"My children are starving apa, can you please give me some money?"
A burqa-clad woman appeared when I just stepped out of the gate of my building. She was sobbing. I could not see her face because of the Niqaab but her baby bump was visible even under the burqa.
I opened my wallet and pulled out some money and gave it to her. She did not seem to be in any hurry and kept sobbing. The notes were twisted and hidden in her palms.
I broke the awkwardness and advised her to go to the nearby field where a group of people were distributing "relief" for the poor.
She said that the place is too crowded as hundreds of people have rushed there to pick up the sacks. I also understood that her advanced-stage pregnancy has added to her woes.
"What is your name?" I asked. She hesitated for a moment and then spoke in almost inaudible whispers, "Jahanara".
Before I could ask her anything else, she left. It was the first week of April, and I never saw her again until the end of August.
That evening, I came home after work at around 8:30pm. Even from a distance, I noticed a burqa-clad woman standing beside the gate holding a baby.
I avoided her, and was about to enter the gate when she spoke up, "Apa, did you recognise me?" I was startled. It took me a few moments to recall her.
"Jahanara?" I asked. The woman nodded. I brought her inside. After she settled down, she narrated her story of lockdown.
"I lost my husband just a few days ahead of the lockdown. He was sick for a very long time," she said.
Jahanara's husband was a rickshaw-van puller in the city. The couple lived in a rented room with their three children in the Uttar Badda area in Dhaka.
Two years ago, he fell ill and had to stop working. Their elder daughter dropped out of school and Jahanara started working as a part-time house help to support the family.
"When I became pregnant, I had to give up one of my jobs," she said adding that the decision substantially reduced her earnings.
Before getting pregnant she made around TK12,000 per month, which was not enough to support the family of five in this cruel city.
But she never lost hope and prayed that one day her husband would recover and take the responsibilities of the family, but that was not to be.
Soon after his demise and even before Jahanara and her children could recover from the grief, another blow hit the family – the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdowns.
Before the pandemic, Jahanara worked in four homes. As the shutdowns began, she lost two of her jobs. Her salary was reduced to half.
Around 30 lakh domestic workers of the country have lost their income due to the Covid-19 pandemic which has been paralysing the country's economy since March.
Most of the domestic workers have lost their jobs mostly because their employers tried to maintain safety measures to contain the virus after the government declared a nationwide shutdown across the country to curb the spread of Covid-19.
After losing their jobs, these domestic workers have been living an inhuman existence and starving with their family. And there is no government initiative to help them.
Jahanara was left with little money, big debt and four hungry children. "We spent two nights without any food, that was when I came to you begging," she said.
Many others like her had the same fate during the shutdown. With little income and little or no help from the government, these people had suffered the brunt of the economic crisis.
"One morning my landlord came and threatened to kick us out of the shanty if we did not pay Tk8000 within that evening. I am a widow, with four children and no work. Where would I get the money? The entire day, I went from door to door seeking help. But who would help me? Everyone was in the same condition. Finally, I called my previous employer and pleaded for help. They gave me the money but it was a loan. Now they are deducting Tk1000 from my salary every month. How will I survive?" she asked.
According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), around 57 percent of domestic workers lost their jobs during the pandemic while the other 43 percent face a loss of income.
Around 17 lakh of the 30 lakh domestic workers of the country live in the capital. Around 90 percent of them across the country are women and children.
The fate of domestic workers has never changed in the country due to proper monitoring and implementation of rules. There is no law in Bangladesh to protect them.
There is the Domestic Servants Registration Ordinance, 1961, which asks for registration of the domestic workers in the local police station before hiring them. But it does not include the rights of domestic workers.
"Did you think about leaving the city or taking up any other work," I asked her. She lowered her gaze and nodded in affirmation. Jahanara wanted to leave the city for good but when she called her brother in the village and sought help, he refused to help her. She had nowhere to go.
"I tried my luck in any kind of work. But my luck did not support me," she said adding that the mounting pressure from every corner gave her suicidal thoughts.
But finally, Jahanara bounced back. As the shutdowns were eased she got a call from the two employers who had suspended her services and they asked her to join immediately. Once she joined they paid her in full and Jahanara could pay back most of her debts.
"I will never get my husband back and will never forget these few months of ordeal," she said.