Down the road is a small lane.
On one corner is the scrap merchant (old spectacle frames, bent nails in Heineken beer cans) and on the other is the E1 Habib Restaurant, grand name for a small tea shop.
Turn left there, stepping carefully through the mud, past the stinking drains, to the callapsing straw huts, and all the women and children will come out to greet you.
Though you saw only men on the road, you will see no men here, except for one decrepit, blind old man, someone’s father.
This is the underworld of women and children which exists in every big town and city in the country, and this is where two friends, Golapi and Monowara, live with their children.
Golapi and Monowara are both about 20.
They laugh and smile goodhumouredly when you ask questions, passing their children back to friends so they can talk more freely, while the other women crowd around nodding or shushing the querilous old man.
Like millions of men nowadays, Golapi’s husband is on the move. He is an itinerant builder’s labourer, and he is often away.
He brought her to Dacca from her parent’s farm in Bikrampur, where, in the fine gradations of the poor, they were rich people.
She is his only wife, though several years ago he tried to take another. Her father and mother stopped that but, since then, he has treated her worse and worse, comes home less frequently, never speaks to her, and beats her violently. She says she wouldn’t mind the beatings, if only he would provide a few of the necessities. He does at least give her some money and food, which is more than many men do. (Someone laughs bitterly at that.)
Golapi is worried about birth control. After her first two children, she took the pill for five years. But when she got sick, everyone told her it was the pill, so she stopped and two more little girls were born. Now, she knows they cannot really support more children, but they only have one son and her husband wants another; while her mother is afraid that if she takes the pill and gets sick again, her husband will let her die. She worries about is constantly.
Years ago in Bikrampur, Monowara’s parents had seven sons and one daughter, and a little plot of land. Then, one by one, all the sons died. Her father was distracted, sold their land and came to Dacca as a carpenter. While he earned money, the women were not too badly off.
Then, Monowara had her first period. This is often the signal to get rid of daughters, so she was married quickly to a cleaner in a government office. Though he was fifty, this seemed like a good match until they found out that, not only did he have three wives, all with children, but also he had been married before, divorcing each woman as she got older and taking a new girl and her little bit of dowry.
Here the group tut-tuts sympathetically.
This is happening in all classes. Parents keep sons, because they bring in income, but daughters? So, nowadays men like him trade in girls, demanding higher and higher dowries from desperate parents. But at least the girls have the tenuous protection of a husband. Plenty of small girls are being sent out as maidservants at nine or ten, a thing parents never allowed even five years ago.
At first, Monowara lived in one tiny room with another wife, but she couldn’t stand the humiliation and lack of privacy, and she fought until she was allowed to move to a shack in the lane, where a cousin also lived. Now her husband visits her rarely.
She wanted only one child, and prefers girls because they are closer to their mother. Still, now she has a boy and a girl. She takes the pill even though her husband only comes once a month because he will not use contraceptives and, she says, the children she has are not getting fatherly love, so why scold she have more?
When they talk about the future, they laugh and cry.
They were brought up in the old way to be dependent farmer’s wives, housewives. But they have neither houses nor husbands, for their marriages mean nothing to them now.
What can they do? Both Golapi and Monowara want to work, they say; but they cannot read or write, or even count money, and they have no skills. Yet, without work, how can they feed their children, who they know are malnourished or themselves who are always hungry? Men survive and eat by labouring or rickshaw pulling. But the women cannot go outside without being harrassed by men calling them prostitutes. Golapis’ husband beats her if he finds she has gone out. Consequently, women like them everywhere are almost invisible.
Like Golapi and Monowara almost half the population of one of the poorest countries on earth is condemned to do nothing, produce nothing. And the tragic results, for themselves, and for the next generation, are obvious if you turn left, and go down any little lane.