I met a sweet old lady in the slum yesterday. I was in Korail to oversee the recruiting of some extremely poor people for security guard jobs. Choto phupu, Zeb-un-Nissa, had passed away the week before and I was feeling particularly tender toward silver haired beauties, so when a lady (old, frail, cute) wandered in, lost in a web of worries, I asked her who she was. Here is the heartbreak I discovered.
She was Assia, grandmother of Hossain, who had come to apply for a job as a guard. Hossain met the height requirement of 5'5” but he had a 'baby face.' (A face of a twelve year old boy on a man of twenty). I had seen a few baby faces around before but I hadn't realised this was a condition. Does it stem from under nutrition/ genealogy/ expired medication?) A baby faced guard isn't very intimidating to thieves and so he didn't get the job and his dadi was crestfallen.
She said she was desperate to “set him up” with a source of income because they were strapped of all cash. She had received a non-refundable grant of Tk.13,500 a year ago to set up a tea stall. Her oldest grandson looked after it. He earned Tk.200 a day but that was not enough to cover the family's expenses (rent and 3 kilos of rice a day) or secure them against evictions or fire. Thus she wanted a job (as a more secure path out of poverty) for Hossain.
Twenty women came to apply for the security jobs but the company policy was that women needed at least an SSC graduation to join. (Requirements for men were more relaxed.) The extremely poor women did not make the mark. Three had studied up to class 5, two had studied up to class 2, and the rest had never been to school at all. Only three men came for the job interview, Hossain and two others. One man was too short, the other was recruited.
I was surprised that so few people showed up for the opportunity, then I learnt that no one wanted the job because of the risks. Apparently if a robbery occurs, the guards get blamed, and this happens frequently. There are no rights in the workplace, or working legal institutions for extremely poor people, and such fear of false accusations is a real barrier against one of the few non-skilled, non-farming jobs available to them.
Eleven million children in Bangladesh are extremely poor. Over eight million youths are without primary education or skills. About half a million children live on streets, exposed to various dangers. The youth labour force will reach nearly 30 million by 2015.
The economy needs to grow and create more jobs for youths but macro enabling policies are not the solution to extreme poverty. Economic growth alone is not enough. Benefits do not trickle down to the poorest unless solutions are customised with them specifically in mind. We want jobs for extremely poor youths. That means we need to formalise often insecure and exploitative informal jobs and ensure job safety through legal and policy support.
And we need to expand the range of skill-development options available to youths with minimum or no education.
This means we need to allocate a budget and expertise to large-scale, quick, employment-oriented skills development initiatives starting now. We need sufficient efforts here to ensure that all youths of employable age will develop 'marketable skills' within the next five years.
Government and non-government vocational training centres need to be activated and fitted with courses suitable for available jobs. School curriculums need to more diversified at secondary school level, containing academic and vocational job oriented courses.
Private sector partnerships are key to success. Donors can help. The time to act is now! We must stop the intergenerational transfer of poverty if we are to achieve our vision of a poverty-free, fully inclusive Bangladesh by 2021.
I promised sweet dadi that I would try to help Hossain find a job. She was very huggable, though bony. Our hug brought down all sorts of barriers, and out came her true story. Hossain was not her older son's son, but her younger son's son -- the treacherous younger son had kicked her and his motherless son out of the house when he married his second wife.
Hossain was inconvenient baby-faced, and his father, desperately poor also, abandoned him. Sweet dadi rescued him and brought him into her small home (and big heart), where she and he lived as a second class citizens; a burden on her older son's family income. She was getting old and she worried what would happen to Hossain when she died.
With heart breaking love, she told me that when there was not enough money to eat, Hossain would skip a meal -- and so would she -- and all night, her heart would ache for him. Sweet dadi, and your grandson, my heart aches for you. May Allah and our elected government be with you and all the 25 million others like you.
The writer is Head of Advocacy at shiree.