I am one of many indigenous women living and working in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh where thousands struggle to make a living in the beauty, garment and domestic work industries. Most are poor, with little education and lack access to basic healthcare and social protection. In fact, indigenous peoples around the world share these injustices.
But my story is different. I’m 32 years old and I’m from the Lushai community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 2010 I left my family and headed for Dhaka on my own to work as an intern for the International Labour Organization.
As one of the smallest of about 45 indigenous communities in Bangladesh, the Lushai has only a few hundred members. If you consider that Bangladesh is about the size of New York state, yet contains roughly the same number as half of the entire United States population – at nearly 155 million – you see that Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and is also one of the most richly diversified.
As a young and well educated indigenous woman, I know I am a role model in my community. I was educated at the university in Chittagong, Bangladesh and the University of Adelaide in Australia. Now, I feel privileged to be able to work extensively on the ILO’s project to build up the capacities of key stakeholders on indigenous peoples’ rights. These include the government, parliament, indigenous peoples and civil society.
Land as a commodity
Bangladesh has a history of indigenous peoples losing their lands, so it is easy to see why they migrate to big cities. Because of communal riots in Pakistan and India in 1964 and then during Pakistan’s liberation war, giving rise to the new country of Bangladesh in 1971, many indigenous peoples of the plain land had to flee to safer places.
Land loss for the indigenous often goes hand in hand with loss of their traditional occupations. Along with an influx of people from the majority population, more indigenous lands are being appropriated for commercial uses, with no regard for the traditional land management system.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, for example, the construction of the Kaptai Dam in 1960 to generate hydro-electric power submerged 220 square km of cultivable land and displaced 18,000 families and 100,000 tribal people.
Competition for land is also heating up under the dual pressures of population growth and climate change, as more non-indigenous climate refugees seek safety from regular flooding in the delta areas of the lowlands. And as non-indigenous cut down trees for cultivation, rather than using the traditional slash and burn methods of the Hill Tract peoples, food insecurity is on the rise along with greater reliance on government food hand-outs.
How the ILO is helping
The ILO is working with the Bangladesh government to protect indigenous peoples’ land and traditional occupations in the framework of ILO Conventions No. 107 and 169. Last year, for the first time, the project organized a national-level social dialogue between the government, employers’ and workers’ associations and indigenous representatives, which resulted in a number of recommendations to promote employment for indigenous peoples.
I know that implementing those recommendations can only be achieved with collaboration over the long term between the ILO and its constituents. But we are making progress.
Organizing and coordinating training for indigenous youth and women, as well as seminars and consultations has given me the opportunity to witness our peoples’ strides in understanding their rights as indigenous peoples.
The ILO’s work to promote decent employment for indigenous peoples can help relieve poverty in rural areas, where dependence on the land as a source of food production is causing food insecurity. It can also help prevent the migration of unskilled indigenous workers to the urban areas in the first place.
A common challenge
As I said earlier, most urban-based indigenous peoples work in the garment, beauty and domestic work industries, sectors still considered as informal. So even if there is an allegation of harassment and discrimination, usually nothing is done about it.
Bangladesh’s amended Labor Law of 2013 has no provision for indigenous peoples, though it provides anti-discrimination coverage for women and people with disabilities. However, the inclusion of a provision for indigenous peoples could recognize their contribution to the economy.
The Bangladesh Constitution states that no person can be discriminated against on the grounds of race, ethnicity and religion. Yet a study conducted by the ILO Indigenous Peoples Project reveals that indigenous women working in the garment industry are not aware of their rights, that are included in the ILO Conventions No.107,169, and 111.
Journalists have asked me in the past if I face teasing or harassment as an indigenous woman. My answer is no. And that’s because of my job, which has given me more than a paycheck.
I’ve also earned respect from others and confidence in myself. But I know indigenous women working in the informal sector face the triple whammy of harassment because of their tribal links, their gender and the injustice of poverty.
In Bangladesh, the ILO’s part in improving relations between the government and indigenous peoples is cause for celebration. And as the globe celebrates International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with the theme “Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples,” I am proud to be one of those building a bridge across that gap.
- The ILO Convention No. 169 adopted in 1989 and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007 are the two main international instruments on indigenous peoples’ rights.
- The Convention covers a broad range of issues of relevance to indigenous peoples including customary law and access to justice, land and territories, rights to natural resources, the right to development, education, health and social security, as well as traditional occupations, labour rights and vocational training.
- So far 22 countries have ratified the convention, including 15 in Latin America, covering more than 50 million indigenous peoples.