DHAKA, Bangladesh — In her 23 years, Mahmuda Akhter has lived two very different lives.
The second began in 2004 when, barely 16, she found work in an aging garment factory here on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital.
The first ended a few weeks before in her home village, the night the wails of her infant daughter, Tamina, suddenly stopped.
There had been many fitful hours in the seven long months since Tamina’s birth. Akhter was exhausted and in pain, deficient in calcium, wracked by bouts of dysentery and chronic malnutrition. Her breasts were dry. With little money for food, much less formula, she fed Tamina water and cow’s milk instead.
“My father took the baby for a little while, but she wouldn’t stop crying. I took her again, and held her,” Akhter said. “Suddenly she stopped crying.”
No matter what Akhter did, the baby wouldn’t stir. She describes her daughter’s death without tears of her own. They wet the corners of her eyes only when she stops talking, waiting for a translator to recount in English the moment she grasped the meaning of her child’s silence.
“It’s God who decides to take a baby,” she said. “But if I had money, if I had a life out of poverty, I think I could have saved her.”
It’s a story that’s tragically common here. The World Bank has estimated that 47 percent of poor Bangladeshi women don’t get enough to eat — leaving many underweight, vitamin deficient and vulnerable to the predations of illness. So too, are their children: among the country’s poorest families, 60 percent of kids are malnourished.
And so, as hundreds of thousands of other villagers do every year, Akhter looked to Dhaka for a way out.
She came six years ago and joined one of the city’s most recognizable, fast-growing classes: Dhaka’s garment girls. Garment factories produce 10 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP and 80 percent of the industry’s three million workers are women, according to Annisul Huq, with the Bagladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Look inside a sweater from the GAP, H&M, Zara, even Walmart, and it’s a good bet the tag will say “Made in Bangladesh.” Chances are, it was made by a woman who, like Akhter, is young, from a rural village and has little education.
“Cities have opened up opportunities that they wouldn’t have normally had,” said Sabina Faiz Rashid, an anthropologist with BRAC University in Dhaka. “You have women walking the streets of Dhaka city going to jobs. You have a shift in gender and power relations. You have women, young girls who are choosing to delay marriage, choosing their own partners.”
In Akhter’s case, she married before she turned 15, as nearly 40 percent of Bangladeshi women do. But she defied convention by choosing her husband, Epshadur Rahman, now 24, in a country where most marriages are still arranged.
The choice made village life for the couple almost impossible. Her husband’s family — wealthier than her own — opposed the love match.
“My father took us in, but he was very poor,” Akhter said. “My husband could not find work, so he couldn’t help feed us.”
Rahman’s family pressed the couple to divorce. He refused and moved to Dhaka to look for work. Rahman learned of his daughter’s death only after returning to the village for a visit. Grieving for her child, Akhter said she nearly gave in to her in-laws demand.
“But then I thought, I love him, I should try to live with him,” she said. “When he came to the village after the baby died, I told him to bring me with him to Dhaka.”
Mahmuda Akhter, 23.
Within three days, she found a job at the factory as an assistant, an entry-level post that paid less than a dollar a day. Eventually she worked her way up to ironing and now earns about a third more, or $1.35 per workday. At first she stayed with her aunt, while Rahman rented a room and worked as a day laborer. She soon found a small $9-a-month, one-room flat in a brick walk-up, where the couple now lives together. Three years later, a job opened up at the factory for Rahman — he’s now a “polyman,” packing shirts in plastic one floor above his wife.
“The difference between my life in the village and my life now is huge. For example, when I was in the village I had no income. My husband had no money. We couldn’t afford enough to eat.” Akhter said. “Now I can afford meat every week. I can buy good fish, big fish. I can afford all kinds of food. Before, it was difficult to buy a dress even once a year. Now I can afford a dress every month.”
The couple now has bigger aspirations: they hope to have more children, and raise them in Dhaka. They dream of buying their own home, but saving enough will be a tall order in Dhaka’s exploding real estate market. Most of all, Akhter said she wants to provide her children with the opportunities poverty denied her.
“My father had a dream that I would become a lawyer,” Akhter said. “I have the same dream. When I have a baby, maybe he or she will grow up to be a lawyer.”
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