Protecting abandoned women. In Bangladesh, steps taken to counter traditions that leave women vulnerable

Farida lives in the limbo of abandoned women. At age nine, she was taken from her village to Dacca by her mother and hired out as a maid. Four years later, she was married to a laborer and quickly became pregnant. When her family could not meet dowry demands, her husband left and married someone else.

Today, 15-year-old Farida earns a poor living sewing clothes. She sees no future for herself and her son. ``If I get married a second time, my baby will be an orphan,'' she says. ``If I go to another man's house, I will have to give up my baby.'' Unwed mothers are considered taboo here.

In Bangladesh, countless numbers of destitute women are exiled in a shadowy world outside this tradition-bound Muslim society. According to government estimates, half of Bangladeshi women are married by the age of 17, one year before the legal minimum age.

Yet most marriages in this country of 100 million people are informal - the couple may go through some sort of religious ceremony but there is no official record - allowing women and children to be thrown out at the whim of the husband. Because many young women marry older men, one in four women is divorced or widowed by the age of 45.

Some 85 percent of Bangladeshi women live below the poverty line, official statistics show, and the poor are increasingly victims of crime and violence. Thousands of young girls are kidnapped every year and sold for prostitution in Bangladesh or nearby countries, social activists say.

Many become domestic servants, the most common job for women in the cities. In that role, they are frequently abused and become pregnant, unable to continue work - and unable to return to their disgraced families.

``In a conservative country where many women aren't even allowed outside the home, the unwed mother is very taboo,'' says Hafizul Islam, a professor at the Institute of Social Welfare and Research in Dacca. ``More and more women seem to be reaching the point of destitution.''

Slowly, the government is coming to grips with a problem it can no longer ignore, observers say. Although women are theoretically equal under Islamic law, the government has passed secular measures to protect them from crimes and mistreatment. The country's constitution has been secular since independence in 1971, but in 1977 it was changed by proclamation to reflect the Islamic character of the nation, which is 85 percent Muslim.

In 1983, the government passed a law laying down stiff penalties for kidnapping women for prostitution, injuring or killing a woman for dowry, or rape. However, a recent report by UNICEF said the measures fall short because women are not informed of their legal rights, officials fail to support the law, men resist changes, and society cannot adapt to the shifting status of women.

``They don't like the word prostitution here. They prefer socially handicapped women,'' says Jowshan Rahman, head of UNICEF's women's unit. ``Attitudes are changing on this. But there are still strong feelings from religious leaders, particularly at the rural level.''

A major problem is the lack of help for unwed mothers and abandoned women. In 1981, Mr. Islam and Betty Steinkrauss, a Canadian who has worked extensively in women's and children's welfare, set up a home for destitute women in one of Dacca's poorest areas. The home was the only one of its kind in the capital.

Today, there are more than 200 women and children living and working at the home. It is a refuge for pregnant women and a training and literacy center to help women rejoin the social mainstream after delivery.

Standing in a nursery full of babies, Steinkrauss, a mother of five adopted children, says the first priority is to keep the mother and child together. But because of social stigmas, if the mother is unmarried, the child is usually put up for adoption in Bangladesh. The government no longer allows foreign adoptions.

The center also has helped reunite abducted women with their families. Two years ago, 12 young women were returned from jails in India and Pakistan, and Steinkrauss relocated their families.

``They had been sold to older men in those countries, had run away, and ended up in jails,'' she says. ``There are still thousands more in the prisons there.''

In one of the training centers, 21-year-old Delawara, is learning to make clothes. Brought to the city when she was seven, Delawara worked as a maid and was married to a rickshaw puller. Her husband was a heavy drinker who used to beat her frequently. He left after their second child was born.

For 11 months, the young woman has been learning to sew, read, and write at the home while her children are cared for in a day-care center next door.

``I'm taking this training because I have my two babies,'' says Delawara. `` I want to be able to take care of them and stand on my own two feet.''

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