The sweepers
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”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.
07.01.2013 by Jørgen Thomsen Regional Coordinator, Asia
© Jørgen Thomsen
Moni Rani Das with some of the children from the BDEWF homework assistance groups.

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.

Dirty work

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.

“So many things have happened!”

“Poverty is not the main problem, untouchability is. Untouchability leads to poverty. And even though the constitution is very progressive, the social habits have barely changed. With a new law there could be a foundation for a juridical reaction”

Md. Abul Basar

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”.

New law on the way

Dalits in Bangladesh

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.

Children in school

© Jørgen Thomsen
In 2010, Moni Rani Das was one of the co-founders of the BDEWF. Today she is the vice-president of the organisation.

Schooling is a major concern for Moni and Md. Abul Basar. Only eight of the 18 women in the room have received schooling after 6th grade – and most of these dropped out between 7th and 9th grade. “Schooling passed 6th grade is a very challenging issue”, says Bashar: First, there is the pressure from other children – many Dalit children try to hide their background for their classmates. Second, school fees are applied after 6th grade, and furthermore there are increased expenses for clothing and transport”.

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!”


 

Partners

DanChurchAid’s partners in the work for Dalit rights in Bangladesh are: 

BDEWF – Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Women’s Federation: a national association from 2010 consisting of 10 organisations led by Dalit women. 

BDERM – Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement: national platform from 2008 for Dalit organisations in Bangladesh. BDERM advocates for Dalit issues at national and international level.

Nagorik Uddyog – Citizen’s Initiative: a human rights’ organisation in Bangladesh, supporting Dalit and socially excluded peoples in their fight for human rights.

IDSN – International Dalit Solidarity Network: an international network, which supports the elimination of discrimination based on caste, employment and origin.

In 2012 these organisations published a shadow report ahead of the UN’s revision of the human rights situation in Bangladesh at the 16th UPR conference in April 2013 in Geneva.

 

The alliance

DanChurchAid is part of the ACT Alliance – Bangladesh, which is a close collaboration between the following member organisations:

Organisations from Bangladesh: RDRS Bangladesh, Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), Church of Bangladesh, Koinonia, SHED Board, Lutheran Health Service

International organisations: Christian Aid, UK; HEKS, CH; DanChurchAid, DK; ICCO, NL; Diakonia, D; Evangelische Entwickelungs Dienst/Brot für die Welt, D.

Norwegian Church Aid and HEKS are observers.


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