When I was about 3, a stranger came to live in the basement of our neighbor’s house in Jaipur, in western India. This was unusual as these basements were mainly used to escape the heat of the desert and provide some additional storage. He also spoke Bangla, my mother tongue, spoken in another part of India about 2500 km away. Our curiosity was further aroused as he was quite shy, rarely seen outdoors, so we children just had to see him, and often peeked through the high windows of the basement. And then one day he came to our home. My parents treated him with profound kindness. I learnt that he was a member of something called the ‘Mukti Bahini’, fighting for ‘independence’. He acquired a heroic aura in our young eyes and following the example of our parents, we lavished our love and affection on him.
Soon a war broke out and we ourselves spent much of our nights in the darkened basements as fighter jets screeched overhead. The hospitals filled up with wounded soldiers. I had started pre-primary school that year and from our school and neighborhoods we launched drives to collect money and goods for the soldiers and refugees who were pouring into India. Out of this war was born the brave nation of Bangladesh which celebrates 50 years of its birth on March 26th, 2021.
At independence, over 70% of Bangladesh’s population lived below the poverty line. This was the result of years of economic neglect, compounded by a devasting cyclone in 1970. Today, 50 years later, Bangladesh has a booming economy. According to the World Bank, using the international poverty line of an expenditure of $1.90 per person per day, the number of people living below the poverty line in Bangladesh has declined from 44% in 1991 to just under 14% in 2016-17. The growing national gross per capita income enabled Bangladesh to reach the status of a lower middle-income country in 2015. In 2018 it met the United Nation’s criteria to graduate from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – a process that takes 6 years for its confirmation, Bangladesh seems on track to graduate in 2024. In a post COVID world, it’s one of the few economies predicted to grow at over 4% this year.
Millions of women have joined the workforce, over 90% of children in Bangladesh are enrolled in schools, more girls in the country go to school than boys. Women are able to exercise their right over their own bodies and reproductive decisions, bringing about a dramatic reduction in the fertility rate from a high of 6.9 children per woman in 1971 to 2.03 children in 2015, a rate of decline unprecedented in a lower income country! A nation that saw over 10 million of its people as refugees in India at independence, now provides refuge to over a million Rohingyas from neighboring Myanmar.
I met Samira Begum, one such Rohingya refugee, in one of the camps in Cox’s Bazaar in 2019. She was about 19 or 20 years and lived in a 10 feet x 15 feet structure divided into 2 rooms and a cooking area. Her home was dark, as she cooked on a wood stove that emitted lots of smoke and soot and there were no windows. Samira had been living here for the past 18 months, sharing the space with a young sister-in-law, her husband and her 1.5 year old baby. Samira was pregnant when I met her and was expecting her third child, she lost one in Myanmar to a disease. She and her young sister-in-law followed strict purdah and never stepped out of the house. The farthest she moved was about 5 feet from her home, to the next-door neighbor, whose doorway was within the same enclosure as Samira’s. All purchases from the market were made by her husband – Samira rarely saw the blue sky above the camp.
I asked Samira how she felt, and she said she was ‘happy as she felt safe’. Her world was tiny, enclosed within her home, which provided her the safety she craved for. When I read about the fire in the refugee camp last week, it was Samira’s face that swam before my eyes. I do not know if she was affected by the fire, but I do know that in every one of those shelters burned down, there live a Samira or two. They need just a little help from us, just a step up, to find their safe and secure place in the world, just as the brave nation of Bangladesh has done. Solidarity begets solidarity in a world where we all need each other.