The fight for a dignified life
A project titled “Enabling Left Behind Minority Communities to Effectively Participate in Bangladesh’s Development Process” is implemented by Bandhu Social Welfare Society, BLAST, Nagorik Uddyog and WAVE Foundation with support from Christian Aid and the European Union. This is a 42-month project that aims to empower local organizations working for minorities to claim their rights; in particular, to advocate for the rights of Dalits, indigenous people, people with disabilities, transgenders and Hijras in Bangladesh.
On November 22, 2022, a policy dialogue was held under the project where MA Mannan, MP, Honorable Minister, Ministry of Planning, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, graced the event as the chief guest while that HE Charles Whiteley, Ambassador and Head of Delegation, European Union Delegation to Bangladesh, MP Rashed Khan Menon (Dhaka-8), MP Adiba Anjum Mita, MP Lutfun Nesa Khan, Md. Kamruzzaman, Director General, National Museum of Bangladesh, Zakir Hossain, Managing Director, Nagorik Uddyog, Anisul Hoque, Associate Author and Editor, Prothom Alo attended the program as special guests. Pankaj Kumar, Country Director of Christian Aid, delivered a welcome speech.
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In addition to this, a photo exhibition on the life and livelihood of minority communities is taking place at Nalinikanta Bhattasali Exhibition Gallery, Bangladesh National Museum from 23 to 25 November 2022 (except Thursdays).
A qualitative study was conducted under this project from August to September 2022 in four districts of Bangladesh – Khulna (coastal region), Rajshahi (Barind region), Moulavibazar (hilly region) and Dhaka city – on the livelihood status of Dalits, Lowland Land Ethnic Minorities, Persons with Disabilities (PWD), Transgender and Hijra, and Tea Workers. The main results of the study are presented here.
Transgender and Hijra Communities
The traditional professions of the Hijra community are Cholla tola, which refers to collecting money as a group in markets and streets, and Badhai, which means playing for families to celebrate childbirth and weddings.
They are required to continue this profession because they are excluded from the mainstream community. Even those who acquire the qualifications for traditional jobs are rarely allowed to participate due to social stigma.
Due to poverty, bullying and harassment at school, and lack of support from families, most members of the transgender and Hijra community are unable to continue their education beyond high school. .
Therefore, they prefer self-employment (eg, tea stall vendors, tailors, etc.) to working as employees. This presents additional risks for them as it is difficult to manage the financial and social capital to start a business.
“When we try to work individually…most people including rickshaw pullers and drivers sexually harass us. Because of this fear (we) are not interested in changing our existing profession (where we are without our group),” shared a Hijra community member.
One employer said: “Our work is (physically) strenuous. We don’t think the Hijras are fit for such hard work.
In Bangladesh, Dalit communities are broadly divided into two categories: non-Bengali Dalits (Harijans) and Bengali Dalits. Harijans were brought to this region of northern India in the 18th century by the British government to meet the cleaning demands of a growing city and by tea garden owners for their availability to provide a labor- cheap labour. To this day, their descendants continue the work of their ancestors. They continue this work until today. Bengali Dalits are associated with multiple local professions, for example pottery, bamboo crafts, blacksmithing, boat driving, etc. Traditionally, these jobs are filled by the lowest caste of the Hindu community.
Traditional Bengalis are increasingly competing in the traditional labor market (e.g. cleaning, sweeping, barbering, shoe repair, etc.) from the Bengali Dalit and Harijan communities. Here they have the added advantage of better education/stable economic background compared to Dalit communities.
“Muslims (traditional Bengalis) are taking our jobs, even in forensic (morgue) professions. The Prime Minister has indicated that Harijan communities should be prioritized for these jobs, but Muslims are always prioritized,” said one Dalit respondent.
“We have quotas but these quotas are not used,” shared a Dalit respondent.
Plains Ethnic Minority Communities
The ethnic minorities in the plains are mainly engaged in agriculture-related work, including rice husking, tillage and crop packing, etc. Their main occupation was related to agriculture, which is now under threat due to drought in northern Bangladesh.
The current perception among employers is that Plains ethnic minorities are only suitable for jobs that require low-income physical labor, not high-paying office jobs.
“We have to compete with the Bengalis when trying to get permanent salaried employment. The Bengalis get the job because they have the financial ability to organize bribes and they are more educated than us” , said one respondent from a Plains ethnic minority.
During the agricultural lean season, they engage in different jobs including van/rickshaw pulling, masonry, carpentry, casual day labour, etc.
Many members of the Plains ethnic minorities are changing their traditional profession (agricultural jobs) due to the negative impact of climate change on agriculture and low wages. Moreover, some of them, who have been able to acquire an education, are able to obtain urban jobs.
Communities of Persons with Disabilities (PwD)
Most disabled people in urban areas are engaged in begging. However, a small fraction of them are involved in different professions like private/government service and entrepreneurship. In rural areas, they are engaged in cattle herding, tailoring, petty trading, begging, agricultural work and other non-agricultural activities.
Despite a number of government initiatives, they lag behind in income-generating activities due to poor disability-friendly infrastructure in workplaces, schools and other institutions. They mostly choose self-employment. Although there is a quota for the employment of persons with disabilities in government jobs, most of them cannot reach this level due to poverty, illiteracy and poor governance of the system. Additionally, there is no disability-appropriate skills-based training for available jobs.
“My parents didn’t think I could get a job after I graduated… (so) they didn’t send me to school,” shared a PwD respondent.
Communities tea garden worker
This community includes the Dalits and the Plains Ethnic Minorities (PEM). The women collect the tea leaves in the gardens and the men work in the factories. This leads to a systemic difference in the distribution of wages and labour. Many of their family members work in other occupations (labourer, masonry, etc.) outside the gardens to generate additional income, as tea work alone is not enough to support the family.
Tea garden workers see their current profession as decent work when they get housing. They like to have at least one member of the family engaged in tea garden work while the others go outside for extra income. However, working outside the gardens exposes them to wage discrimination, social exclusion and harassment.
“When working outside tea gardens, ordinary people often feel offended when we talk to each other in our own language. They think we are cursing them when we are only talking about our own business,” said shared a Plains Ethnic Minority (PEM) tea garden. worker.
Although all members of these minority communities face challenges in terms of economic opportunities, it is the women who suffer the most. Due to poverty, lack of awareness of girls’ education and lack of social security, minority communities are less likely to educate their daughters, which affects their ability to obtain decent jobs. “Families are less interested in continuing education of girls; they prefer to marry off their daughters at an early age,” added a Dalit woman.
Most ethnic minority women said that in agricultural work, men are paid more than women for the same work. Moreover, employers do not assign any women to supervisory positions, even if they have the necessary experience and knowledge. Women who work outdoors also struggle to find a work-life balance. “Although we work equally in the tea gardens with the men, only the women have to take care of the household chores,” said a female tea garden worker from Sylhet.