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Tackling urban poverty key to equitable MDGs

© UNICEF/2011/Mawa
Shahida Ahkter, 35 lives in a 2 by 3 metre dark and cramped shack in the Jhilpar Slum in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. She is pictured here with her youngest son Tuhin aged 5.

Dhaka, 10 August, 2011: Every morning Alakh Miha rises at 5am from the large wooden bed he shares with his wife Rohima and four children and walks down a muddy narrow lane crammed with makeshift houses to use a communal hanging latrine (a bamboo structure that hangs above a water body).

The 46-year-old lives in a dingy 4 by 5 metre shack in the Jhilpar Slum in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. The house has no adequate lighting and cooking or proper ventilation facilities and the improvised wooden floor boards are rickety and uneven. Their only source of water comes from a nearby illegal pipe and is often unreliable and dirty.

Alakh moved to Dhaka in 1988 to find work after a flood destroyed his home in the south-eastern district of Comilla and has been living in slums ever since. His sons - aged 18, 14 and 12 and his daughter, aged nine, have grown up in this city slum.

Alakh is the family’s sole bread winner and earns a living as a fishmonger, selling his wares for up to thirteen hours a day from a tiny stand on the streets in a local market. In 2006, he suffered paralysis in his left leg and was unable to work for three months. The family’s income dwindled and they were forced to rely solely on handouts and micro-credit loans from a local NGO.

The family can no longer afford to send their sons to school leaving them to carry out odd jobs, like selling discarded plastic bottles, for small and random payments. Alakh’s nine-year-old daughter attends a school run by a local NGO and his wife. Rohima says if it wasn’t for the subsidised fee, they wouldn’t be able to send her to school either.

“Of course we dream of moving to a better place but we are bound to live here,” says Rohima. “Who would choose to live in a place like this? Every time we vote, we expect the situation to change but nothing ever happens.” She says.

This family’s situation is far from unique. An estimated 7  million people live in slums across Bangladesh and with the country undergoing one of the fastest urbanisation rates in the world that number is set to increase. By 2035, more than half of Bangladesh’s population will live in urban areas – an estimated 110 million people.

Bangladesh’s urban slum areas are characterized by poor housing, high population density, limited sanitation facilities, a very low socio-economic status for a majority of residents, a lack of security tenure and poor governance.

A recent paper by UNICEF entitled Understanding Urban Inequalities in Bangladesh showed the situation of urban dwellers in the country is often worse than the situation of those in rural areas. Access to health, education, power, water supply, sanitation and waste management is very limited for the urban poor and where those services do exist, the quality is low and cost can be prohibitive.

For example in the area of health, the under-5 mortality rate per 1000 live births is 95 for slum areas and 66 for rural areas. In the area of sanitation and hygiene, 9 per cent of households in slum areas use improved sanitation facilities that meet UNICEF’s monitoring standards compared with 54 per cent of people in rural areas. Slums have very high rates of school dropout and have three times more child labour than the national average.

© UNICEF/BANA2011-00418/Mawa
Daily life in Jhilparh slum - a woman takes a bath and a man steps out after using a latrine. About 100,000 people live here under very difficult living conditions.

While the rural population can rely on strong social and community networks, the urban poor often live away from their families and find themselvesvulnerable to middle men or mastans, who offer set up amenities such as illegal water pipes for exorbitant prices. Because of this, slum residents can sometimes end up paying more for a litre of water than their wealthier neighbours.

The Jhilpar Slum sprawls an estimated 10 acres and is home to around 100,000 people. Because partsof it are enveloped by bodies of water, the area is prone to flooding and many of the houses have been built on raised bamboo platforms.

Just meters from Alakh and his family is the home of Shahida Ahkter. The 35-year-old mother of four is a newcomer to the slums, having only moved from the nearby district of Madaripur at the beginning of 2011 to escape a violent marriage. She says she came to the slum to seek a better life but says her living conditions and physical surroundings were better in Madaripur than they are in the slum.

“We had land and we were earning enough money to support ourselves. We had open space for the children to play in,” she says. Shahida traded the open space for a 2 by 3 metre raised, airless, steel bunker that she now shares with three out of her four children, all of whom are aged between 5 and 14. She works as a domestic aid to support them and plans to enrol the youngest two in an NGO-run school but is yet to find one. 

The Jhilpar Slum has limited education services and although UNICEF operates two learning centres through its Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Working Childrenprogram, younger children and those who don’t work remain uncatered for. Health services are also lacking and sick slum dwellers are forced to travel outside of the area, but even then services are scarce and expensive. “If we get sick and we have some money to spare then we can buy medicine. If we don’t have any money to spare then there is nothing we can do. It’s as simple as that,” says Rohima.

Given the growing inequities between the urban rich and poor,UNICEF is seeking to play a key role in holistically supporting basic services in urban areas.UNICEF’s Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply in Bangladesh (SHEWA-B) project has already installed and repaired 1,200 latrines in slums areas, as well as almost 800 water points, directly benefitting up to 68,000 people and more than 100,000 people respectively.

While, the project is yet to reach theJhilpar Slum, in the neighbouring Rupnagar Slum UNICEF-supported interventions have seen 11 hygienic latrines and seven legal water points set up, which have benefitted more than 40 households. A resident of the Rupnagar Slum, 40-year-old Anwar Begum says the change has made her life much easier. “Before the legal water connection households were being charged up to taka 400 per month to use water that was often unreliable and dirty. Now each household pays around taka 80 per month,” she says.

Life in the slums of Dhaka goes on but for Alakh and his family and for Shahida and her children, their future livelihoods are uncertain. “I don’t think I will have a better life here,” says Shahida. “But I hope that one day my son will.”



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