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Dhaka, Bangladesh

Shimu doesn’t have a birthday: she has never known what day she was born. Nor does she know how old she is. She thinks she is 22 or 23, but when she tells her story it seems like she might be older than that.

Don’t you want to pick a day, say that that is your birthday and celebrate it?

No, what for? I’m poor. It’s so expensive to celebrate a birthday. I’m lucky not to have one.

Shimu does know that she was born in a village in the Natore district in northern
Bangladesh, where her father farmed half an acre of land. He didn’t always have enough to feed the family. She also knows that her mother died when she was three or four years old, but she doesn’t know how or why. Shimu thinks she got food poisoning from a fish that her grandfather had caught, but she’s not sure. And she knows that afterwards she went to live with an aunt and then back with her father and his new wife, and finally with an older sister and her husband.

There, when she was 9 or 10, Shimu discovered, in a neighbour’s home, a strange
box with people who moved, talked, did things. She was shocked. The first time she saw someone die on TV, Shimu cried; no one had told her that it was not real, and no one would until long after she was married.

At that time, Shimu started going to school, but after few months her sister took her out. If she spent so much time in class, she said, how would she be able to help her with the housework and with her child?

Didn’t you try to keep going to school?

No, I liked not going. I didn’t have to study, I had lots of time to play with my friends and dolls.

And also to look for firewood, wash clothes, sweep the tiny house, go to the market. At the market there was a molasses salesman who would look at her. Sometimes Shimu looked back. One day he approached her and said that he wanted to talk; they sat down and he said he wanted to marry her. The boy was 17; Shimu was 11 or 12 , and didn’t really understand. Marriage was a word she had heard here and there, on television and in neighbours’ conversations, that was about it.

In Bangladesh, the median age for women to marry is 15, and it is lower in poor rural areas. But parents arrange most of these marriages. Shimu didn’t know what to do that afternoon; she told the boy she would talk to her sister and brother-in-law.

They are my guardians, they are the ones to decide.

The boy went to see them about his proposal: he was willing to marry Shimu without a dowry because he liked her. In rural Bangladesh, marriages involve a dowry in money or goods that the bride’s parents pay to the groom. This is a new “tradition� – maybe half a century old – which, though illegal, is still practised in three marriages out of four.

Shimu’s guardians agreed, but on one condition: since the bride was so young, the
groom would have to wait two years before he could take her home. The boy accepted and the celebration was brief; Shimu was officially a married woman, but her life had barely changed.

That was not going to last: a few months later, Shimu’s husband started to demand a
dowry; his friends were getting married and they were all getting something, he said. His reputation would be affected if he didn’t. His demands became more and more violent.

When he understood that there was nothing to get, he said that since they didn’t give him a dowry he would take his wife by any means necessary.

Did you want to go with him?

I don’t know if I wanted to or not. He was my husband and so it was my duty to go wherever he told me to.

Young women with autonomy over their earnings have more freedom to decide when and whom they marry, and over the timing, number and spacing of their children

Her husband lived with his mother, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews – and Shimu
had to do most of the housework. At first, she didn’t mind: she was used to it. But her
husband treated her worse and worse. He said she was stupid, complained that her family never gave him gifts, shouted at her, and started beating her. Shimu thought that it was somehow her fault.

Because we were so poor that we hadn’t given him anything. That was my fault.

A few months later, Shimu started to feel funny: something was moving around in her
belly. A neighbour told her, “Of course, girl, you’re pregnant.� No one had ever explained anything to her, so she didn’t realise it for four or five months. When she told her husband, he didn’t seem particularly interested; Shimu only thought that she wanted her baby to be pretty. But on the day of the birth, when the midwife announced it was a boy, everyone congratulated her:

I was happy. I wanted a boy because that was what my husband wanted. Having a son gives you a lot of prestige.

Those first few days her in-laws helped out and took care of her; a few weeks later,
though, everything returned to normal, and her husband hit her harder than ever. Now
and then a neighbour, startled by the shouting, would come by. Shimu’s husband would tell them that since she was his wife, he could do whatever he wanted with her. Like, for example, tell her to leave so that he could marry a woman who would give him money.

Sometimes he would feel sorry about his behaviour and invite Shimu out to the movies.
Those times, Shimu would think that maybe she could have a family after all. But the illusion was short-lived, and soon there were more blows and insults. At a certain point her mother-in-law stopped feeding her, and Shimu had to start working in other houses to pay for her food.

