Hamida fills sandbags alongside her all-women team of construction workers. Clad in long, black burkhas and tightly wrapped head scarves, they are helping to build a bamboo bridge over a sewage trench. The odour is overwhelming; the heat sweltering. At 10 a.m. it’s already 35°C with the humidity edging toward 90 percent here in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
In the Rohingya refugees’ conservative Muslim culture, it’s uncommon for women to work outside the home, especially doing manual labour. But Hamida and her teammates—all young widows—are willing to test tradition if it means making some money to help feed their children. They are among 295 women participating in World Vision’s innovative cash-for-work programme in the refugee camps that are now home to almost 1 million people.
“We don’t care what kind of work we are given. We fill bags with sand and cement, level pathways and weave bamboo fences while men do the heavier work,” says Hamida. She lost her husband during the genocidal violence in Myanmar in August 2017. Suddenly she became the sole breadwinner for her two children Ayatullah, 8 and Rashidullah, 11.
“It’s difficult for a woman to earn money here in the camp,” says Hamida. In Myanmar, she and her husband ran a small quarter-acre farm, gardening and caring for their three cows and five goats. Hamida never expected to be a widow at age 40 or to have to find a way to feed her children on her own.
She’s not alone. In the camps, there are 32,684 female-headed households, according to the UNCHR. They struggle to provide for their children beyond the monthly rations of rice, lentils and vegetable oil that all refugees receive from World Food Programme. Children need a more balanced, diversified diet, but mothers have no means to buy the meat, fish, and fresh fruit and vegetables they need, although these foods are readily available in the market.
World Vision is providing short-term work for 1,000 Rohingya refugees—30 percent of whom are women—enabling them to earn some income while constructing roads, pathways and bridges across the camps’ muddy, sloping terrain.
Teams of 1,000 refugees work in 20-day rotations to ensure that many families can participate in the programme. Workers earn 350 taka (USD4.50) per day—a fair wage comparable with local rates for casual daily labour. The lump sum of USD82 for 20 days’ work goes a long way in camps where a kilogram of tomatoes costs 80 taka (USD1) and a chicken sells for 120 taka (USD1.50).
Being able to work helps the refugees regain their self-esteem and dignity. No one wants to be dependent on aid. Earning an income gives women and men choices and a sense of control over their lives—something many feel they lost in the frantic flight from Myanmar.
Although successful, the programme was not without start-up kinks. Working outside the home is not culturally acceptable for women, especially doing construction work alongside men. Male by-passers heckled and jeered at the first female teams on the job site—sometimes even threatening them verbally.
“It was challenging to get women participants initially,” says World Vision project officer Agatha Sarker. “So we met with community leaders to get their buy-in. They agreed that women should be supported to do this work, especially those from female-headed families.” The harassment subsided, says Agatha, although the women still brave some ridicule from neighbours for bending tradition.
Cash in hand from her first pay, Hamida can purchase what she needs for herself and her children. “My children used to ask me for good food when they were hungry, but I couldn’t afford it. After earning this money, I am so happy. It’s a support for me as my husband is no longer with me. I can go to the market to buy food for my children. I bought a hen and some vegetables, as well as some apples and grapes.”
A frugal money manager, Hamida also had enough money for some new clothes. Without incomes, refugees are dependent on used clothing donated by generous Bangladeshi organisations. Most people only own one change of clothing, and have little choice over fit, colour or style.
“I bought new shirts and pants for my two boys, and a skirt, a scarf and a piece of cloth for myself,” says Hamida smiling.
In addition to earning money for her family, Hamida is equally proud of the contribution she’s made to her new community. “People are now very happy with our road repair work. Now they can walk around the camp more easily.”
To date, the 1,000 refugee workers have built 7,641 metres of pathways, 1,105 metres of drainage excavation, 17 bamboo bridges and 29 hillside sandbag staircases, earning a total of USD83,540. World Vision organized and supervised the construction work with funds provided by Aktion Deutschland Hilft.
“We widows have no one here to stand with us,” says Hamida. “This opportunity to work is really so helpful to us.”
The men in the cash-for-work programme agree. Amin, 32, says the income he has earned enabled him to support his wife and four young children.
“It’s difficult to maintain a family when you have no work and no earnings,” says Amin, who admits he rarely worked in the last year since arriving in the refugee camp due to lack of opportunity. “Sometimes our rice and other food run out before next ration. Often we are forced to borrow money or trade relief items to get cash.” With his wages, Amin repaid his debts, bought firewood for cooking, repaired the roof of his shelter and bought clothes for his children.
The cash-for-work programme has equipped workers like Hamida and Amin with new skills and built community cohesion, says World Vision coordinator Prodip Kumar Suter.
“Before the refugees were frustrated because they had no work and no money,” says Prodip. “Now they have employable skills. They know how to plan and work together, and can confidently help construct any site improvement project in the camps. Plus, they earned a good wage to help them buy some basic needs. We hope to expand and diversify this programme to benefit more people.”
Written & Photographed By:
Himaloy Joseph Mree & Karen Homer
Bangladesh Refugee Crisis Response Program