The ongoing tragedy: Women's voices from Rana Plaza
THE collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24, 2013, resulted in the deaths of 1,133 people and injury of over 2,500. Women made up around 80% of the dead and injured (The Age, June 24). Many are still suffering from the disaster four months later, and some of the women survivors are close to destitution. Little financial relief is available, and most cannot find work. Some have been abandoned by their husbands' families, and with their own families too poor to support them, they are helpless. Furthermore, many of the women factory workers were the sole breadwinners in their families. Their deaths and injuries mean that their dependents now face extreme poverty. These women and girls are virtually powerless. Their lives appear little valued, and their suffering easy to ignore. Despite the national and international outcry about the disaster, these vulnerable survivors are without social or economic support.
Several of the women workers who were injured in the Rana building collapse and can no longer earn a livelihood have been abandoned by their husbands and their in-laws. They are unable to secure help from their own parents or siblings.
Fatema and Farida (pseudonyms) both had this experience. Fatema, 25, started working for the Eva Textiles company at Rana Plaza after her marriage. The dusty, dirty factory made Fatema ill with bronchitis. However, her husband refused to look after her unless she gave him a dowry payment of Tk.3 lakh. He lied to Fatema, telling her the payment was for her 'medical expenses' in an attempt to use her illness to extort money from her. When her husband realised she could not pay, he threw her out of their home, seeing no more use for her. Fatema was inside the factory when it collapsed. She was rescued from the rubble after two days. She tried to seek her husband's help, but as she was by then severely injured on her arms, legs and neck and unable any longer to earn a living, he refused to support her, breaking off all communication. Her own family is too poor to provide support.
Farida, 30, was taken alone to Savar by her aunt-in-law seven days after her marriage. The aunt-in-law forced Farida to give her a dowry payment of Tk.5,000, beat her and threw her out of the house, abandoning her in Savar. Farida started working for the Eva Textiles company in Rana Plaza so she could survive. She managed to contact her mother-in-law, who told her that she would never accept Farida as a daughter and that she would kill her if she ever saw her again. The Rana Plaza tragedy happened a few months later. Farida was trapped inside the factory. Heavy machinery fell on her head and back, severely injuring her and leaving her unable to walk properly, suffering from head pains and blurred eyesight. She was rescued from the rubble after two days. Her in-laws did not contact her and offered no support. Her husband complied with their treatment of her, burning their marriage contract. As with Fatema, Farida's own family is too poor to support her.
Farida and Fatema have both received Tk.10,000 ($128) from the Prime Minister's Fund, as well as Tk.15,000 ($192) and some food packages from foreign companies who used the Rana Plaza complex. This lump-sum payment is wholly insufficient. Today, having survived on this money for four months, Farida and Fatema are unemployed and running out of money. They are scared about the future.
The deaths and injuries of women workers meant that many families lost their main source of income. In the poorest sectors of society, from which garment factory workers come, it is common for women to be the main earners. The jobs which might be available for men from such backgrounds would usually involve hard physical labour, which many of these women are too malnourished to do. Parveen, 19, who died in the collapse, supported a family of nine. With overtime, she was able to earn enough money to feed them all. Her family now has no income. "We have lost everything," said her father, who is too ill to work.
Alisha, another woman, came to the site of the collapse to look for her dead sister's body. Her sister, Rehana, had provided for the whole family including Alisha and her husband, whose farm income is too little for them to live on (NBC News, May 25). Shanu is in a similar position. She lost her right leg and badly injured her left leg in the collapse. She is now out of work. "I have a daughter, she is seven, back in my village," she said. "I want her to be educated, but I worry now about how I will be able to provide for her" (The Age, June 24). In the rubble of the factory, the dead body of a young, female garment worker was found with a small piece of paper in her hand. She wrote: "Ma and baba, please forgive me. I will not be able to buy medicine for you anymore. Brother, can you look after ma and baba?" (Common Dreams, April 29).
Women and girls who were dependent on those who died are another vulnerable group. With their families now penniless, any hopes of getting an education have diminished. Many of them will find that the responsibility of supporting their families now falls on them. Some may become domestic workers, a job in which they are highly vulnerable to abuse and have no legal protection. Some may have to beg. Many will be forced into early marriages by desperate families who can see no way of supporting them.
It is unclear what relief has been made available to date. The prime minister had earlier announced that each injured person and each family of a person who died in the collapse will receive Tk.15 lakh ($19,518) in financial assistance. As of July 25, 2013, 1,016 persons belonging to the families of 777 victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy reportedly received money from the prime minister's relief fund, with 30 injured survivors receiving savings certificates from the same fund (Financial Express July, 25). However, concerns remain that the relief effort has not been systematically coordinated. There is no central register detailing payments made and their recipients. Available reports indicate that compensation has not reached all those affected, with many survivors and their families full of anger and disappointment.
Shanaj Begum, a thirty-year-old single mother of two, is almost completely paralysed on her left side. She received Tk.8,500 ($110) as a lump sum pay-off from BGMEA, and "not a single taka" for the 150 hours overtime she worked in April. Shefali Akter is in a similar position. A married mother of two who sustained a head injury in the collapse, she reportedly refused the Tk.6,000 ($78) BGMEA offered her: it would not even cover her medical bills, let alone allow her to feed herself and her family (Global Post, May 13).
Families move endlessly between the BGMEA headquarters, the site of Rana Plaza, upazilla headquarters and the National Press Club in search of compensation. Rabeya Akhter, whose sister died in the collapse, said: "I went to the BGMEA head office, the Adhar Chandra High School and the National Press Club to enquire about compensation but found nothing. A woman who lost two sisters said that her relatives regularly make calls to the phone number they were given when they received her sisters' bodies, and receive nothing (Financial Express, June 1). Most claimants, illiterate and without knowledge about the compensation process, are in the dark.
On a Monday in August, a group of women gather in a small room in Savar. One woman talks about the brother she lost; another holds up a photo of her dead husband. A 19 year old girl, Kamrun, sits on the bed crying quietly: she was inside when the building collapsed, and still feels scared. An older woman in the room, Minal, is worried about her daughter, who sustained head and leg injuries in the collapse. The day before, Minal went to a protest in Dhaka demanding three months' salary for her daughter from the BGMEA, which she is entitled to receive for termination of employment. Unbelievably, the police beat her with batons, injuring her arms and shoulder (Daily Star, August 4). Another young girl in the room, who holds up her Rana Plaza ID card, says she went to the same protest and was also beaten. She is now so hurt she can no longer work. The support given to these women is grossly inadequate, and they have had to face violence in return for demanding help.
The national and international outcry in the immediate aftermath of the disaster meant that, for once, these women's lives seemed to matter, that violations of their dignity were met with the outrage they deserved. But barely four months later, they are again being left to struggle, again being treated as less than human. There is an urgent need for a one stop service for survivors and dependents, preferably conducted through a high-level government agency, to provide adequate redress and rehabilitation including employment and medical assistance. As it is, women scrape out a meager existence from savings, compensation payouts and food packages given by foreign and local companies and organisations. They are using up the money and they cannot find jobs. They live in an increasing state of terror as they slip closer to destitution. It is essential to act urgently to secure these women's rights to life and livelihood.
The writer is studying PPE at Oxford University.