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Women: Bangladesh’s ‘unreached people’

BANGLADESH (BP) — The small-framed girl weaves through the mass of bodies bustling along a congested sidewalk. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes dart from person to person, choosing a subject. She approaches a woman and tugs on her sleeve, extending a small, dirty palm and uttering in a childish, imploring voice: “Sister, give me two taka [2½ cents]!”

The woman shrugs her off, telling Minara* to go find work as a housemaid. The girl cries, “No, give me money!” but the woman brushes past and continues on her way.

Minara isn’t fazed — she’s gotten used to these reactions, and worse. The 9-year-old, dressed in faded, dirty clothes, continues pushing through the crowd to find another kind face. She must find some generous souls if she and her family will eat tonight.

Second-class citizens

Almost 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim. The country’s culture often devalues the worth of women, considering them “objects.” Because men are deemed superior, women are treated as lesser citizens and aren’t given the same opportunities as men.

Brothers are more likely to go to school than their sisters. Daughters are married off young so their families can collect a dowry. Once married, a wife’s job is to cook, clean and produce children. Verbal and physical abuse is rampant; men routinely take second wives and desert their original families. Many mothers are left struggling to care for their families alone — and often have many children — living in poverty and resorting to backbreaking low-income jobs, begging or prostitution.

“My passion and what I feel called to is women and children of Bangladesh,” says Geri Hennerman,* a Christian worker from Texas who’s served in the country nearly 10 years. “I do feel like women here, particularly, are the unreached people group, and I think through them the children can come to know Christ.”

That passion is what led Geri and another Christian worker to start the Light of Hope Learning Center more than six years ago. The center, also called “The Shelter,” is a nonresidential center where girls from impoverished families receive education, health care, moral instruction and life-skills training — a place where they learn self-worth. But not every girl is so fortunate.

A beggar’s life

As the morning sun filters into her family’s one-room shack, Minara wakes up in the bed she shares with her mother, Rahima,* and 1-year-old sister, Sakehna.* She sits up and stretches, her reddish-tinted hair — a sign of malnutrition — askew from last night’s sleep. The rickety bed frame, about the size of a double bed, takes up nearly half of the family’s 8-by-8 house.

This is one of the city’s major slums, where ramshackle homes line either side of two parallel railroad tracks. Numerous trains barrel past each day, violently shaking the flimsy structures sitting just a few feet away. In between the passing of trains, adults and children loiter on the tracks — small children playing tag, women sitting and shucking beans, young boys playing board games and men playing cricket.

The poorest of the poor dwell here — the rickshaw drivers, day laborers, garment factory workers, beggars, single mothers, the unemployed and unemployable. The shacks are makeshift one-room structures of bamboo, wood and corrugated tin with dirt or concrete floors. Minara’s family pays about $15 rent each month to live here.

Minara’s “home” lies at the end of a row of six shacks, three on each side of a narrow, dirt alleyway. The houses share walls as well as a common bathroom area located at the end of the alley. A ragged cloth hangs as a privacy curtain for the enclosed area, which is divided into two small spaces: one for bathing and one for the “toilet” — a hole in the middle of a concrete slab that opens to a small pit full of refuse. The stench is overpowering, and flies buzz around the open sewage. At the other end of the alley sits a cooking area covered by a corrugated tin roof. Six primitive fire pits, one for each family, are dug into a dirt mound.

“My dad is not living with us and does not take care of us,” Minara says. “My mom has to pay house rent and provide food and clothing for us — that is why my mom and I are begging. Sometimes we are able to earn money through begging, sometimes not.”

Rahima has been taking care of her children on her own for the past six years.

“My husband took a second wife, and now he does not provide us with any food or clothing,” she explains. “He sometimes beats me very badly and quarrels with me.”

For about a year after Rahima and her husband separated, she was homeless, begging and living on the street with Minara until a kind foreigner gave her 1,000 taka, about $12.50. This money helped Rahima find a house in the slums, though she continued to earn income the only way she could — begging.

Following her divorce, Rahima married Sakehna’s father, a day laborer — but he, too, doesn’t provide for the family nor does he always stay at their house.

