For 24-year-old Anika Ibnat, finding a safe space to call home, like many single women in Dhaka city, has been a struggle. After completing her post-graduation from a university in Rajshahi, Ibnat came to her cousin's house at Motijheel to look for a job. Although she managed to find one with an NGO, within the first month, she realised that she had become a burden to her uncle. At one point, she decided to move elsewhere, and started looking for accommodation in the city. But for Ibnat, it was not easy to find a roof to live under.
“I was hoping for a seat at the government-owned Nilkhet Working Women Hostel. But to my surprise, one of my colleagues, who previously lived there, informed me that I shouldn't even think of getting a room there without the recommendation of an influential person (for instance, a minister or secretary, etc). Also, the whole process takes a period of at least six to seven months,” says Ibnat. “Since I had no such contacts and I was quite desperate to get a place, I couldn't wait that long, and finally gave up the option,” she adds.
However, Ibnat managed a seat in a shared room, with five other roommates at a private hostel in Farmgate. She promised to pay a monthly price of Tk 5,000. But for her, living in such a hostel was a terrible experience, since the hostel failed to provide a decent environment for her to live in. Though the hostel authorities assured her that it is equipped with modern facilities, her experience was quite the opposite. Unhygienic-unhealthy food and crammed spaces shared by too many other boarders forced her to leave the hostel eventually.
Ibnat's story is not a rare one. According to a 2012 report of University Grants Commission (UGC), every year around three million students from public and private universities complete their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and a total of 40 percent of them are women. Of them, a large portion comes to Dhaka from different areas of the country to earn a living, and they have no reliable place to live in. They are therefore bound to live in hostels, sublets, or sometimes messes. The Labour Force Survey 2010 of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics also shows that in Dhaka, there is an economically active population of some 41 lakhs, aged 15 years and above, and of them, about 12 lakh are women. Unfortunately, just as the mobility of women has increased to a great extent, so have their woes, especially when it comes to the issue of accommodation.
To ensure a safe living place for this large number of working women within a reasonable cost, the government has only three hostel services in Dhaka—Nilkhet Working Women Hostel, Nawab Faizunnesa Working Women Hostel in Mirpur, and Begum Rokeya Working Women Hostel in Khilgaon. According to the Department of Women Affairs, these three hostels can accommodate only 886 working women, and this is why the boarders have to face intense competition for rooms. But most of the working women who applied in these hostels claim that there is a trend of recommendation from the 'big guns', especially when it comes to Nilkhet hostel. When contacted, Sabekun Nahar, the hostel superintendent of Nilkhet Working Women Hostel, said that the allegation is partially true. “I am not denying it, but again the allegation is not entirely true. There are many boarders who applied following legal procedures,” she states.
However, women who cannot manage a seat in a
government hostel are bound to stay at private hostels, which are practically uninhabitable. These private hostels have no rational policy for its boarders. Most of them only have enough space for a single bed, a table and a small shelf, and the quality of food is poor. It is also very common for a small room to be divided with hardboard partition to make smaller single rooms which are more profitable than the combined one. For 15-20 women, there is only one bathroom. Since most of the balconies are also rented out with single beds, the boarders end up drying their clothes inside the rooms. Apart from these, utility service interruption, bed bug infestation, frequent rent hikes, and absence of guest room facilities are very common.
29-year-old Tania Akter, an engineer who works at a private organisation, and has been living in a hostel at West Tejturi Bazar of Tejgaon for the past five years, informs that in spite of facing so many problems, she is helpless and cannot do anything. “Since I am not accustomed to the food they provide, and there is no arrangement for cooking as well, most of the time, I have to depend on take-out. This is why I end up paying double for my food,” claims Tania.
The hostel authorities don't even allow them to own general electrical equipment. “For example, I need to iron my clothes on a regular basis for office, since I cannot afford the extra pennies for laundry,” says 26-year-old Mabi Mir, one of Tania's roommates. “Also, a single ceiling fan is not enough to keep a room cool in the summer. In that case, if we use a table fan, we have to pay an extra Tk 200 fee. If we are caught keeping items like a laptop or even a small water heater, they are inevitably seized and never returned,” explains Mabi.
To avoid such problems, women who can afford to spend more money depend on sublets. But this is not easy either as many landlords are reluctant to rent their rooms to single women. 27-year-old Bohni Shikha, a broadcast journalist of a private television, informs that sometimes the drunk son of her landlord knocks on her door late at night. Shikha doesn't want to reveal her original name since she is a well-known media personality and frequently appears on television. “Since I work for television and I have no fixed working hours, my landlord takes it the wrong way. Sometimes if I am required to come home late at night by the transportation provided by my office, my landlord refuses to understand, and interprets something completely negative,” she states.
In the last few years, more and more women are moving away from their home and Dhaka is experiencing a boom in the number of working women hostel boom. Getting settled in a new place is already quite nerve racking, but this list of unreasonable and sometimes unwritten code of conduct that the boarders are required to follow, make their experience even more difficult. In this moment of crisis, especially when it comes to accommodation for working women, the authorities should extend their services so that they are able to live under a roof without having to face so much hassle. At the same time, it is high time that they develop a policy for private hostels and monitor them accordingly, in order to decrease such ill practices.