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From Dublin to Dhaka

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by Paul Fallon

Before departing from Dublin airport on my way to Dhaka I stumbled across the Economist’s intelligence unit rating which finds that Dhaka is currently the fourth least liveable city in the world just ahead of Lagos, Tripoli and Damascus. The rating, part of the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, quantifies the challenges that might be presented to an individual’s lifestyle across five broad categories – stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

After my first few days on the ground here those statistics feels like a far flung abstraction to the life that is being lived here. For sure, the statistics are correct, Dhaka comes with many challenges, unemployment, poverty, pollution, and one of the most chaotic traffic systems I’ve witnessed, but my eyes have been opened to another side to this bright, colourful and vibrant city through the many creative and innovative organisations and people that are seeking to address the most pressing issues facing the country. To that end I would like to see a survey that seeks to quantify a people’s resilience, courage, and faith in themselves and each other and ability to tackle some of the hardest economic and societal challenges on the planet.

It’s now over two months since the deadly terrorist attacks hit the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka city where 29 people were brutally murdered by a group of extremists, “the tourist numbers are down”,I am told by the hotel receptionist, “this is normally a very good time of year for our industry but you are the first European we have had stay here since the attacks.”

He goes on to explain that Dhaka has always held foreigners and tourists in high regard and welcomed them openly but the actions of a small group of militants have had instilled a fear for those wishing to visit the country as well as disgust by Bangladeshi’s that a small group of extremists can have such a power over the mood and security of a nation and its visitors.

This is my third time in Asia but my first in Bangladesh, and not knowing a country first hand can be of benefit when trying to investigate the intricacies of the positive work is being done here to meet the challenges it faces. I’ve arranged several days of meetings with different organisations in the NGO sector, from garment workers to environmental workers, to child rights advocates and disability rights organisations. I am given a warm welcome everywhere, I get detailed tours of their office and projects and meet with hundreds of people that they are assisting, and I even get fed! Having just a basic knowledge of the organisations work allows me ask questions ranging from the simple to the complex in order to understand and relay the significance of what they do for an Irish readership.

The first organisation I’ve met with is called Sohay, its inception stemming from the initiative taken by its executive director Zamila Sultana who in 2002 began working with women who experienced domestic violence in their homes by trying to build their confidence through developing their skills.

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This involved starting from the most basic of tasks, teaching them to write their own names and moving onto teaching them sewing and embroidery, giving them confidence in having a useful skill that could also bring some money into their homes. From this Zamila built the organisation, Sohay, which has developed a lot since then and today works right across Bangladesh from the slums of Dhaka to the most rural areas in the country.

Zamila’s second goal was to start empowering the children of the women she was helping, many of whom begin working in factories at the ages of seven or eight, and by the time they are ten they are working 60 hours week in hazardous laborious conditions of servitude and tutelage.

This week I’ve been meeting with young people whom from the age of ten years old were working twelve hour shifts for six days a week in dangerous factory settings until they found Sohay. Hearing their stories about hard labour, long working hours, work place accidents, not having the ability to say no to an employer for fear of no payment, and dreaming of a better life that they could not attain is a humbling experience to witness coming from a child of such a young age. With Sohay they have been given a chance to exit this cycle of hardship, Sohay is training them in many fields from computers to literacy and numeracy, the boys I meet are learning how to fix mobile phones, some of them have taken up work with local phone shops, the girls have been learning how to sew and are taking up employment with local tailors.

Sohay now employs 27 staff in fifteen centres focusing mainly on skills development and educational and diversionary programmes for the women and children it works with offering them a strategy to experience a different life from that of bonded labour. This huge societal challenge is all being done from small rooms dotted throughout the slums where Sohay staff are stationed to the most rural regions of Bangladesh.

Dhaka may be the fourth least liveable city on the planet but there are many organisations ensuring that the future holds a much better quality of life.

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Winter 2015 recipient Paul Fallon is currently in Bangladesh to report on the injustices and challenges faced by home-based workers, child workers and loom factory workers in the country and the many NGOs who are helping them. Check back for his second blog soon. His work will be published by thejournal.ie in the coming months.