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Sushmita S Preetha
Nine-year-old Papua does not know what her sexual and reproductive rights are or what the words “rape” or “sexual harassment” suggest. She does not even fully understand what it means to be touched inappropriately. But every night, she wakes up screaming from a nightmare: “Don’t hurt me, please! Don’t touch me!”
It took her mother six months to realise that her daughter’s dreams were not the results of a childish fear of ghosts, but rather the manifestation of being sexually abused by their neighbours.
Her single mother, whose husband left three months after Papua was born, lives in a slum in Karwan Bazar and works as a temporary domestic worker. She has to leave her daughter at home by herself when she goes to work.
It was during those times that her daughter was raped by a man whom she calls “uncle” on multiple occasions and sexually assaulted countless other times.
For the vast majority of adolescent girls like Papua living in slums, violence is an unavoidable element of their existence be it at home, in the community or in relationships. They are often the worst victims of violence and sexual harassment in slums, triply marginalised because of their class, age and gender identities.
According to a baseline survey conducted by iccdr,b and Population Council in the slums of Mohakhali, Mohammadpur and Jatrabari, 76% of the women and girls surveyed had endured physical or sexual abuse during the past 12 months, with 43% having suffered both physical and sexual abuse. An overwhelming number of cases of violence take place against adolescent girls, states the study.
Teenage girls and their parents in different slums in the capital argued that gangsters and unruly boys in the slums pose constant threats to young girls, especially unmarried ones. Oftentimes, they are harassed on their way to and from work and school both physically and mentally.
“The streets and even our homes are not safe from their [the men's] threats. A local gangster who has a lot of connections used to taunt me all the time and even harassed me on multiple occasions, forcefully laying his hands on me,” said Anjuman Begum, a 16-year-old garment worker.
When Anjuman told him she would go to the police if he doesn’t stop, he threatened her with acid and abduction. She was forced to leave the slum and move to a different area before he left her alone.
Many girls bear the harassments without voicing any resistance because if they complain, the community inevitably ends up blaming the girl for “inciting” such behaviours. There is also an acute shortage of support institutions that can give them social, psychological and legal help in dire situations.
“I was termed a ‘bad’ girl when I tried telling the influential people in the slums that local boys were threatening me. They said it’s because I stay out late and ‘free mix’ with boys,” said Jhorna. “I didn’t know who else to turn to, so I just shut up about it.”
Families constantly worry about their young unmarried daughters’ safety, and end up marrying them off at a very early age.
“What choice did I have but to marry her off? She was already attracting a lot of attention from boys in the neighbourhood. We don’t have money to pay for dowry. Who will take her if her reputation is tarnished?” said Runa, a resident in Mohammadpur slum.As many as one-third of all girls in urban slums get married before the age of 15 years, about 31 percent involve dowry and 61 percent are arranged marriages, states another research by icddr,b and Population Council.
Acute poverty, insecure living arrangements, frequent forced evictions, weak social network, absence of civic society institutions and poor public services contribute to the vulnerable status of girls in urban slums, states the research.
Girls also face violence if and when they are in relationships. Some even admitted to being cajoled and threatened into having relationships.
“I was having relations with a 31-year-old man, who forced himself upon me. When I tried to resist, he told me that it was my duty to make him happy and that he would tell everyone I was a prostitute if I refused,” said a 17-year-old girl, who wishes to remain unnamed.
Fifteen-year-old Ranu, who admits to being sexually assaulted on a daily basis by her brother-in-law, said, “He tells me I owe him this because he lets me stay in his house.”
In the absence of state support and systematic assistance from non-governmental organisations, girl children and adolescent girls continue to lead vulnerable lives, exposed to various forms of marginalizations from different actors.