After a couple of days in Dhaka I became very aware of a desperately poor underclass. There is no welfare state so beggars tap at your window at traffic lights, pleading with you to help them eat. This for me became the predominant image of Dhaka and I wanted to learn more about the millions who live in slums.

I was introduced to Mohammed Shah Newaz, a young man working for the Association for the Realisation of Basic Needs (ARBAN), an NGO. Newaz is rare, an educated Bangladeshi who has not left to find a “better” life elsewhere. “I want to serve my people,” he explains, “it’s not a human life.” His dream is social justice, an end to the endemic corruption which is throttling the development of Bangladesh. “Bangladesh is not a poor country, we have many resources. In the liberation war of 1971 the peasants and workers fought for independence from Pakistan, but they don’t see the benefits now. The message was that in independent Bangladesh, people would live in dignity with basic amenities. This has not happened.”

More than 4 million of Dhaka’s 14 million population live in slums. Newaz took me to Jheelpur, home to approximately 500 families. As we walked down a slope into the main street we became surrounded by a crowd of dusty children. They were the cliché of slum life, dressed in ragged clothes, grinning at the foreigner, pushing to be at the front of my photos. Newaz explained that there was a school funded by a different NGO, but it was evident that they spent most of their time grubbing around in the dirt surrounding their homes.

We passed a pump where a mother was vigorously washing a little girl under a precious stream of clean water, watched by a bare-bottomed toddler. Newaz explained this had been provided by ARBAN and WaterAid. “It’s a participatory system. The community decided how many pumps and latrines they wanted and where and we gave technical support and engineers. But it’s not just about giving facilities. We are encouraging people to understand their rights, we mobilise them to improve their lives.  ARBAN helped persuade the government to allow slum dwellers to vote. Before, you needed a house number.”

We entered the “hanging slum”. Shacks made of corrugated iron are raised on stilts and connected by narrow, dilapidated walkways of bamboo poles, lashed together and patched where feet have fallen through. The whole structure moves as you walk. Underneath I could see rubbish and sewage from surrounding residential areas. During monsoon months the water level rises, flooding homes when the rains are especially heavy.

We slipped down a muddy slope into a tunnel of corrugated iron. The sweet smell of rotting rubbish and human excreta intensified. I felt claustrophobic, and ashamedly sick. This was where people lived and I was determined to meet them with dignity. We were visiting Rahima, president of the Community Based Organisation (CBO). She greeted us by the door of her home, regal in a purple sari. While we talked she squatted on small wooden small in the corner of her shack that was the kitchen. She was making khichuri; rice, dhal and potatoes cooked slowly in a metal pot over a clay oven.

Even in the slum there is a hierarchy of poverty; Rahima is well off and comfortable, she has a television and can afford fish. Her shack is divided into two rooms by a curtain. There is electricity, provided through illegal connections, for which she pays 800 takka a month (approx. £7, 10% of their income). She pays “muscle men”, thugs who exploit the illegality of the slums. Deals are done to encourage the water authority to delay the legal connections ARBAN fight to provide. If slum dwellers refuse to pay, their homes are burned, the thugs knowing that others will take their places. Newaz explained it is more expensive to live in a slum than an apartment because extortionate rates are charged for illegal services and “rent”. It becomes impossible to save for better accommodation.

Rahima’s role in the CBO is to coordinate local efforts to keep the latrines clean and functioning and to collect contributions for the water bill, paid to the local authority. She proudly shows me the two latrines that back onto her home. Before ARBAN’s help there was nowhere private to defecate, wash or change sanitary cloths. “Now we can look after ourselves”, Rahima says, smiling. It occurs to me that this is what the lofty phrase “everyone deserves to live with dignity” actually means; the right to sanitation and privacy, the ability to keep yourself clean.

Rahima was keen that I meet other women of the CBO. She held my arm as we crossed the walkways, anxious that I should not slip into the black sludge below. At the pump the mother was intently clipping her daughter’s nails, the toddler crying at her feet. Our eyes met and I felt intense guilt for believing that I’d had to work hard to clean up after my children, despite wet wipes and our own bathroom. Here mothers had rags as nappies and only recently, access to running water.

We attended a meeting run by ARBAN motivators. The women were being taught about the importance of hand washing and drinking clean water. “A lot of our work is to empower”, Newaz explained. “We help people to make decisions that will improve their lives. Many of these women are illiterate, they’ve had no education. What we teach may seem simple but can be life saving because diseases like dysentery still kill.”

“ARBAN have taught me it’s important to make ourselves heard to politicians,” Rahima said “The local ward commissioner visited us before the election and promised many things, but then he forgot us. With the CBO we go and complain, we feel stronger now.” Why don’t you leave, go back to your village?” I asked. “There is nothing there” Rahima explained, “no way to earn. That is why I came to Dhaka. I have lived here for twenty-three years now. I raised my children in Jheelpur, this is my home.”

Outside was a communal kitchen. Women were squatting next to small domed clay ovens, metal pots balanced over holes in the top. Others were scrubbing pots, their feet squelching in mud. A little girl was holding a baby who looked newborn. As I said hello, Ruma, the baby’s mother, was called from her washing up. I asked Rajia’s age. “She’s five months old.” Then I realised how sickly she was.

Ruma is 20, her husband a jobbing construction labourer who takes whatever work he can find. They frequently have insufficient money to buy food. Rajia is malnourished and under-developed. I found it hard to leave them. “We are planning a project to help mothers and babies of the slum” Newaz told me as we walked back up the dusty slope “but our funding is running out. Our dream is to move everyone from the slum. We have a Housing Assistance Program. We have bought two plots of land and are hoping to build 300 flats. We help families to save so they can participate in this project. We sow the seed, to encourage them to help themselves, but they still need support from us if they are to truly escape their poverty.”

As I prepared for bed across the noisy city that night I thought of Ruma and Rajia. I felt useless. What could I do to help? I have three healthy children because I can afford to feed them and have access to free healthcare. Ruma is crippled by her poverty. While there is positive change in Jheelpur, there is so still much help required. Many of our social problems in the UK are derived from excess while around the world millions struggle to feed their babies. This juxtaposition frustrates me.

Faced with so much desperation I feel helpless about what to do, where to start. If I can make so little difference, is there any point trying? Fortunately, people like Newaz remain strong in their convictions and the women of Jheelpur are slowly and collectively improving their lives. “It’s a long process, the outcome cannot be seen,” Newaz told me “but one day it will succeed”.

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