What About the Boys?

To put solutions into context, interventions require deeper understanding of the lives of adolescent boys in the urban slums of Bangladesh.

Photo credit - prothom alo.jpg
Passengers on a human haulier hang off the back due to overcrowding; this is a common sight in Dhaka city, where drivers of such vehicles could often be as young as 12 years of age. (Photo credit: Prothom Alo Newspaper)

Rojib works as a human haulier driver in Dhaka and is the sole breadwinner for a family of four, including his newly wedded wife. His day starts at dawn and continues into the dredges of the night. He has been driving for three years and has never had the time to think if he should have studied further. Rojib finds that the best way to drive efficiently is to be aggressive; he is prepared to wrestle or bribe any interfering traffic police. He runs on a tight schedule and cannot afford to lose passengers to the fifty other hauliers on the same route. For Rojib, his only friends are a handful of boys whom he has grown up with in the slums of Mirpur and other drivers his age, with whom he regularly hangs out after work. As he makes his way home through the slum alleyways, he reminds himself that he needs to reprimand his wife for arguing with him earlier that day. His anger bubbles as he makes his way inside the cramped room, the honking and constant need to push his way through everything overtakes the exhaustion.

Rojib is 17 years old, but his story depicts how life pans out for adolescent boys in the urban slums of Bangladesh.

To date, there has been little understanding of the lives of adolescent boys within urban slums. While programme or research interventions acknowledge that these adolescents grow up against the backdrop of social, economic and political instabilities, the everyday vulnerabilities that shape their lives remain poorly understood.

Within urban slums, the idea of adolescence is not recognized as a transitory phase into adulthood. Adolescence is experienced as a time where gendered differences between boys and girls are emphasised, perpetuated and lived out. Boys are expected to fit into the status of breadwinners for their families, allowing them greater opportunities to attain agency and mobility while exposing them to riskier realities. Girl’s mobility and freedom, on the other hand, become restricted due to notions of shame and purity that make them vulnerable to violence and abuse. This context is particularly important, given the unique social and economic environment in which urban slum adolescents may find themselves. The notion of how adolescent boys create and experience identities of themselves is an issue that remains on the margins. There are specific factors at work that catalyse the conditions within which boys develop their worldviews and position themselves in relation to their surroundings.

The community, including parents, holds more rigid ideas of and expectations from adolescent boys. In most cases, boys are expected to leave school by the time they turn 14 or 15 and generate income that can sustain themselves or their families. The idea of achieving stability and solvency is dependent on their ability to find employment early on in their lives and is not perceived to be correlated with higher education. However, with an unfinished education and little opportunities apart from manual/unskilled labour, adolescent boys compete for jobs in hazardous, often violent environments. Within these conditions, boys develop a sense of agency – they have more mobility and decision-making power even before they attain the required sense of responsibility needed to exercise such power.

The climate of fear and insecurity is part of everyday life in urban slums. Violence is pervasive and involves gang warfare, eviction or police raids and blatant oppression of dwellers by local leaders. It is a common pattern in the urban slum setting for adolescent boys to be recruited by local gangs that exercise political power and control within and around slum areas. Under the informal mentorship of political (community) figures, adolescent boys often find impunity to engage in risky practices such as drug/substance abuse, sexual harassment and even early marriages. Furthermore, information and experiences they see in their peer networks shape their images of ‘what men should do’. The decisions that adolescent boys make are also influenced by peer pressure, and such influence can often force adolescents to abide by hetero-normative gender roles that are toxic.

The prevalence of romantic relationships between adolescent boys and girls in the slums are increasing and this marked a shift in attitudes and perceptions regarding love and premarital relationships compared to past decades. This increase is attributed to mobile phone affordability and accessibility which makes it easier for adolescents to communicate with each other, form relationships and social networks and bypass guardian’s surveillance. Moreover, due to the congested nature of slums, adolescents are able to easily interact with one another. Even though there has been a slight shift in perspective, romantic relationships are viewed unfavourably. For boys who engage in relationships lack the understanding or support from kin or peers to navigate the terrain between their desires and societal expectations, which means that in the face of persisting uncertainties they are susceptible to risky practices.

Adolescent’s understanding of sex and the construct of their own desires are heavily influenced by how the concept is set within the social fabric of the urban slum. Premarital sex and romantic relationships attract varying degrees of sanction or punishment from communities, families and other social/legal structures. However, adolescent boys with greater degrees of mobility and agency often find spaces where they form relationships or have access to premarital sex. For boys who have little to no knowledge of sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR)issues or formal or informal spaces to gain it from, their understanding of sexual desires and their fulfilment are limited to what they learn from their peer networks and unregulated sources of information (i.e. – pornography).

Within these settings, rigid identities of masculinity and adulthood are established and they in turn perpetuate conditions for adolescent boys to become more prone to violence and risky behaviour and practices. In this environment, boys have little to no space where they can put forward their anxieties or concerns without posing any threats to the stable masculine man they aspire to become.

Within the context of Bangladesh, the development and research landscape has viewed adolescent boys in urban slums as either gatekeepers or perpetrators in programme interventions. This has changed only recently where programmes are working with young men and boys’ SRHR needs.  However, majority of intervention, policy and advocacy programmes that tackle issues of sexual abuse, early marriage, etc. have shown a long-standing trend of focusing only on women or adolescent girls, failing to consider adolescent boys as core part of their target group.

Questions pertaining to why adolescent boys in urban slums remain on the margins of programme and research interventions is a question that has gained traction only recently. But before those questions can be answered and effective solutions can emerge, there is a need to look at the lives of these adolescent boys and understand how their vulnerabilities shape their actions and worldviews/perceptions. 

The blog was written by Ishrat Jahan, Research Assistant at CGSRHR at BRAC JPGSPH. Special mention goes to Subas Chandra Biswas, Senior Research Fellow (CGSRHR), the blog is derived from his research that is a part of the “Preventing early and child marriage in urban poor settlements in Bangladesh” project by JPGSPH.


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