No city for women
A recent poll conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation basically reaffirmed the fact that Dhaka is one of the worst megacities for women today—a fact known all too well to the city's women residents. So it barely came as a surprise when the poll ranked Dhaka as the seventh most dangerous megacity for women. The poll took into account four criteria: access to healthcare, economic opportunities, sexual violence, and cultural practices (early marriage, female genital mutilation, etc). It's in the last two categories where Dhaka failed miserably.
As a working woman living in Dhaka, I can testify to the fact that living in this city is extremely challenging. From the horrors of public transportation to the ubiquity of sexual harassment, the list of dangers that a woman is exposed to in her daily life is too long to recount. But "women" aren't a homogenous entity. The risks that a girl/woman faces depend on a number of factors (socioeconomic status, location, age, etc) and the nature of these risks is multi-faceted. It makes me think of the millions of women who have it much worse than me.
Dhaka didn't get to this point overnight. It is the culmination of decades-long flawed model of urbanisation leading to the absence of the very basic ingredients needed for a healthy, functional society. Ask anyone who grew up in Dhaka in the 80s and early 90s and they'll tell you just how much we have regressed in terms of women's safety in the last two decades.
If there's a lesson to be learnt from Dhaka's journey towards urbanisation, it's that urbanisation does not necessarily lead to true prosperity. At the risk of sounding clichéd, take the lives of our female garment workers—the quintessential representation of a progressive Bangladesh and our go-to (and feel-good) example of a rural woman's journey to becoming economically independent having hit the "goldmine" that is the RMG industry.
Now ask yourself, are these women (who make up 85 percent of the total workforce of the RMG sector) reaping the benefits in proportion to their contributions in making Dhaka the centre of wealth accumulation? Do the (meagre) wages of the average female garment worker allow her to move into a nicer home in a better, safer neighbourhood? Is she able to access public transport with ease—having the satisfaction of knowing that she will return home safe without constantly having to look over her shoulder? In other words, to what extent has living in a megacity improved her wellbeing and safety?
The answer to all these questions is in the negative. Urbanisation only tells the story of collective prosperity, not individual poverty and misery. While the lives of female garment workers in Dhaka can be considered as a microcosm of the fact that urbanisation does not necessarily translate into a life of physical and social security, this is pretty much also the reality of countless women both inside and outside the sphere of the household.
It is easy to be fooled by ambitious tags such as "megacity" given that cities are considered as the "wealth-generating" centres of any country. The illusory correlation between urbanisation and development goes a long way in masking the inequitable distribution in wealth as economic gains and social benefits barely reach the urban poor. A lack of political willingness and commitment of successive governments towards smart urban planning and upholding the rule of law is largely to blame for Dhaka being one of the worst megacities for women today, which, when you come to think of it, is a cruel irony. As more and more women from rural areas move to Dhaka city—a wholly unfamiliar territory—to carve out a living and become more "independent", their physical security remains at stake.
Women of poor socioeconomic status are undoubtedly more vulnerable to the risks of sexual violence, forced marriage, etc, than other, more "privileged" women who don't have to get to work by foot or spend the night in a ramshackle tin-shed hut in a slum. The effects of a combination of informal employment and informal living—two of many interlocking factors that affect the security of women of low socioeconomic background—cannot be ignored. Post-independence, slums and squatter settlements have mushroomed and the informal economy now accounts for over 80 percent of the labour force in the country. The low quality of both living and working conditions makes marginalised girls and women much more likely to be victims of rape, abduction, etc. It's also in these communities—that are far from socially integrated and are a world of their own—where forced marriages of underage girls are commonplace, and considered as a simply hallmark of "tradition".
So, where do we go from here? There is no easy solution, nor do I claim to know what it is. But we have got to start somewhere. How about starting with the basics—like the radical idea of providing safe, reliable public transport or ensuring that crimes against women don't go unpunished?
If the experiences of the millions of women in Dhaka told a story, it would tell us that the tale of Dhaka's "incredible urban prosperity" is a façade. It is oftentimes a lie that we tell ourselves to either ignore or mask the hideous inequalities and injustices that make Dhaka one of the most dangerous cities for girls and women to live in. It is time we stopped lying to ourselves, seeking complacency in deceptive examples of women's empowerment that only tell part of the story.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.