Despite considerable improvements in a range of gender equality indicators in education and health in Bangladesh, the unmarried adolescent girls living in Dhaka slums experience multiple forms of violence at home, in romantic relationships and in the community.
Ayesha (not real name), a 16-year girl living in Malibagh slum in the city, said that she has to suffer various types of harassments in leading her life in the city slum.
“I work in a garment factory at Rampura in the city. I’ve to woke up early in the morning to join my workplace. On my way out of the slum, I’m subjected to teasing by stalkers every day,” she said.
Aware of such regular stalking, Ayesha said, her family has been putting pressure on her to get married to avoid such unpleasant incident of stalking and to protect their reputation.
“If my family arranges marriage for me ignoring my choice, I will be helpless. I don’t know what I should do,” she added.
Abdur Rahman, a sexagenarian who lives in the same slum, said girls are not safe in this area . “There are so many `mastaans’ (gangsters) and `bokhate’ (spoiled) boys out there. They harass the girls.”
He added: “Sometimes girls cannot go to school because of such harassment. So, parents want to get their daughters married off before anything bad happen to them.”
Although girls of slums are keen to go out for work to contribute to their family income aiming to cut poverty, they have to face violence and harassment in their daily life.
This scenario of girls’ sufferings in urban slums was depicted in a recent study, titled ‘Violence against Unmarried Adolescent Girls in Dhaka Slums’.
The study was conducted by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), an international health research institution in Dhaka.
The study shows that parents often mistrust and blame girls inappropriately when girls report sexual harassment on the streets.
Parents also frequently suspect their daughters are going out with someone.
“Last year, I went out with my female friends in the morning for celebrating `Pahela Baishakh’ (Bangla New Year). On return, my mother yelled at me: Liar! Why didn’t you tell me you were with a guy the
whole day,” the study quoted a 16-year old girl as saying.
The community also put pressure on the unmarried slum girls in various ways through prescribing certain norms. Girls are not encouraged to wear trendy or western clothes, such as kameez or jeans. They are discouraged and often forbidden to spend time with or talk to men in the community.
The ICDDR,B study said if a girl does not follow these social expectations, neighbours complain to her parents, label her as a ‘bad girl’, or make cutting remarks. It found that sexual harassment on the streets is extremely common and girls sometimes have to stop going to school or work because of sexual harassment.
On the attitude of the community about girls, ICDDR,B researcher Suborna Camellia said local leaders and mastaans extort money from girls (also from men) if they see girls are talking with men.
She said: “In case a girl or her boyfriend do not pay, the mastaans threaten to publicise that they were caught engaged in sex. Maastans even threaten the girls with rape.”.
Camellia said sometimes the girl and her boyfriend are brought under arbitration, get beaten publicly, and are charged by community leaders or their henchmen.
Despite various restrictions, unmarried young women often have inmate relationship with men. But, the girls in the city’s slums become the worst victims of violence in such intimate relationships.
The study revealed that the relationship of the slum girls often start with violence and force like threats of abduction, acid throwing and rape from local mastaans.
The ICDDR,B researchers recommended creating strong inter-agency and inter-disciplinary partnerships to change the cultural norms of the community and addressing society’s violence-condoning attitude to
remove violence and harassment against unmarried girls in urban slums.