Let My Stories Be Heard

Education is not just learning how to read and write, rather it is a multi-faceted area that has a bearing on health and nutrition, job prospects and income, maternal health and child marriage, amongst others. Stories of education highlighted not only the central role it plays in people’s perceptions of the future, but also exposed barriers to school retention given financial implications and opportunity costs for families. Nonetheless, education was also spoken about in its broader context: high schoolers highlighted the importance of life skill based education in navigating adolescence, the scope for ongoing training and skills development for those no longer in school, broadening the skillset for community health workers, the necessity of education to compete in the job market, and the power of knowledge and information in a functioning, healthy and democratic society.


Families are resilient structures and central to the development of children and adolescents; they are also instrumental for social progress. The stories shared acknowledged different types of families, such as single-parent, step families, and surrogate, and also highlighted the effect on caregiving in instances of parents who migrate for work. They expressed the impact of poverty on family dynamics, whether it be cases of domestic violence and substance abuse, delegation of household duties and gender roles, parental sacrifice to offer their children a better chance in life, or intergenerational rifts caused by a rapidly transforming social context. Importantly, the stories indicate the types of assistance families require in terms of family planning and care and support options throughout the life cycle, to food and nutrition security, job security and financial stability. The family unit has a role in development, and it is also within these units that behaviours and attitudes are modelled. It was clear that policy and legislative frameworks which seek to address social issues and strengthen the rights of women and children in particular, should also incorporate meeting the needs of families and ensuring their welfare.


Whether it be in times of disaster, tribal markets in Rangamati, or the necessity of resourcing and accessing social services in urban areas, stories of community reinforce the function of communities as a hub for economic, social, and political life. They also spoke to much broader community issues such as the loss of social capital in instances of rural-urban migration, the politics of urban slums, inadequate planning and community infrastructure, cost of living in Dhaka, community pressures on adolescent girls to get married, concerns about safety, security, and crime, and community cohesion and civic engagement. Communities are instrumental above all in preventing discrimination and stigmatization, changing perceptions in relation to health and social issues, but also in creating an environment for collective responsibility.


Stories of identity were primarily linked to ideas of self-perception, ambition, and pride in work and pride in one’s self, but above all: agency. There were stories of sisterhood in Khulna, the importance of female role models for young girls, finding independence and overcoming loneliness in foreign countries, stigma and discrimination as a result of someone’s sexual orientation or profession, addressing mental health, and the role faith plays in everyday life. Articulated through the stories were also meanings of identity, what it means to be a woman or a girl, what it means to be part of minority groups, and essentially what it means to be Bangladeshi. Identity was the thread that tied all the stories together, and it is through this personal lens that more tangible actions of rights, protection, and citizenship were surfaced, along with reinforcing the notion that all people regardless of who they are or how they identify should have equal access to justice, movement, social services, and development.

Since 2013 a new cadre of midwives has been enrolled in a three-year long direct-entry diploma course in midwifery at selected Nursing Institutes throughout the country following the ICM Global Standards for Midwifery Education. There are 2025 students currently enrolled and receiving training at 31 nursing institutions. These midwives are to be differentiated from other types of birth attendants which are already practicing throughout Bangladesh such as traditional birth attendants or “dai” who have no formal training.


Every day in Bangladesh, almost 8,000 babies are born. On the frontlines to reduce maternal and infant mortality are midwives and community skilled birth attendants. While Bangladesh has made impressive gains in reducing maternal and infant mortality, there is still work to be done to further drive down the number of deaths.

A study conducted in 2014 indicates that only 5% of Bangladeshis understand the role of midwives, suggesting that even now with a budding supply of professionals, there is little awareness about the important service they provide amongst the community and the vital role they play in safe motherhood. Antenatal care (ANC) from a medically trained provider is important to monitor the status of a pregnancy, identify the complications associated with the pregnancy, and prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes. Yet fewer than 1 in 3 women make the recommended four or more ANC visits during their pregnancy.

Amina is a midwifery instructor at the UN supported midwifery diploma course at Dhaka Medical College Hospital:

“I became a widow at the age of 18. I had a young daughter. I completed my SSC exam by that time and decided to become a nurse. I had heard from others that as a nurse you are safe, it is a secure job, and it is totally for women. I was provided with a room in a hostel, where I was safe.

