Low income employment in Dhaka: women’s lives, agency and identity
Jennings, Bethany Angela Mae
Over the past thirty-five years, an increasing number of women have been working outside their homes in Bangladesh, particularly in the country’s largest city Dhaka. A key factor has been the growing garments industry and rapid urbanisation. Research exploring these demographic changes reveals a complex picture of women’s situations. While conditions are often extremely poor and pay is low, new forms of work provide women with opportunities that were otherwise rarely available to them and bring them into spaces that were in the past dominated by men. Selling sex demonstrates a form of employment that brings similar dilemmas; while it is often violent and highly stigmatised, women have fought for their right to engage in this type of work. This complex reality is central to the research questions of my PhD study. How do women in these different yet overlapping contexts understand their experiences and manage their identities? Have new employment opportunities and urban living situations fundamentally changed women’s positions? To answer these questions, I spent fourteen months conducting ethnographic research. I began by living in an area with a low-income population and talking with women about their experiences of work. I then met with women who sold sex, visited their homes and places of work. Through observations and in-depth interviews, I was able to explore the spaces women occupied, how they managed their multiple identities and utilised their agency. I found that while there were significant social changes occurring for participants, underlining belief systems saw more gradual change. To accommodate various ideological influences, beliefs were highly complex and often seemed contradictory. I argue that women use the means available to them to manage and improve their situations within significant structural restrictions. Women outside the sex industry maintained their precarious identity as a ‘good woman’, while pushing boundaries and utilising opportunities. Women who sold sex capitalised on their identity as a ‘bad woman’ to access services and to be part of activist groups but tried to hide this identity when it was detrimental, which was generally the case. They continued to experience high levels of violence, stigma and social exclusion. In conclusion, I argue that a better understanding of women’s responses to social changes and how they manage their positions is essential to work with women to improve the services and policies that affect their lives.