“I have two children and I to take care of, but there is no one who provides money for us to live,” she says. “I am a beggar so that I can manage my family and provide for my children.”

Six days a week, Rahima and her two daughters are on the street from 9 a.m. until early afternoon — or late at night depending on how much money they make or how they feel. Their daily goal is to earn between 100 and 150 taka (about $1.25 to $1.88).

“From the very beginning of my life, I saw that my mother was learning how to beg from another lady that was a beggar,” Minara says. “My mother taught me her strategy for begging.”

When the family arrives at a major intersection, they immediately start to “work.” Rahima, with Sakehna in her arms, dodges through the crowds, asking passersby for money or entreating shop owners to give her family food.

Minara stays within earshot of her mother, though she is constantly on the go, moving like lightning from one person to the next. She occasionally meets back with her mother and Sakehna to speak for a moment, then returns to the crowd. Many passersby speak harshly to Rahima and Minara or simply ignore them; a few vendors and shopkeepers yell at them or chase them off with a stick, but some pedestrians spare a few taka.

All types of beggars stretch along the intersection’s sidewalks pleading for money — a middle-aged man with a broken and mangled arm, a mentally-challenged elderly woman sitting in a heap of dirty rags, a young boy with no legs scooting on the ground, a blind man wandering around with hand outstretched, a small malnourished child with pitiful eyes. Some beggars merely hold out their hands and quietly beseech people to give them money; others grab pedestrians’ arms and are more demanding.

The value of education

This isn’t the life that Rahima wants for her children.

“I do not like begging because it does not provide me dignity,” she says. “… I want to work, but nobody provide me any job.”

Rahima has tried to gain employment as a housemaid, but with two young girls at home and a lack of education, she’s nearly unemployable. She has a first-grade education and cannot read or write more than her name. But she knows that education is the ticket out of this life for her girls.

“My hope and dream is to give a better education and environment for my children — to help them to become a good woman,” Rahima says quietly. “I do not have any dream for myself. I only have dream and hope for my children.”

Last year, Rahima’s dream came true for Minara — she was able to attend the Light of Hope Learning Center. There, Minara learned to write her name, the Bengali alphabet and numbers; basic hygiene practices such as the importance of brushing teeth, taking regular showers, washing hands and wearing clean clothes; and stories from the Bible about Isa, Jesus. Though Minara and Rahima are Muslim by birth, Minara loves hearing Bible stories — her favorite is when Jesus brought a young girl back to life — and Rahima has “a good impression about Jesus.”

The center also helped support Minara’s family while she attended — Minara received a healthy meal each day, and the center provided the family with food, blankets, school uniforms and shoes.

But after one year, Minara was forced to quit — Light of Hope leadership had to suspend the program because of lack of funding, resources and staff. The family still comes to the center once a week, though — Minara attends Awana (a Bible study class for children) and Rahima goes to a basic literacy class for mothers. Rahima also has the option of going to a mother’s sewing workshop four days a week, where mothers receive almost $1 for each afternoon they attend.

“If [Minara] gets the opportunity again to go to the center, it would be a great privilege for her,” Rahima says.

But for now, they make do with a beggar’s income. Despite her family’s impoverished life, Minara retains a childish optimism — she would like to be a teacher or a doctor when she grows up, she admits with a shy grin.

“My hope and dream is to be able to sustain myself by doing a job and earning money,” she says. “In the future, I would like to follow Jesus. Jesus protects us from the devil and He is our Savior.”

To get in touch with the Light of Hope Learning Center directors about how you or your church can get involved, email [email protected].

Southern Baptist projects supporting Light of Hope include One Life’s “One Girl’s Shelter” project (onelifematters.org/projects), Global Hunger Relief (World Hunger Fund, worldhungerfund.com) and Baptist Global Response’s Child and Youth Education Fund (baptistglobalresponse.com/projects/view/the_light_of_hope_center).

View “More precious than jewels — begging for a better life,” which features more Light of Hope photos, related video and audio, prayer requests and additional ways to get involved in this and related ministries, at commissionstories.com.
*Name changed. Laura Fielding is an IMB writer.

    About the Author

  • Laura Fielding