Rice mills female labourers facing sexual harassment deprived of HR

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Offline Md. Khairul Bashar

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More than 79 per cent female labourers working in the country's rice mills fall victims to sexual harassment by their male co-workers, managers/owners and other persons and are deprived of basic human rights amid determination of the government and social activists to empower women by establishing their rights, an ILO study revealed.

The study showed violation of various rights of women and children including labour rights, reproductive health rights, involvement of child labour, wage discrimination, inhuman work condition, lack of family planning, deprivation of children from primary education, high dropout rate of children from primary school and culture of indirect bonded labour introduced by the middlemen, etc.

A data of Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment, total number of registered rice mill in the country until January 2012 was 2415 where 22469 workers were engaged. But the actual number of rice mills and the workers was several times higher than the government record, the study said.

About 5.0 million unorganized workers of which more than 60 per cent are female workers in approximately 40,000 rice mills in Bangladesh.

Development Consultant and Global Compliance Initiative (DCGCI) carried out the study on the 'Situation and Needs Analysis of the Female Workers in The Rice Mills' commissioned by International Labour Organization (ILO), Bangladesh.

The study was conducted in seven districts which include: Sherpur, Brahmanbaria, Natore, Dinajpur, Barisal, Habiganj and Kushtia.

In rice mills more than 30 per cent female workers belong to the age group 34-41 while one per cent are from the age group of 66 and above and 3.3 per cent belong to the age group of 10-17 years.

Lead researcher of the study Sheikh Md Shafiul Islam said sexual harassment is common in workplace like rice mills despite strong legal safeguard in this regard.

"Section 509 of the Penal Code, 1860 and section 10 of the Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Damon Ain 2000 (as amended in 2003) have strongly prohibited any action that insults modesty of a woman," Shafiul told the FE.

In such cases, the laws have the provisions of rigorous punishment but the trend continues openly in rice mills, he said, adding: 'The younger females at the mills sometimes fall victim to sexual repression by local hooligans'.

The study said if female workers protest or refuse to submit to sexual coercion, they have to endure harassments in drawing wages and availing other facilities.

"Sometimes, it is forceful persuasion by the aforesaid persons while sometimes the female workers comply with that to earn some extra money in the face of fierce poverty and haplessness," said the study.

It revealed despite government's target of enrolling 100 per cent children in the primary schools and elaborate campaign for this as part of achieving MDG targets by 2015, many 'chatal children' were found excluded from regular primary schooling.

Familial poverty, lack of parental awareness, migration of the family to the rice mills, unavailability of government primary schools and lack of admission opportunities at the nearby places of the rice mills have been identified as the factors creating impediments for children for not being regular in schools.

"Significant number of the rice mill workers did not comply with the GoB policy of family planning (having a maximum of 2 children per family)," said Shafiul.

The survey revealed that 21.6 per cent workers had one child, 27.7 per cent had two children while 43 per cent had more than two children. In some of the cases, the number of children goes even up to seven.

They do not know the government policy of family planning and they seriously lack the information and awareness about the negative outcomes of a big family, the study showed.

The state of reproductive health of the female workers is really vulnerable. The excessive heat caused severe health problems like dehydration, heat stroke, serious headache, miscarriage and birth defects.

"A section of both the male and female workers were in the risk of STDs including HIV/AIDS since some of the male partners had several wives while some of the female workers practised unsafe sexual relation under 'mutual agreement," said Shafiul, terming the situation as alarming.About 99 per cent of the female workers suffer from various health problems as working in a rice mill is relatively hazardous job for them. They frequently suffer from fever, cough, respiratory problems, sun and fire burns on skins and feet, allergies, jaundice, typhoid, diarrhoea, asthma and other health problems and they do not have access to any health care facilities, the study revealed.

[Sheikh Shafiul Islam quoted in the report is an Assistant Professor in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Daffodil International University]