Those patients that are educated – they know more about maternal health services, but not those who have no education. Six out of ten come to the hospital for delivery without any antenatal care visits, they only come to us if there are complications. I see cases where someone has a problem with traditional birth attendants. They only come if there is a problem. Only those who come for the antenatal care visits can we advise, if they don’t come we can’t provide the advice to them. Mothers are no more aware about reproductive health services. Still, in a lot of cases, mothers don’t visit any professionals before coming for delivery.

I think it is a mother’s right to have this service. We don’t have a lot of equipment to provide services. To see the child cardiogram, we don’t have the CTG and Doppler machines, we can’t measure the child’s heartbeat during critical conditions. But we have everything we need for hygiene.”

Safe motherhood also encompasses the importance of good nutrition for mothers and in turn for their children, especially in the first 1,000 days after conception. Approximately 40% of all children under five are too short for their age, a condition also referred to as stunting. Stunting may chronically deprive the body of necessary building blocks to develop the brain, body and immune system; 15% of children under five are acutely undernourished, or wasted, meaning they are too thin for their height and are predictor for under five mortality. Human potential shrivels if stunting affects the growth of a child. Maternal health will be an important area in which to continue work to ensure that mothers deliver their babies healthy and thus children get the start they need.

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More than 1 in 3 Dhaka residents, some 4 million people, live in urban slums. Only 9 percent of households in slums use improved sanitation facilities. Huge disparities have also been found in the availability of interventions related to preventive health care, nutritional well-being, protection, and sanitation and hygiene.


Undernutrition remains a major challenge in Bangladesh with significant consequences for individuals, the economy and health systems, costing more than $1 billion USD in lost productivity every year. The effects of this deprivation last a lifetime as undernutrition leads to:

• Poor health, through reducing immunity and increasing susceptibility to disease.
• Lower educational attainment, through impaired physical and mental development.
• Reduced productivity and earning potential.

Shahriar is a primary school student who told us about recently moving to Dhaka, nutritious biscuits at school, and his ambition to become a pilot:

“Early this year when I came to Dhaka, I got terribly sick from drinking water collected from slum areas. I suffered a lot. In the several months since, my father spent around five thousand taka for medication. I don’t enjoy this school much, we often fight each other. We all like to quarrel, make noise in school time. It hampers our education. During our first session we get one packet of biscuits every day and we have to eat those in front of our teachers. Sometime we get additional packets when we provide assistance in school like when we carry and distribute biscuits.

My father runs a canteen in an English medium school in Dhanmondi, we do play at that school when we visit, but I don’t like those students. They have money but they misbehave with my father, being secondary level students. I want to be a pilot. But I know I will not be able to be a pilot. It requires higher education and more qualifications for that. I have limited opportunities to progress and I don’t know how far I can continue my study. I have watched the adventurous life of a pilot on television, and it captivates me. A pilot earns huge money! But I need to think about my future and my family also. I do have a bank account. My father maintains the account. He told me that, ‘in the absence of me, you will be the owner of my canteen; everything will be yours. You have to operate the business.’”

Stunting, wasting and underweight among children are all higher in slums than in any other areas. Lack of access to a ‘social network’ as well as public goods and services, justifies the idea that communities within the urban slums in Bangladesh should be considered as excluded from the essential components of urban wellbeing: land rights, opportunity for decent work, public goods and services, and formal representation in the government. Additionally, non-communicable diseases are also escalating in urban areas, reflecting an increasingly difficult living environment and poor diets. All of this has a bearing on education attainment as

Shahriar’s teacher, Shoti, explains:

“I am teaching for 18 years. Most children’s mother work as a maid. One of the challenges female students face is they need to leave early to take care of their younger siblings when their mother is out working in other houses. Most of the boys need to help their father in their work. For example I have two students who sell fish in the market. So they need to leave early to help their father selling fish. If I do not let them go before school hours, they pretend to have headaches or stomach aches to return home early and help their family. Students come to school without breakfast. Their mother is out early to work, and they do not have time to prepare breakfast for their children. They come to school knowing they will receive biscuits. I give them biscuits right after their first class, so they are not hungry.

Most students leave schools seasonally. They go back to their villages for months without informing us. They go back during harvest season or come back late after Ramadan. When they come back to school after missing a few months of school, they have missed a lot. Then we teachers take turns in helping them catch up on what they have missed. I am trying to contribute as much as I can. We cannot be strict with these children living in such harsh circumstances. We need to give as much as they can take with the added responsibilities they have at home. They need to cook and clean. They have to go back home and take care of their family. I cannot treat them like they have nothing else to do than enjoying and coming to school. If I am too strict, they might stop coming altogether.”

Education is instrumental to moving out of poverty, with the incidence of poverty six times higher among those with no education than those who have completed secondary and higher education. Nutrition, poverty, and living conditions in urban areas are interrelated with issues of education, social protection, and water and sanitation. This suggests a holistic approach to addressing how these various experiences intersect at this crucial stage of a person’s life, which have a bearing on their experiences as they enter adolescence.

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Social norms continue to represent a strong factor in expectations of both girls and boys; adolescent girls in the country are more likely to have to halt their education as they are forced into child marriage and its attendant early sexual activity. In a conservative social environment with strong religious influences, the space is particularly limited for adolescents to have access to information on sexual health, discuss taboos openly, and explore some of the related barriers and social dichotomies. In Bangladesh, adolescent clubs provide that space for some adolescents, including theatre groups, life skills trainings, child rights discussions, disaster management, sports, singing and dancing, and reading books.

A retrospective study examining the causes of death of almost 30,000 women in Bangladesh found that where suicide was a cause of death, 36% were aged 10-19. And in young women aged 15-19, more than 1 in 5 deaths were due to suicide. A national suicide study reported a lack of control over their feelings, thoughts, and emotions as the primary psycho-social changes during adolescence, followed by an inability to realise their own faults, differentiate between do’s and don’ts, make the right decisions, and take proper judgments. Domestic violence, marital problems and child marriage were strongly highlighted as factors with the highest suicide-inducing potential among adolescents.


Growing up in the poor slum areas of Bangladesh can be taxing on youth and adolescents who face innumerable personal and social challenges. Serious matters like parents forcing their daughters to get married early and stopping their education, and being faced with sexual harassment, are everyday realities for adolescent girls, while drug addiction poses a major concern for young boys.

Asha told us about her love for theatre and the realities of being an adolescent girl:

“I study in Class 7, I’m 12 years old. I’ve been in the theatre since I was a child. From when I was young, I would see dances on the TV, and I would mimic what I saw. My father saw this and said if you like this you should try it. So I started doing this. The time I spend in the theatre, I would probably have been spending that at home or out playing. I could have ended up going down the wrong path. Instead I spend that time in the theatre. We sing and dance, there are other children here and we’ve become friends. So I love that about the theatre.

When school ends, a few boys would follow me home and harass me. They’d walk behind me and say bad things. They’d ask me to stop, tell me they wanted to talk a little bit. They’d call me at night, ask me why I don’t pick up their calls. It made me feel really uneasy. And also scared. I wondered why they did this in the streets; I wondered what the other people in the streets thought of me because of that. Now I have some courage, so if some boy harasses me, I’ll confront them and ask why are you doing this? Since doing the theatre I’ve become bolder. Our theatre teachers tell us we should never think that we are weak, that we should know that we have something in us. So I don’t feel scared anymore. When boys bother me, I confront them.

My dream is to become a very successful doctor. I’ve seen girls my age get married. I think it’s a shame, I think it’s not right. Those girls should be going to school, or doing things like attending the theatre. My friend's family didn’t send her to school, and told her she didn’t need to study because they were going to marry her off. She went along with it, she didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t have anyone to ask.”

The pressures of the adolescence period are further exacerbated when living in poverty and have serious consequences if they are not addressed. However the period of adolescence often falls through the cracks as they are too old for programmes and policies oriented towards children, but are too young to access and benefit from those targeted at adults. In particular, little is known about the age group 10-14, constraining evidence to inform policies and guide programme investments relevant to this group.

