Homeless in Dhaka: Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Drug-Abuse

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Bangladesh has experienced one of the highest urban population growth rates (around 7% per year) over the past three decades. Dhaka, the capital city, attracts approximately 320,000 migrants from rural areas every year. The city is unable to provide shelter, food, education, healthcare, and employment for its rapidly- expanding population. An estimated 3.4 million people live in the overcrowded slums of Dhaka, and many more live in public spaces lacking the most basic shelter. While a small but growing body of research describes the lives of people who live in urban informal settlements or slums, very little research describes the population with no housing at all. Anecdotally, the homeless population in Dhaka is known to face extortion, erratic unemployment, exposure to violence, and sexual harassment and to engage in high-risk behaviours. However, this has not been systematically documented. This cross-sectional, descriptive study was conducted to better understand the challenges in the lives of the homeless population in 11 areas of Dhaka during a 13-month period from June 2007 to June 2008. A modified cluster-sampling method was used for selecting 32 clusters of 14 female and male respondents, for a sample of 896. In addition to sociodemographic details, this paper focuses specifically on violence, drug-abuse, and sexual harassment. The findings showed that physical assaults among the homeless, particularly among women, were a regular phenomenon. Eighty-three percent of female respondents (n=372) were assaulted by their husbands, station masters, and male police officers. They were subjected to lewd gestures, unwelcome advances, and rape. Male respondents reported being physically assaulted while trying to collect food, fighting over space, or while stealing, by police officers, miscreants, or other homeless people. Sixty-nine percent of the male respondents (n=309) used locally-available drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, and two-thirds of injecting drug-users shared needles. The study determined that the homeless are not highly mobile but tend to congregate in clusters night after night. Income-generating activities, targeted education, gender-friendly community police programmes, shelters and crises centres, and greater community involvement are suggested as policy and programmatic interventions to raise the quality of life of this population. In addition, there is a need to reduce high rates of urban migration, a priority for Bangladesh.

Key words: Cross-sectional studies; Descriptive studies; Developing country; Homelessness; Sexual harassment; Substance-abuse; Violence; Bangladesh

BACKGROUND

Globally, more people now live in urban areas than in rural areas. Over the past few decades, most lowincome countries have experienced a rapid population growth without adequate expansion of public services, and many cities in the developing world lack the infrastructure necessary to support high levels of urban population growth. As a result, globally, more than one billion people live in informal settlements or urban slums (1,2). Many others live where they can-at railway terminals and busstations, at ports, and in empty markets, parks, and stairways.

In almost every major urban centre of Bangladesh, tens of thousands of people live in overcrowded slums or public spaces that lack basic facilities, such as safe water, sanitation, and health services (3). Bangladesh has experienced one of the highest urban population growth rates (around 7%) in the last three decades compared to a national population growth rate of about 1.5% per year (4). In Dhaka, an estimated 37% (n=9,136,182) of the total metropolitan population in 2007 lived in slums (5). Dhaka continues to grow as a mega-city, with approximately 320,000 migrants annually. More than three-quarters of migrants find shelter in urban slums or do not find shelter at all. Employment, shelter, and accessibility to basic services for the growing urban poor populations-those who live in informal settlements and those who are homeless-are critical issues yet to be fully addressed by policy-makers in Bangladesh (6). …