”They keep the city clean, and yet they have to live like this?!” Md. Abul Basar from Nagorik Uddyog – "The Citizen's Initiative" – is clearly outraged by the living conditions of the untouchable sweepers, toilet attendants and sewer men in the Gonoktuli ghetto in the outskirts of Dhaka.
When we ask the rickshaw drivers for directions they shake their heads. Apparently this is a place where you would not go unless you belong here. We stroll down a 100 meter long alley with lots of people and residences with small one-room apartments on both sides of the street.
About 2000 people live in this little neighbourhood. They typically share their room with 8-12 family members from three generations, and have neither water nor toilet facilities. The family members share a king-size bed, which leaves just enough space for a “kitchenette” in one corner, a TV in another, and some household items stored underneath a kitchen towel. There is no room for privacy whatsoever.
The men living in the neighbourhood are employed by Dhaka’s municipality to sweep streets, clean toilets and – without protection, masks or gloves – to climb down into the sewers and remove blockages with their bare hands. Suffocation is not an unusual workplace accident. Often the workers use alcohol to resist the stench.
It has been like this since the 1840-1850’ies, when Englishmen forced these untouchable Hindus to do the dirty work among Bangladesh’s Muslim population. They furthermore forced the untouchables to live only in this area, which has not been expanded since to fit the growing population.
The women in the neighbourhood used to be housewives, but this has now changed: At the end of the street we enter a small, dark room with a bright neon light attached to the ceiling. Here we find 18 women – all members of the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Women’s Federation (BDEWF), which was founded by Moni Rani Das in 2010.
“We want a life with dignity”, the women tell us. “This BDEWF-course in sewing and embroidery we do to learn new skills. This is the first time that we make money ourselves”. At the table are various samples, including a white boy shirt with black dots and Indian collar.
“So many things have happened since we started”, Moni Rani Das explains. “Now women go out, they dare to speak and they participate in demonstrations”, she says. “And we are heard! I have even been in London where I was interviewed by the BBC”.
Discrimination based on caste, employment and origin is the main reason for extreme poverty among the 5.5 million Dalits in Bangladesh. The consequences of the discrimi-nation constitute a serious obstacle in reaching the Millennium Development Goals in the country.
The Dalits are also increasingly being heard in Bangladesh. In the end of November 2012, three organisations, which DanChurchAid collaborates with in our Asian democracy programme, arranged a hearing in Dhaka concerning the rights of Dalit people. Among the participants were Dalit organisations from neighbouring countries and the International Dalit Organisation IDSN, which DanChurchAid is a member of and supports in cooperation with the European Union.
Another important participant at the hearing was the Chairman of the Law Commission – Bangladesh, Dr. M. Shah Alam, who is currently working on a new law, and at the hearing promised to present a legislative proposal on Dalit rights and against the common practice of “untouchability”. Maybe even this year [editor: i.e. 2012].
“This could turn out to be a very important law”, says Md. Abul Basar, who works for Nagorik Uddyog, another civil organisation promoting equal rights. “This will give us the right to take action in cases of discrimination. As for example when 70 Dalit children were forced to leave school in 2010.
In order to help the children Moni and BDEWF have created homework assistance groups for the children in the Gonoktuli neighbourhood, as well as small scholarships to help school dropouts get back on track. As the women in the BDEWF course conclude: “Tell the Danish people that we want to develop our children – we want them to go to school so that they can have a decent life!”
DanChurchAid is part of the ACT Alliance – Bangladesh, which is a close collaboration between the following member organisations: