By Amy Lieberman
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The men of Bangladesh's tiny islands, called chars, often leave home in the summer to find work on the mainland. The women stay behind, vulnerable to the monsoons and often driven to the rooftops of their inundated homes.
Friendship has focused on promoting female empowerment, knowing that the women must properly care for themselves in order to ensure their communities' survival.
To this end, the group recently launched a weaving and dyeing center, where female teens manufacture cotton goods on wooden handlooms. They earn about 35 cents an item, each one of which takes around 1.5 hours to complete.
Though legally too young to work, the rules are broken to safeguard other rules, like the legal age of marriage. Girls here commonly marry when they are between 12 to 14 years old and they begin having children shortly thereafter. Having employment can extend their childhood years a bit longer.
The work also provides them with a portable skill to carry off to another, ideally more stable, char when the tides and winds sweep their birthplaces away.
Friendship also offers women an adult literacy and education program, meeting six days a week.
"What's most important is that these women can write their names, write an application, know numbers," said Enam Hague, a Friendship education officer. "Every day the milkman comes and makes a calculation, but it sometimes is wrong. These women are able to count that now and understand when they are being cheated. They are better able to plan for their futures and protect themselves."
Women in the class spoke of their heightened confidence, but kept their mouths covered with the edges of their saris and their eyes averted to open books on the dirt floor.
"Previously I was ignored because I could not write a letter and I could not write a slip at the market," said one pupil, identified only as Anissa, through a Bengali translator. "Now I can communicate and I feel proud. I feel strong because of that."
But no woman in the class ventured to say how her life might change or how her dreams have altered now that she can read and write.
"Even if they study it does not matter, they will still be getting married and taking care of their children," said Naisha Kader, Friendship's health program officer, at the organization's Dhaka office. "They don't have options. Their mothers haven't done anything, their sisters haven't done anything, so that concept of having a future outside the home doesn't exist."
Despite the challenges of living on chars, no governmental program exists to relocate the few million char-dwellers, whose public presence in Bangladesh appears to wash away with the seasonal rains.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She writes primarily out of the United Nations Secretariat for a Brazilian newswire.
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