Small powers, little choice: Contextualising reproductive and sexual rights in slums in Bangladesh

Small powers, little choice: Contextualising reproductive and sexual rights in slums in Bangladesh

What do we mean when we speak of reproductive and sexual rights of women, particularly in the context of extreme poverty and rapid social and economic changes occurring in urban slums in Dhaka City? In this article, I would like to discuss some of the evolving factors which shape young women’s reproductive and sexual health experiences in the broader conditions of rapid urbanisation and extreme poverty. As an anthropologist, I carried out ethnographic fieldwork among 153 married adolescent girls, aged 15–19, in a Dhaka slum from December 2001–January 2003. The fieldwork included 50 in-depth interviews, eight case studies, and observations and discussions with family and community members.

The information gathered showed that there is a shift in the traditional marriage practices in urban slums, with 81 out of 153 young women having love marriages. Financial constraints compel many young women to work in garment factories to earn a living, which exposes them to men in the public domain and work environment. While on the one hand, young women have greater mobility and freedom to choose their own partners, on the other hand, the urban environment has resulted in greater social and marital insecurity. Married adolescent women, in the face of these insecurities, often rely on their sexuality as an economic resource, to hold on to spouses or to attract potential suitors. The lived experiences of engaging in sexual relations with their spouses are fraught with contradictions, as some women tolerate bad marriages and forced sex, which place them at risk of adverse reproductive experiences.[abstract author’s own]

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