How it feels to be “Forgotten”: An analysis of the women in Dhaka Bihari Camp and their on-going hurdles
“We are like the unwanted children of this country, with no rights to live peacefully like others,” one of the interlocutors replied about the treatment they are getting within the broader socio-political realm. The answer is straightforward; they are not accorded any form of dignity or respect, as if they are imperceptible in Bangladesh. Biharis who supported the Pakistani army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War encountered animosity and violence from Bengali nationalists who were fighting for independence. Following Bangladesh’s independence, the Biharis were placed in a precarious situation because both Bangladesh and Pakistan refused to recognize them as citizens. Following the conflict, a large number of Biharis were detained and sent to refugee camps, one of which was the Mirpur camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I will now directly delve into the contemporary plight of the Mirpur Bihari female members, who are grappling to attain their rudimentary human rights. This essay will also examine the pernicious challenges they face on a daily basis and their endeavors to surmount all the obstacles. In a patriarchal society, irrespective of one’s socioeconomic background, women perennially strive to conform to societal norms by persevering and demonstrating their worth to everyone. Hence, it must be more difficult to live as a woman who is a member of a community that is regarded as “forgotten” and disregarded in every manner. This thought occurred to me when I first entered a Bihari Camp in Mirpur, Dhaka, to participate in a project, “Paper Cranes of Venus,” a non-profit organization that works towards ameliorating the conditions of marginalized communities by focusing on three main issues: gender equality, menstrual health, and consent. To conduct this qualitative research, I employed both primary and secondary sources, such as the works of Dina Siddiqi and Md. Aftab Alam and in-person interviews with five Bihari women in the Mirpur Bihari Camp and Mohammadpur Geneva Camp to compile the necessary data and information for my paper.
How they became “Forgotten”
A considerable number of Biharis can be found residing in proximity to railway stations in Saidpur, Parbatipur, Khulna, and Chittagong, as they migrated to Bangladesh primarily to work in the railway industry (Alam). Despite their distinct culture from the Bengalis, the Bihari community has inhabited these areas for decades. As an Urdu-speaking community, they supported West Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War, resulting in a challenging predicament following the war’s conclusion. The newly elected Bangladeshi government viewed them as allies of the enemy, which, coupled with the fact that West Pakistan offered greater economic and social prospects for those with social capital and connections, prompted the majority of the educated upper and middle classes who spoke Urdu to flee and settle there. Conversely, the remaining Muslim population in East Pakistan, who were not Bengalis and did not have the advantage of formal education, resources, or contacts, were largely refugees (Siddiqi, p. 162). This led to widespread violence against the Bihari minority, forcing many to seek refuge in camps. The Geneva Camp, one of the largest refugee camps, was established in the Bangladeshi capital city of Dhaka in 1972 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)”, to assist and accommodate the displaced Biharis. It was not until 2008 that the Bihari community was granted citizenship by the court, though they were previously considered “Stranded Pakistanis” rather than Bangladeshi citizens. Despite their newfound citizenship status, the Bihari community continues to be deprived of their fundamental human rights and is socially disregarded and ignored. With the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh drawing attention, the plight of the Bihari people has received even less consideration. The difficulties faced by Bihari women in particular have been largely overlooked, with scarce research examining the social discrimination and injustice they endure as well as how gender norms have exacerbated their suffering. As a result, the marginalization of Bihari women has reached new levels within an already marginalized community.
Impact of Traditional Gender Roles
Bihari women in Bangladesh are typically confined to traditional gender roles, characterized by patriarchal norms and expectations. While men are perceived as the primary providers, women often assume these responsibilities, which primarily encompass domestic care and household management. Furthermore, Bihari women may be subjected to stringent standards of propriety and etiquette, and have limited opportunities for education and employment outside the home. During my visits to the Bihari camps, I was apprised of the fact that a significant number of young females, aged between 12 and 16, are coerced into early marriage. This is considered a cultural norm for females following the onset of menstruation and is restricted within their community. Parents are responsible for making all decisions related to marriage, resulting in these females dropping out of school and being deprived of basic education.
Detachment from the Mainstream Community
The Bihari women in Bangladesh face numerous challenges and are marginalized in comparison to Bengali women. Their mobility is restricted and their opportunities for work outside of the camps are limited, with most of the available jobs being low-paying manual labor. While some organizations are attempting to improve conditions for the Bihari community, including health and economic prospects, the women are often neglected in these efforts. Despite being citizens of Bangladesh, they experience feelings of alienation and a lack of emotional investment in their communities. This, combined with illiteracy and poverty, creates obstacles for them to leave the camps and assimilate into mainstream society. The government’s disregard towards their situation has exacerbated their challenges, making it difficult for them to break free from the constraints they face.
Poor Living Condition
The plight of Bihari women in Bangladesh is characterized by numerous difficulties and hardships. The living conditions in the Mirpur and Mohammadpur camps are cramped, with families residing in small, 8- by 8-foot rooms that were originally constructed in 1972. Despite the rooms’ size, families of six to seven members are often accommodated, leading to a lack of privacy. Moreover, there are few facilities to improve the quality of life for Bihari women, including inadequate provision of basic necessities such as gas, power, and water. The congested roads, combined with improper sanitation, further exacerbate the challenges faced by Bihari women.
Women in these camps face additional difficulties in the area of food and nutrition. In the Mirpur Bihari Camp, there are only two kitchens available, while in the Geneva Camp, three shared kitchens serve the entire population. Cooking meals for their families is often challenging for these women due to the inadequacy of resources.
