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

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.

Hunger Alert Case: AHRC-HAG-002-2010



29 April 2010
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BANGLADESH: Corruption promotes food and health insecurity for elderly widows in Northern Bangladesh

ISSUES: Corruption; abuse of power; right to food; health care; poverty; elderly widow
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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):

SDFDS 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 4,037 villagers living in Ghorabandha village. Seventy out of 203 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 click here:

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SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear __________,

BANGLADESH: Please provide relief for old widows suffering from food insecurity in rural areas

Name of victims:
Those who suffer from food and health insecurity with no government support
1. Bimala, 75 years old widow
2. Halima, 73 years old widow
3. Sobiron, 82 years old widow
4. Sarifon Nesha, 72 years old widow
Victim who paid bribe to get old age allowance
5. Mr. Sabed Ali, 82 years old, paid BDK 2000 (USD 30) to get old age allowance
Victim whose Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) card is kept with a member of Union Council
6. Ms. Nasima, wife of Mr. Safiqul Islam
Name of alleged perpetrators who took bribes to provide social security programs or keep the food distribution card (VGD card) without distribution:
1. Chairman of Union Council, Ghorabandha village, Halimnagar post office, Palashbari sub-district, Gaibandha district, Rangpur division
2. Mr. Hamid and Other members of Union council of Ghorabandha village
3. Public servants of Palashbari sub-district in charge of relevant social security programs
Place of incident: Ghorabandha village, Halimnagar post office, Palashbari sub-district, Gaibandha district, Rangpur division

I am writing to voice my deep concern regarding the old widows suffering from food and health insecurity. I am appalled to learn that they have not received any support under the social security programs that they are entitled to.

I have recently come to learn that four old widows – Bimala (75 years old), Halima (73 years old), Sobiron (82 years old) and Sarifon Nesha (72 years old) – suffer from lack of food and health care in Ghorabandha village of Gaibandha district. This area is one of the districts officially recognized as “Monga” area describing vulnerability of food insecurity caused by the absence of employment and income sources.

According to a recent field visit, all of the widows are forced to beg to manage their food as they do not receive any support either from their children or the local government. They do not have farmland or any other income source. It is found that only 70 out of 203 old persons and 15 widows out of 92 in the village currently receive old age allowance and widow allowance respectively. The victims are categorized under priority criteria such as physical illness, landless, widows, and separated from family.

I have studied the government’s budget and it does not cover all entitled persons. Furthermore the allowance providing BDT 300 (USD 4.4) per month or BDT 10 (USD 0.15) per day is woefully less than the actual minimum cost of living. It is willingly deluded to believe that any person can survive on USD 0.15 per day. In addition, the corrupt public representatives of the Union Council and public servants in charge of social security programs even promote food insecurity and aggravate poverty.

Given the fact that Bangladesh is second highest in the Global Hunger Index with a score of 24.7, followed by Timor-Leste in Asia and is higher than India (23.9) and Pakistan (21.0) and around 50 percent of the population lives on less than USD 1 a day, the government should pay attention to the wide ranging corruption in the social security sectors that influence the world-wide indicators for food security and poverty.

I am aware that the chairperson and the members of the Union Council have an authority to select the beneficiaries for the social security programs and submit the list to the sub-district administration. However, according to the testimonies of some villagers who currently receive the allowance and have Vulnerable Group Development cards, they had to pay around BDT 1000 to 2500 (USD 15-37) as a bribe. On the other hand, those who are not the beneficiaries like the victims named above cannot manage to pay a bribe.

I further notice that most of the victims do not make a complaint against the corrupt public representatives since there is no administrative complaint mechanism guaranteeing the protection of the complainant’ rights, fearing that they may be revenged by the corrupt representatives. I am of the opinion that the culture of corruption is so deep-rooted and widespread that victims cannot speak out. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the victims in this case were encouraged to speak out about their complaints.

The Government of Bangladesh has a binding obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights as a state party of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In particular, women and old widows in rural areas are excluded from social security despite being one of the most vulnerable social groups. A 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.

I therefore, strongly urge you to immediately ensure the social security of these widows and protect their rights from the corrupt representatives and servants who have abdicated their social, legal and moral obligations. I urge you to intervene to:

1. Immediately provide old age allowance and widow allowance for the victims;
2. To conduct an investigation into the corrupt public representatives and servants in charge of the social security programs in Union Council as well as at district level;
3. To punish those found guilty of corruption;
4. To provide the victims with the arrears or food subsidies for the period that they have not received them;
5. To establish administrative complaint mechanisms for the victims to make a complaint;
6. To establish a transparent process to select beneficiaries of social security programs and make the list publicly available; and
7. To improve the government budget for the poor to ensure their food security and health security.

I strongly request the Government of Bangladesh to intervene to provide immediate relief for the victims as well as to establish a long-term policy and system in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to eradicate poverty and hunger and secure human rights and food security.

I look forward to your prompt and effective response.

Yours sincerely,


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PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. Dr. Muhammad Abdur Razzaque
Minister
Ministry of Food & Disaster Management
Bangladesh Secretariat
Dhaka-1000
BANGLADESH.
E-mail: minister@mofdm.gov.bd

2. Md. Mokhlesur Rahman
Secretary
Ministry of Food & Disaster Management Affaires
Bangladesh Secretariat
Dhaka-1000
BANGLADESH
E-mail: secretary@mofdm.gov.bd

3. Enamul Huq Mostafa Shaheed
Minister
Ministry of Social Welfare Affairs
Bangladesh Secretariat
Dhaka-1000
BANGLADESH

4. Syed Ashraful Islam
Minister
Local Government and Rural Development & Co-operatives Affairs
Bangladesh Secretariat
Dhaka-1000
BANGLADESH

5. Dr. Shirin Sharmin Choudhury
State Minister
Ministry of Women & Child welfare Affairs
Bangladesh Secretariat
Building # 06 (3rd Floor)
Osman Goni Road, Dhaka-1000
BANGLADESH
Tel: +880 2 7163639 - 43 / +880 2 7163645 – 49
Fax: +880 2 7162892

6. Mr. Md. Shahidul Islam
Deputy Commissioner
The office of the Deputy Commissioner
District-Gaibandha,
BANGLADESH
E-mail: dcgaibandha@moestab.gov.bd

7. District Social Welfare Officer
The Office of the district Social Welfare
District-Gaibandha
BANGLADESH

8. John Aylieff
Country Director
World Food Program (WFP)
IDB Bhaban 14th, 16th and 17th Floor E/8-A Rokeya Sarani Agargaon,
Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka-1207
BANGLADESH
Te: +880 2 8119069
Fax: +880 2 8113147
E-mail: WFP.Dhaka@wfp.org

Thank you.

Right to Food Programme (foodjustice@ahrc.asia)
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

Posted on 2010-04-30
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