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Saturday, 24 September 2011

Lives and livelihoods on the streets of Dhaka City: taking development where the destitute are?

The street dwellers are Mobile and vagrant category of rootless people who have no permanent dwelling units’ and live on the streets. According to one estimate, approximately 320,000 migrants enter Dhaka annually. They are mostly economic refugees driven by both push (poverty, landlessness, violence, natural disasters, etc.) and pull (job opportunities in formal and informal sectors, better wage rate, etc.) factors. In case of children, violence and abuse by family and the native community are also an important reason for such migration. Major proportion of this migrant population take shelter in urban and peri-urban slums, but a substantial proportion squatter on the streets and become street dwellers. Dhaka city, being the capital and ‘land of opportunities’, has to take the major burden of this migrant population.

In a recent survey on the street dwellers of Dhaka city, it was found that majority of them worked as daily labourers (e.g., construction/transport/restaurant workers, street vendors, rickshaw/rickshaw-van pullers, etc.), beggars, street-based commercial sex workers, and street children aged less than 18 years. The respondents were purposively selected from 10 areas of Dhaka city having high concentration of street-dwelling population: Shahbagh, High Court premises, Kamalapur railway station, Saidabad, Karwan Bazar, Mirpur/Gabtoli, Khilgaon/Bashabo, Mohakhali/Gulshan, Gulistan/Stadium, and Sadarghat launch terminal.
The street dwellers had to adopt a very precarious and humiliating life on the streets devoid of basic amenities, and under constant threat of eviction and harassment by the law-enforcing agencies and the hoodlums. Poverty was the main reason for their migration to Dhaka and adopting this marginalized living, especially in the case of women. They commonly take night-shelter on the footpath, railway station, and stadium premises, with shift to places having some kind of roof during rainy season. They either slept alone or with other street dwellers. More women than men slept with spouse and children. 

On average, the respondents were living on the streets for seven years---men for six years and women for nine years. There were more women than men who have been living on the streets for more than 10 years. They mostly belonged to the economically active age group (19-40 years), and there were more women than men. Nearly half of the women were either widow or divorced/abandoned. The street dwellers were mostly illiterate, less than one-sixth could read and write, while only one-fifth completed primary education. On an average, the street dwellers worked for more than seven hours a day, six days a week. The men were mostly working as day labourer (40%), beggar and scavenger (16% each) and transport workers (11%), while women as beggars (36%), domestic helpers (23%), and scavenger and street-vendors (9% each). Their average weekly income and expenditure was Tk. 849 and 692 respectively, women earning and spending less than men. More than half the earnings (55%) are spent on food and 10% for tea/betel leaf and smoking. Interestingly, around 60% of the street dwellers save, amounting to about Tk. 165 per month on average.
More than two-thirds of the respondents reported to use water from WASA sources for drinking. While two-thirds of the respondents use public toilets/baths for defaecation, around one-third use it for bathing. Use of soap for hand-washing after defaecation and during bath was relatively common among them (69% and 77% respectively). Most of them clean their teeth with ash or coal. Around one-third of the respondents suffered from illnesses during the past two weeks (men 35%, women 40%); fever and common cold were the two most commonly reported illnesses. Besides, about 10% suffered from diarrhoea and dysentery. Around 70% sought treatment; of them, salespeople at drug shops were the major providers (around 80%), followed by government hospitals (around 10%). The most common chronic illnesses (≥6 months duration) reported were gastric pain (19%), difficulty in breathing (17%), and body aches (13%). One-fourth of the men and 5% of the women were addicted to drugs. Cannabis indica was the most common substance abused (89%) followed by polythene (11%).

Around one-fifth of the respondents reported to have been apprehended by police without any particular reason at least once during their lifetime on the streets, , while 22% were apprehended for drug-related charges (men 24%, women 15%). Again, 36% of the respondents reported to be physically abused by police. This lowers the level of trust in them and prevents help-seeking for protection from the political and non-political hoodlums/rent-seekers when needed.

Women selling sex on the streets are one of the most vulnerable population among the street dwellers. Around 8% of women on the streets reportedly lived by selling sex, which maybe underreported. They have an unmet need for reproductive health services, among others.  The sex workers on the streets are familiar with use of condom to a great extent, thanks to the NGOs for their work. Majority of them wanted to give up the sex work in exchange for better paid jobs.
When probed about their future aspirations, around 40% of the children said that they wanted to do some respectful jobs when they grow up, especially the girls (60% girls, 37% boys). Undaunted by harsh realities of the street-life, 16% of the boys wanted to be transport worker, while 18% of the girls wanted to be a professionals like doctor, engineer or teacher (compared to only 7% of the boys).

According to them, housing (86%), food (46%), and lack of job opportunity (40%) were the most pressing problems, superseding such problems as related to water and sanitation (30%), treatment for illnesses (20%), and harassments by the law-enforcing and other agencies (22%). About one-third of those who have been living on the streets for more than five years could not secure even three meals a day. On the other hand, apprehension by police rather increased over time (25% for those living for more than five years compared to 13% living for less than one year, while physical abuse remained constant at around 33%. Thus, life on the streets for them remained as vulnerable as was in the villages from where they tried to escape!

Bangladesh is going to celebrate forty years of its independence soon. All these years, the so called development activities of various governments have by-passed these marginalized populations and failed to address their problems! So, what can be done? Many small NGOs are working with the street-children and street-based sex workers in Dhaka city which is far short of actual need. A combination of some short-term measures which should be implemented as soon as possible, and some long-term measures which can be rolled over in near future, is needed.

The short-term measures include arranging night shelters with provision of water, sanitation and hygiene run and managed by self-help groups with minimal user charge; installation of women-friendly mobile/static sanitary toilets at strategic locations free of cost or at nominal charge; mobile ‘healthy kitchen’ to serve hygienic and nutritious foods at low cost, run and managed by self-help groups of the street-dwellers; mobile health clinics to cater to their needs; sustained anti-addiction advocacy campaign, especially among children and the adolescents.

To solve the problem of shelter for the street dwellers in the long-term, the city corporation may think of constructing low-cost shelters at different entry points of Dhaka city.  Many such models exist in India which may be reviewed. Besides, NGOs may be involved to design innovative savings and loan products for income-earning self-employment activities. Education and need-based skill-development training will help children and adolescents realize their dreams and come out of the measurable life on the streets.

Finally, the problem is structural and as such, to reverse the process of people becoming destitute through man-made and natural calamities, political commitment to equitable development is needed.

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