Updated: Sep 13, 2021
"Once I got the key to the house, I was really surprised; it is the biggest gift in my life,” said Shila Das, a 55-year-old woman finally living in her own house in Domuriya Upazila in Khulna, since January. She was homeless since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971. Shila is just one of the many individuals who received a house as part of Ashrayan-2, the largest homeless housing plan in the world.
"In Mujib Year and on the 50th anniversary of our independence, no one will be homeless in Bangladesh. Our government is working tirelessly to achieve this aim," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated at the beginning of 2021, as she virtually inaugurated project Ashrayan-2 due to the pandemic. Officials said project Ashrayan-2 will house as many as 900,000 homeless people. According to reports, houses have already been allotted to 66,189 families in the first phase of the project. On June 20, the Prime Minister kicked off the second phase of the project by officially sheltering 53,340 more families.
Poverty has been a dominating issue in Bangladesh. In fact, following its independence, 90% of the population lived below the poverty line. This issue has several causes. Political instability is one. However, that problem alone shouldn’t divert our attention from other underlying, deep-rooted issues in Bangladeshi society, such as the lack of women in the workforce. Such absence prevents the strengthening of Bangladesh’s infrastructures, nurturing poverty and turmoil.
To address such issues, the government confronted concerns across various sectors of development. According to the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh currently has the “fastest-growing economy in the region.” For instance, the government has been focusing on the involvement of NGOs, diversifying exports, investing in education, developing the IT sector, and increasing foreign direct investments. Under Ashrayan-2, many families have already started participating in agriculture, fishing, and livestock farming. Many are making fishnets and fences for their rivers and crop fields. Such improvement of livelihoods shows that permanent housing not only benefits individuals but also the economy by giving people the opportunity and time to utilize their skills.
Project Ashrayan-2 is a crucial step in solving homelessness in Bangladesh and all the problems that come with it. Before Shilpa Das and her family acquired permanent housing, her daughter, Lata Das, endured multiple episodes of sexual and physical assaults, a common injustice experienced by many homeless individuals.
“I dropped out of school when I was in class 3. I had to work at home and in the fields. I was sexually harassed, physically tortured many times even while working in the field. During Sidr – an extremely severe cyclonic storm which hit the coastal districts, including Khulna in 2007 – I was 13 years old and had to stay at a neighbor’s house and was sexually harassed,” Lata said. “With my son and daughter now growing up, we are very much happy as a home like this can ensure our safety and remove fears of sexual harassment,” she added.
Home security is a human right. International human rights law recognizes everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing. Providing shelter is the state’s responsibility. Hence, every social issue that arises and is often exacerbated by the lack of secure housing is also the state's responsibility to address. Homeless and destitute individuals are vulnerable to increased sexual harassment, especially women, adolescents, and children, who are often forced into sex trafficking and other harmful and illegal activities. Khushi Kabir, a prominent human rights activist, believes that Ashrayan-2 is a good initiative, and if implemented successfully, a social change will be visible soon. A step in the direction of social change means Bangladesh has to take an all-encompassing move to tackle poverty. An all-encompassing movement that will empower individuals through education and financial independence so they can become stewards of humanity.
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