Time went by and she continued to suffer. After four years, Shimu got pregnant again and had another son. But this time no one cared. Her husband wanted to get rid of her and he accused her of cheating on him with his brother. Shimu swore on the Koran that this was not true, but he hit her furiously with a bamboo stick; wounded, Shimu sought refuge at her sister’s. Her husband went after her and Shimu went back because her sons needed her.

One afternoon, Shimu was on her way home from work and she stopped to rest a little. Her husband passed by, saw her and accused her of waiting for a lover. He hit her on the street. Shimu had put up with almost everything, lack of food, insults, blows. But she would not be dishonoured:

You never cared that I had to work for other people. But you see me there on the street and accuse me of being a whore.

Shimu told her husband not to come after her ever again and she went to her father’s
house. The next morning, she was planning to go to court to file for divorce but, in the
end, she didn’t dare. Shimu was 18 or 19, had two children and no way to support them. Her stepmother told her that all she could do was leave the children with her and go to work in the city.

She was right. In the village I had no way of making money. There was no work and I needed to earn money for them.

The only city Shimu knew about was Dhaka; she had seen it on television: a big place, full of cars and rickshaws and people. Dhaka is indeed a big place: Bangladesh’s capital has around 12 million inhabitants. When she arrived at an aunt’s house, the city seemed even bigger, noisier and more foreign than she had imagined. She was frightened. But she also liked walking down the street without anyone looking at her or knowing who she was. In a few days, Shimu got a job at a garment factory and everything seemed off to a good start.

The garment industry provides 70 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports and it employs two
million people. Many of them are rural migrants, and four out of five are women. Shimu started working as a helper for 700 taka a month which, at that time, was around US$15. The factory where Shimu works is a seven-storey building in the centre of Dhaka. From the outside, it looks like an apartment building. Inside, each floor is
a large workshop with dozens of employees, sewing machines and cutting tables where all sorts of clothing are made. Shimu was pleased: she had a job, she was learning and her mates were helping her. For the first time in her life she had got rid of her husband, her in-laws, her village and their burdens. A few months after she arrived, Shimu, now able to support her children, mustered the courage to return to her town and file for divorce.

After a year she was promoted to operator. The first time she had a sewing machine to
herself, she says she felt like a real person.

One afternoon, two years later, her supervisor told her to go back to her village because her younger son was ill. When she arrived after the long journey they told her they had buried him. Shimu cried and cried. But she thought God must have his reasons, and she went back to work.

Now, six years after her arrival, Shimu is still an operator. She earns 2,100 taka – US$30 – a month for eight hours of work, six days a week. It is well known that the garment industry prospers among others things because of these wages: the cost of labour is just a fraction of the retail price for a shirt or pair of trousers made in Bangladesh.

Do you feel that you have changed a lot in these years?

Yes, very much. I’m not so skinny anymore. I have more self-confidence. I can send money home so that my son can go to the madrassa – the Islamic school – and get an education. He is 11 and doing very well.

Do you send him to the Islamic school because you are religious?

Yes, I always wanted to send him to the madrassa.

Shimu continues...

I suffered a lot, but God determined this fate for me, so I must deserve it. For there to be happy people, some of us have to be unhappy. By the luck of the draw, I didn’t have anything: no money, no education. But now my fate is looking up; I’m making money and sending my son to the madrassa.

Shimu speaks slowly and firmly: she doesn’t hesitate. Living in the city has allowed her to make a break from traditional networks. True, she sometimes feels lonely and doesn’t know what to do. But she does know that she doesn’t have to do what her relatives and elders say.

I’m satisfied. My dream is for my son to get an education and a good job.

And what do you want to do in the future?

I don’t have an education. I’m illiterate. The best thing I can do is work my whole life as an operator. If I had an education, I could think about something else, but I don’t. I’m not worried. I just want to earn a little more.

Shimu prefers living in Dhaka because “it is safer, and here I can earn a living, live and think my own way�, she says. In her village none of this would have been possible. But she thinks that when she is older she will go back there. She plans to buy a piece of land and settle there. She has already managed to save 20,000 taka –almost US$300.

But if life is better in Dhaka, why go back to your village?

Because here, if I don’t work I won’t have enough money. In the village I will. And anyway, when I am old no one will be able to put pressure on me to do anything I don’t want. So then I will be able to live in my place.