Adolescents overall are challenged by the need for appropriate skills formation. While education was recognized as valuable by most, if not all, of those we spoke with, there were barriers to continuing formal education at the secondary level. Economic growth in Bangladesh has been driven to a large extent by relatively unskilled labour. Higher income-earning opportunities for relatively unskilled labour have had one unintended consequence: reducing the demand for secondary and higher education, especially among the poor. Investment in skills formation, ongoing training and vocational education will assist in ensuring that those working in low skilled labour have opportunities to also move into higher productivity sectors. Additionally, investment in skills formation would also benefit women who are out of school or already employed in low skilled work as more women enter the workforce.

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Women RMG workers usually do not have the knowledge, skills or opportunities to grow their productive capacity, incomes or savings. In addition, continued inequality between men and women, including through the perpetuation of gendered violence, prevents women garment workers’ access to the spaces and institutions that are responsible for the overall growth of the sector and the country.

The minimum wage for garment workers is 5,300 taka per month. Many garment workers are forced to work high amounts of overtime in order to make a living wage, which fall short of a fair living wage in order to enable a female worker to provide an adequate standard of living for her family. While the minimum wage is a marginal improvement compared to the past, it reflects a need for international brands and retailers to distribute profits better so that workers producing the clothes can also benefit.


The ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh is an important driver of national social and economic development. RMG exports totalled US$24.5 billion (2013-14) accounting for over 80% of the nation’s export earnings and employing some 4.2 million workers. Women make up approximately 80% of the estimated workers in this sector but earn, on average, 65% of their male counterparts.

The rapid development of the Bangladesh RMG sector did not see similar advances in working conditions or workers’ rights. Significant efforts have taken place to strengthen labour organisations to make workers more aware of their basic rights and to establish an accountable and effective mechanism for making and investigating allegations of abuses. One of the people who took part in a UN supported training for trade unions was Mahmooda who told us about securing education for her children and the rising cost of living in Dhaka:

“I am a sewing machine operator at a garment factory in Mirpur (Dhaka). To support my children and family, I came to Dhaka to work in a garment factory. This is the only means for me to support my family. One of the hardest parts of working in the factories is that sometimes there is a lot of work pressure. Back then you could not even file a complaint to anyone even if they did not pay the salary but now this has changed, now there are officers in the factory to whom you can file complaints.

In five years’ time I want to come out of this situation where I have to work to feed my family. I want to have some savings. Currently I am considering two options; I want to go back to my village and start a small shop with the money that I will get from the factory. My second option is to go abroad as a worker to make a bit more money to do something good in the future. I want to ensure education for my children and owning some land of my own for farming. I don’t want my children to suffer like me or work hard like me. Even if I have to work harder I am ready to do that.

I wish that the house rent will go down and also the price of food will be less – or at least the price will not increase. The price of vegetables and rice should be controlled. If there were living quarters or a dormitory with the factories then we could save a bit more. Now, the government gives a salary rise and the landowners increase the rent instantly so the end result is next to nothing. Transportation cost should also be controlled.”

Within this context, Bangladesh’s urban landscape is transforming as it urbanises at a rate of about 2.9% per year, which is double the national population growth rate, putting enormous pressure on existing infrastructure and basic civic facilities and services, amidst a rising cost of living. Urban poverty is commonly understood as a chronic and complex phenomenon related to a lack of skills and capacity for adaptation, and to the capacity and willingness of towns and cities to provide space for housing as well as public services appropriate to an ever expanding number of urban citizens. The growth of the garment industry has been a significant driver in the expansion of urban areas as economic “push” and “pull” factors have been identified as the most significant reasons for rural-urban migration. Many residents of urban slum areas are recent migrants who have come to work in the industry, while others set their sights farther.

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Alongside the RMG sector in Bangladesh, remittances from labour migrants play a significant role in the national economy standing at USD $15.3 billion for the 2014-2015 financial year alone. The actual amount of remittances, including unrecorded flows through formal and informal channels, is believed to be significantly larger.