The limited employment opportunities available to Bihari women in Bangladesh are predominantly low-skilled, low-wage jobs, such as domestic work, garment factory work, and street vending. These occupations offer limited advancement prospects and often lack proper working conditions and benefits. Furthermore, discrimination based on both origin and gender creates significant barriers for Bihari women to access education and employment, hindering their ability to improve their financial situation and living conditions.
Health Care Complexities
The health status of Bihari women is a matter of serious concern, as evidenced by the limited availability of proper healthcare services near the Mirpur Bihari Camp and Geneva Camp, with only one or two dispensaries in the area. The following are some of the key challenges faced by Bihari women in terms of their health:
- Inadequate Access to Reproductive Healthcare: Bihari women often face challenges in accessing reproductive healthcare services, which can result in a range of health issues, including difficulties during childbirth and pregnancy.
- Insufficient Menstrual Hygiene: Basic menstrual hygiene products, including sanitary pads, are not readily accessible to women in the Bihari camps, leading to various health problems, such as infections. According to a survey by Huda et al., only 27% of respondents reported using disposable sanitary napkins, while the remaining 73% resorted to alternatives such as cotton, old disposable clothes, reusable clothes, or toilet tissue paper. When asked about how they maintain their hygiene during their menstrual cycles, one of the respondents stated, “We maintain our hygiene by not paying attention to it (smile on her face) because there is no scope when you live in such a dirty place and sleep in a dirty bed. There is no way you can maintain cleanliness.”
- Lack of Family Planning Services: Due to the limited attention given to the Bihari community, there are no family planning services available, leading to unintended pregnancies and other complications.
- Prevalence of Child Marriage: As previously noted, child marriage is a widespread practice in the Bihari culture, with a large number of young girls getting married before the age of 18. This can result in various reproductive health issues, such as early pregnancy and childbirth, which can be detrimental to the health and well-being of both the mother and the child.
Human Rights Violations
The term “Razakar,” commonly used to refer to Biharis in Bangladesh, is inherently problematic and loaded with negative connotations. The term “Razakar” is considered problematic in Bangladesh because it refers to those who helped the Pakistani army during the 1971 battle and betrayed the Bengalis who were fighting for their nation. In Bangladesh, this term is associated with being a “villain” or “betrayer” of the nation. The utilization of this term by Bengalis implies that Biharis are perceived as adversaries of the nation. The situation in Bihari camps is exacerbated by the lack of adequate protection from the government and indifferent local police, leading to an increase in crime rates and a heightened sense of insecurity, particularly for women.
Sexual harassment is a prevalent issue that Bihari women face on a daily basis. This can take various forms, including physical assault, verbal abuse, threatening gestures, and pornographic actions. Due to the lack of resources and support, Bihari women are more susceptible to sexual harassment compared to other populations. These women are often unable to defend themselves against such aggressions, which can leave lasting emotional and psychological scars.
Furthermore, the inadequate administration of justice often deters victims from reporting incidents of sexual harassment and seeking legal recourse. There are cases of forced prostitution and human trafficking among Bihari women, with approximately 20,000 single women being at risk of exploitation (Farzana). One interviewee reported a relative who was abducted and forced into prostitution, and was not accepted by her family when she escaped. The repeated experiences of domestic violence and sexual harassment further stigmatize these marginalized women.
Bihari Women’s Resistance
Despite the challenges, some women from Bihari camps have begun to challenge patriarchal norms and take on responsibilities typically reserved for men. In the absence of a male family member, some women have taken it upon themselves to provide for their families through means such as embroidery work. Moreover, some Bihari mothers understand the significance of education and are showing a keen interest in sending their children, particularly their daughters, to school. A prime example of this is Hamida Begum, a 50-year-old woman who, due to her husband’s inadequate income, took up embroidery work with the support of her children. With her earnings and a bank loan, she transformed their single-room home into a three-story building and provided her children with educational opportunities that she never had. Despite facing difficulties every day, these women are slowly but surely overcoming them.
Women in the Bihari community often exhibit a strong work ethic, but their efforts go largely unacknowledged. It is crucial that efforts are made to provide improved employment opportunities and financial stability for women in the community. Women are particularly vulnerable when a male family member is absent or incapacitated, as their lifestyles may diverge significantly from cultural norms, leading to disparities and further difficulties.
In conclusion, the challenges faced by women, particularly those belonging to marginalized communities, are persistent and complex. Merely acknowledging their difficulties or relying on government aid alone is insufficient to effect substantial change. As members of the dominant community, we bear a responsibility to create greater opportunities for these women. By offering them access to education, technical training, microfinance, health and wellness resources, and empowering them, we can enhance their employability, entrepreneurial prospects, financial security, and overall well-being, enabling them to make meaningful contributions to their communities.
Alam, Md Aftab. “Cost of uncertainty.” The Business Standard [Dhaka], 03 October 2020, https://www.tbsnews.net/thoughts/cost-uncertainty-140701.
Farzana, K. M. “The Neglected Stateless Bihari Community in Bangladesh: Victims of Political and Diplomatic Onslaught.” Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 2, no. 1. Accessed 2008.
Huda, Dr Md Nazmul, et al. Exploring Knowledge and Practices Regarding Menstrual Hygiene Management Among Bihari Women In The Geneva Camp In Bangladesh. Women, Midwives and Midwifery, 2022.
Siddiqi, Dina M. “LEFT BEHIND BY THE NATION: ‘Stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh.” Sites, vol. 10, no. 02, 2013, p. 162.