Half a century as a domestic worker
Born in 1960 into a large family in the village of Boroi, Rangpur, Sultana never went to school. Her father sold puffed rice on the streets, and her mother resorted to begging after his death shortly after the Liberation War. She’s lost one sister to childbirth, and two brothers to food scarcity in post-liberation Bangladesh. “There were many days when we were starving for food. I had no option but to become a housemaid,” she said. At only 10 or 11 years old, Sultana became a domestic worker in a villager’s home. In exchange, she would get meals and board. Her employers married her off at 13, to an orphaned day labourer who earned Tk 50 per day. Sometimes, he would only get rice instead of wages. “My husband was useless, he only wanted to have physical interactions. I had trouble being intimate after giving birth, but he never listened and forced himself on me. ” After their divorce, she went back to domestic work in the village. She said the family supported her during a trying time, but burst into tears when remembering her struggles. “It was for food only, nothing else, and food is like gold. I have worked without money for so long, just in exchange for food.” However, river erosion uprooted the family she worked for, and Sultana had to find other means. “When I first came to Dhaka during the early 80s, I lived on the streets. Then I found work at Azimpur Staff Colony. They allowed me to stay under the stairs in their building, and I earned Tk 50 per month. Eventually, I managed more work and earned Tk 550 per month.” Later on, she became a full-time domestic worker at Kalabagan for Tk1800 per month, where she worked for 20 years. “They fixed my salary at Tk1800, year after year. I did not have any days off. However, they did give me Zakaat, and I saved up and bought land in my village. But the river took even that away from me.” “I finally decided to become a part-time worker, and give myself a day off. My employers are not happy with this, but I have grown old.” Now, her monthly income is Tk 4000, and she lives in a slum with her sister. Her grandson is in grade nine, and she worries that after her death, it will be difficult for him to continue his studies. “My fate did not support me. I suffered a lot for food. I have spent almost half a century dreaming of three full meals a day. I want my grandson to overcome this crisis through education and fulfill our dreams before I die,” shared Sultana.