Three areas the UN has identified as requiring further work include:

• Strengthening pre departure training for migrants that include high quality training to improve job skills of workers and soft skills such as ability to negotiate their own contract details
• Continued advocacy at the national and international level to ensure domestic workers are accorded similar protection as other professions under various related national and international laws.
• Diversifying the skill base of perspective female migrants will open wider options of employment for them. This will also further strengthen the development of the country.


There is an estimated 9 million Bangladeshi migrants worldwide, with female migrants forming a small but important demography numbering almost half a million. Women usually migrate abroad to work in semi-skilled and unskilled sectors. At their destination country, female migrants face long working hours, and unfamiliar cultural practices which can lead to physical and mental stress as they struggle to adjust.

At a government run pre-departure training and orientation course supported by the UN, Mafia spoke to us about why she decided to work abroad and a few of her worries about the new experience she will be embarking on:

“I learnt about migration through two of my relatives who are working in Dubai. Migration will give me an opportunity to supplement my family’s income. I want to provide for my son so that he has a good education. I want to help my husband in building a new house for our family. I am planning to go to Dubai as two of my relatives have been there and it will seem a more familiar place to me.

I know living away from my family, especially my son, will be very difficult. In Bangladesh, I am not sure if my husband will remain faithful to me during my absence or if he will get married again during this time. However, as the main reason for me to migrate is to provide a better future for my family I will have to be strong and bear the hardships of living abroad.

I need to live with unfamiliar people and hope over time I can become close to them. I really hope I have a good experience during my stay as I want to continue working there after my initial two year period is over. If I have to face some bad incident while I am in Dubai, I know I will get a bad reputation and people will think badly about Bangladesh as well.”

While migration can offer employment and opportunities, it also bears great risks for women, a majority of whom are employed as domestic workers. Because domestic work seldom falls under national labour laws, female workers are often left without any formal redress mechanisms in case of workplace abuse. Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection, and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low (or illegal withholding of) wages, and premature termination of employment.

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Drivers of improvements in extreme poverty include the role of rising rural wages, role of urban jobs, the new job and income opportunities afforded by migration, and institutionally transformative growth, such as changes in the tenancy market for extreme land-poor groups. Concomitantly, welfare transfers and basic safety nets need to be strengthened going forward, since they offer a means of equalising income and consumption differences, re-channeling the benefits of growth, and reducing poverty.

As the Bangladesh economy continues to grow by about 6% per year, food, rent and other living needs are proving to be costly as prices rise while wages have not kept pace, and the poorest are spending a disproportionate share of their incomes on basic staples. In Dhaka, rice prices have almost doubled from around 14 taka per kilo to 29 taka per kilo in the last decade. Effective social protection will require the assurance that people’s most basic needs are met such as food, housing, and health.


Inclusive economic development is very much linked to distribution of growth. The growth of inequality as the economy undergoes structural transformation is a concerning trend. Continuing patterns of asset ownership in Bangladesh remain a key issue in this regard, particularly since existing wealth as a primary driver of investment and capital markets remain weak. Abdur, a small business owner, told us about his family, financial security, and his pickle business:

“I sell seasonal fruits like mangoes and lotkon. I also sell pickles that I make myself. I use molasses and spices. I get up early in the morning at 4 am to make pickles. I live in a rented house with my family. We share a kitchen. So I utilize the early morning time to make pickles when the kitchen is not busy. I have one son and two daughters. The daughters work in a garments factory. They are married, so they are busy managing their own household. My wife works as a maid in a school.

I used to sell bangles and ribbons in the street. Now, women go to shops to buy [these] things. There is no demand for ‘feri walas’ (hawkers) like me anymore. I could not earn enough to pay everyday expenses. Somedays I would earn 1000 taka. I left the business when I saw that I am incurring constant loss in my business. Then I moved into the pickle business. I taught pickle making myself. Still, it is hard, I borrow money from my neighbours regularly, and give it back as soon as I can.

My son feels ashamed that I do small work, selling pickles. My son asks me to leave this work. But what else can I do? I don’t know anything else. He tells me that it would have been good if I was educated, then I could have a good job. My income is very low, expenses are high. I borrowed money for my daughter’s wedding expenses. I am always in financial crisis. If I could afford it, I would have bought fruits for him. I would buy meat for a few days of the week and fish for other days. What to do? I cannot afford to buy him such food.”

