madrasa, or is a madrasa, because they have to wear "religious" clothing and study the Koran. I tried to give the office a pair of shorts, pants, and a shirt that Asa had outgrown and they said they couldn't take it because of that. Maybe they just meant the lungi, or long wrap/skirt that men wear, because the boys certainly have on Western-style shirts.
|Dorm rooms for boys.|
The boys are kept separate from the girls. When we arrived at the orphanage, many of the younger boys were out in the courtyard having a game of cricket. None of our group (7 adults and 3 children) really knew what we were going to do, or what our purpose was in going. One of the women decided to jump in on the cricket game and that broke the ice. I looked at Sage and said, "Go play cricket with them." Despite being uncomfortable and uncertain in the presence of all of these parentless children, he walked over and took the bat and soundly played badly. They laughed and crowded around him, and one guy around his age immediately became his buddy and broker. This orphan stuck by Sage the whole time we were on the boys' side.
Soon after, Asa came out of his hiding place and he, too, was immediately claimed by a boy of about his age who took Asa on a tour of the orphanage, into the bedrooms, etc., where the rest of us did not get to go. As we were boarding the bus to leave, Sage's friend went and bought him a drink with his own money! By the time we left, both boys said they were glad we came and want to go back.
|This is one of the most endearing pictures!|
|Carrying the big cooking pot. Wonder if this guy knows who Nirvana is?|
|Inside of the classroom. These older girls are waiting for us to come in.|
|Hallway in the girls dorm.|
|Younger girls watching "us."|
|Younger girls doing head, shoulders, knees, and toes song.|
|Asa chatting with the younger girls. He claims they tried to |
kidnap him and take him upstairs.
|Looking in from the hallway.|
|Artwork hanging up at ABC school. Entrance to |
the school is in the background.
In the last few weeks, I also went to a place called the ABC school. This school began with an expat woman (American) feeding lunch to a street kid in her home. Soon it grew into dozens of kids eating lunch and she began seeking donations of rice and other foodstuffs. By the time they left post, teachers and board members at the American school wanted to continue helping the kids and providing them schooling. They now have a school where they admit 12 new kindergarten students a year. These students all come from the slums and are hand-picked by the teaching staff. The kids will stay together as a group all the way through 10th grade and are guaranteed work once they complete the program (boys and girls).
|Younger students at ABC getting their midday |
meal before heading home.
|Courtyard at ABC school.|
Two other similar stories are Streetwise and Jaago. Streetwise was started by a Bangladeshi woman who, one day, got fed up with seeing all of the small children panhandling in Gulshan 1 (or 2? both major roundabouts near our house) and asked a group of them to come play at a school in the afternoon. Pretty soon, the children started asking for learning and now the program has grown into a boarding school for 22 children. At first, the parents were resistant because it meant a loss of income for the family, so Streetwise now produces and sells greeting cards from the children's artwork. All proceeds go back to the school and the children take home a set amount each month to their parents.
Jaago was started by a rich, young Bangladeshi guy whose career was pre-ordained by his family, as he was to take over the family business. As he was driving around in his BMW one day, something inside him snapped and he decided to start helping poor kids. He began by teaching on a blanket in the streets of slums, and now has schools with over 2000 kids around the country. These kids also have sponsors who pay for their schooling and supplies and is run mostly by volunteers. A local designer also dedicates some of her proceeds to Jaago and makes clothes and sells them at charity events, in addition to online for charity and business. As of yet, I have not visited Streetwise or Jaago, but plan to do so soon.
If anyone wants more information, or to know how to get involved, or would like to sponsor a child with any of these organizations, here are the links:
http://bachhara.com/ (this is the clothing designer)
http://www.batabd.com/bata-(bd)-childrens-program.html (an organization that helps loads of charities for kids in Bangladesh, if you scroll down on this link, there is a blurb about donating shoes to ABC school)
ABC school does not have a website, but does have a FB page
Monday, September 10, 2012
|On the bus waiting to explore Dhaka. Sage is an ostrich.|
|Entrance to Shankharia Bazar, or Hindu Street.|
|Drop-in anytime Hindu shrine on Hindu Street|
|The micro bus with all of us packed in like sardines.|
JUST KIDDING! This is a taxi (no, we are not allowed to take one). Notice how many times it has been beaten and repainted and bondo-ed :):):).
|THIS is the micro bus. Embassy-approved for travel, unlike the ramshackle taxi.|
The guide books bill Shankharia as one of the most photogenic streets in Dhaka. My pictures do not really do it justice. A new camera is at the top of our list of near-future purchases. The streets are super narrow with tall buildings packed with apartments on the top floors, and shops on the bottom level.
|View of apartments from the street. Below is inside view.|
|Small doorway off street, leading down narrow|
hallway to courtyard of a house. Above is the interior of
one room with a little girl
The courtyard is where the well is for bathing water, and the communal bathing area. For drinking water, the women or older children have to take their metal jugs to the pump in the street. Made us wonder about cholera.....
On the left is the communal bathing room in the house of apartments. On the right, the woman is filling her jug from the well. She was bathing by pouring the water over while she is fully-clothed.
|This woman posed for the cameras. The tour |
company probably had a deal worked
out with her, but it made for a nice photo op.
|As she walks away from her bathing, you can see |
the red streak in the part of her hair.
That denotes a married Hindu woman.
|This is the communal water faucet where you come for drinking water. They were located about one every block or two.|
|These are actually eggs to go with the perota; we didn't go there.|
|Beautiful drums of different shapes and sizes - a bit dusty.|
|It's like buying hair barrettes, |
but it's red dots for the forehead!
|Making delicious perota (like naan).|
|Still not sure why, but there were strings of |
marigolds and other flowers for sale all over.
|Lunch. We really didn't eat here, but I liked their presentation. Notice all of the sweets to the left.|