Bangladesh

Corruption promotes food and health insecurity for elderly widows in Northern Bangladesh

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Hunger Alert Case: AHRC-HAG-002-2010

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information regarding elderly widows suffering from food and health insecurity. There has been no assistance from the government despite them being entitled to be beneficiaries of the social security programs. The corrupt public representatives, and servants in charge of implementation of the programs have deprived the elderly widows of their rights. It is discovered that some of the beneficiaries receiving food or cash subsidies had to pay bribes directly or indirectly to the public representatives of the Union Council. All the victims are landless and currently forced to beg to get food.

CASE NARRATIVE: (according to the field visiting and interview with the villagers):

Ms. Bimala, 75 years old, lives in Ghorabandha village, Halimnagar post office, Palashbari sub-district, Gaibandha district, Rangpur division, Bangladesh. 25 years ago, she lost her husband and currently lives alone. She suffers from back pain, rheumatic fever, and malnutrition. The public health institutions are too far away from her village for her to go for treatment. She cannot afford transportation due to extreme poverty. She has no source of income or farmland, and is forced to beg for food.

A few years ago, she went to the chairperson and other members of the Union Council (the administrative unit elected by villagers) requesting some relief. Despite of their promise for the issue of social welfare programmes such as an old age allowance or widow allowance that she is entitled to, Bimala has not received any government assistance to date.

Bimala is not just one case in Ghorabandha village. Ms. Halima, 73 years old, after losing her husband 30 years ago, finds it difficult to obtain a meal. At present, she lives with her daughter, Ms. Sadarani who is divorced without any income sources or farmland. Both of them are entitled to receive the old age allowance or widow allowance. Neither have received either.

Sobiron, another 82 year-old widow in the village is also forced to beg to get food. She had to look after her sick husband while begging when her husband was alive. After her husband's death, Sobiron got sick with eye disease in particular. She has not received any benefits from the social security programs to which she is entitled. Though living with her son's family, she does not get regular support from son's family who also find it difficult to manage food.

Sarifon Nesha,72 years old, is also a widow in the village. Before her husband died 20 years ago, she was a domestic worker. Now she only manages food by begging due to sickness. Like Sobiron, Sarifon suffers eye disease, which sometimes prevents her from begging. She has not received any assistance that she is entitled to get.

It is alleged that the four old widows who have a priority to be beneficiaries of the programs have not received any government support to date since they cannot afford to bribe to public servants in charge, while other villagers who received allowances paid around BDT 1000 to 2500 (USD 15-37) as a bribe. Mr. Sabed Ali, 82 years old, claims that he had to pay BDT 2000 (USD 30) for a broker to get the old age allowance. He receives BDT 900 (USD 13) every three month. However, the allowance of BDT 10 per day (USD 0.15) is too little to manage meals.

All of the elderly widows either live alone without any income source or do not get support from their children. They have all been landless labourers and are currently forced to beg to manage food as they get older. These allegedly corrupt public representatives and servants have deprived these people of right to food. It is also discovered that Mr. Hamid, a member of the Union Council kept a Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) card which was issued to Ms. Nasima. He however returned it to Nasima this morning due to allegations of deliberate withholding of the state subsidy intended for the destitute woman.

Consequently, the poor either have to pay the bribes or to keep silent fearing that they may be assaulted by the corrupt officials.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

Gaibandha district of Rangpur Division along with Kurigram district located in Northern Bangladesh is officially recognized as 'Monga' which denotes food insecurity caused by absence of employment. The Monga area is relatively more vulnerable to food and health insecurity than other areas in the country.

The area is affected by natural disasters such as floods and drought every year. Most of the population is engaged in agriculture and many of them are landless tenants or agricultural labourers. For about five months before and after harvest season twice a year the villagers do not have work and flooding or drought seriously affects cultivation. Those who do not have a regular income source migrate to other cities and drive a rickshaw.

The Government of Bangladesh has been developing social welfare programs for the poor aiming to ensure food security. Some of them require work or training (schooling) and others do not. As the society acknowledges the seriousness of the elder women and the women who had married but separated in rural area, the cash transfer schemes like the old age allowance, widow or divorced or abandoned women allowance were initiated in late 1990s. The VGD scheme providing 30 kilograms of food grain per month for two years as well as skill development training for those vulnerable women was initiated earlier.

There are 2,440 villagers living in Ghorabandha village. Seventy out of 103 elderly persons receive the old age allowance whereas only 15 out of 92 widows receive the widow's allowance. One of the reasons why not all are beneficiaries is that the central government does not provide sufficient subsidies to cover all those who are entitled. However, the corrupt public representatives and servants aggravate food security of those extremely poor widows by taking bribes or excluding them from the programmes they are entitled to.

The lists of the beneficiaries for the schemes are decided by the Union Council composing of several villages and submitted to the sub-district administration. Priority is given to the allowances for the elders, widows, abandoned women, those who suffer from physical or mental health and income source. Accordingly, the four cases mentioned above should be considered the most vulnerable even among women. Although taking into account the fact that the current programs are unable to cover all of the extremely poor, the corrupt public representatives or servants asking bribes exclude these old widows from the social security programs.

Consequently, the deep-rooted corruption at different levels of the administration promotes food and health insecurity of the villagers. The Union Council who has an authority to select beneficiaries for the programs allegedly takes bribes directly or indirectly through their brokers. Furthermore, the higher authorities involved in this matter do not supervisor the corrupt practicebut instead neglect their duties, which creates a culture of corruption and perpetuates extreme poverty in Bangladesh.

The AHRC has consistenly issued Urgent Appeals regarding corruption by officials and publishing other materials. To see more information on the prevalence and seriousness of the corruption practiced by law enforcement actors and public servants, please refer to Disconnected policing and the justice trade in Bangladesh and Politics-Corruption Nexus in Bangladesh.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS:

According to the Global Hunger Index, Bangladesh (24.7) is second highest followed by Timor-Leste in Asia and higher than India (23.9) and Pakistan (21.0). About 50 percent of the population lives on less than USD 1 a day. Both indicators prove that Bangladesh is increasingly more vulnerable to food insecurity as well as extreme poverty. The villagers in rural areas like 'Monga' are exposed to extreme poverty and food insecurity and government social security programs are far away from the reality.

In particular, women and old widows in rural areas are excluded from social security but they are reportedly amongst the most vulnerable social groups. The recent UN Human Rights Council statement emphasizes the vulnerability of old women and urges the establishment of an international surveillance and protection mechanism to monitor the financial abuse of old women and the protection of their human rights. Magdalena Sepulveda, the Independent Expert on human rights and extreme poverty also urges that States must integrate the dimension of old persons into their policies.

In the Bangladeshi context, as the cases narrated above show, it is required that a transparent process for beneficiary selection and administrative complaint mechanisms are established by which the poor, including old widows in rural areas, can be provided immediate relief and a long-term social security.

SUGGESTED ACTION:

Please write a letter to express your concern about the elderly widows in rural areas suffering from lack of food and health case. Please urge to provide immediate relief for the victims and to conduct an objective investigation against the corrupt public representatives and servants involved in social security programs.

The AHRC has also written a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty calling for their intervention.

To support this appeal please visit our website.

Asian Human Rights Commission
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984