Overall, it is estimated that some 46 million people remain excluded from accessing financial services. There are a variety of reasons for financial exclusion such as a lack of awareness, low income and assets, social exclusion, and illiteracy. On the supply side, distance from a formal finance branch, branch timings, cumbersome documentation processes and other procedures, unsuitable products, and even staff attitudes are common reasons for exclusion. These result in higher transaction costs and lower profitability, and people turn to informal credit considering its flexibility and ease of availability despite informal credit being costlier than other sources of credit.

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The extent to which social protection programmes are able to help the poor hangs on their ability to generate the necessary threshold level of assets and to provide effective social insurance. The reach of government-supported social protection, now amounts to about 1.8% of GDP (competing figure has it at 2.3% of GDP) according to one estimate, and is channeled through over 80 safety net programmes. The defining feature of the country’s most successful governmental and non-governmental programmes is the linking of protection of the poor households with opportunities to progressively build sustainable livelihoods. The highest expenditure in Bangladesh on programmes that address the risks associated with old age is the civil service pension.


It is estimated that the elderly population in Bangladesh will likely triple in the next decades, comprising 7.7% of the population as of 2011. Fazlul is a retired civil servant, who sold his pension after the death of his wife, and told us about the changes he’s seen in Bangladesh:

“I was born in 1940, 3rd October. I’m 76 years old. The government retirement age was 58. It’s almost 15 years since I retired. I never thought I’d live for so long after I retired. We used to think that going into retirement meant the end of your life. But now after retirement, people are living longer, and living for many years after retirement. I have an independent life here. It’s like living in a dorm in Dhaka University. The elderly need health services, that’s the most important thing. Then you have recreation. Treatment. Transportation. There’s scope to do a lot. Recreation is needed for physical health, to keep the mind healthy as well. I don’t get as much recreation as before; sometimes I think that I’ll go stay in Cox’s Bazaar for a few days, or visit a friend. I often have these wishes.

I finished my Master of Science and enrolled in a PhD program in Dhaka University. I was doing my PhD on potassium in Bangladesh’s soil. Once the war started my work was ruined. My greenhouse was not maintained. My papers were all destroyed. I lost two years of work, and in the ruins of the war it wasn’t possible to start it all over again, to do all that scientific research again. The greenhouse couldn’t be tended to regularly during the war, because no one was coming in during the war, and all the work was ruined because of the neglect. The instruments stopped working too. It wasn’t possible to work during the war.

I joined the Bangladesh Rural Development Board as a deputy director. Everything we see now as rural development, the BRDB had a special role to play in that. From the start we worked to improve agricultural output with high yielding varieties of seed, better fertilizers, things farmers weren’t using before. People were living in dire circumstances. At the time we knew nothing about irrigation, infertilizers, high yielding seeds. We had little land and little output. There was a famine or two. The difference is now huge. The yield is so much more now. Not just for paddy, but also wheat, spinach, vegetables, and other crops, too. Bangladesh was never self-sufficient when it came to food. Bangladesh became self-sufficient because of rural development. I’m most proud about how our work improved the conditions for farmers. People are more skilled. Infrastructure has improved in villages. There are roads now.

Bangladesh has improved a lot.

Think about this: when I used to study in class 3, we used to be told that the average Bangladeshi lived for 30 years. Now the average life is 70 years. That’s an incredible transformation.”

The agriculture sector, including forestry and fisheries, remains important to the national economy, still employing about half of the labour force. While the share of agriculture in GDP is declining, there is scope to ensure sustainable agriculture and “climate smart” natural resource management. Meanwhile, small and marginal farmers face particular problems marketing their products due to poor infrastructure, lack of storage and processing facilities, and poor roads and communications. A strong agriculture sector will continue to be fundamental to food security, nutrition and overall poverty reduction. Agriculture and food systems must be adaptable as Bangladesh continues to change and moves into the future.

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About UN Bangladesh

UN country team (UNCT) consists of representatives from 23 UN agencies, funds and programmes, UNIC and UNDSS convened under UN Resident Coordinator (RC). More..

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    UN Offices, 19th Floor
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