A youth-based idea challenge on ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health services and preventing sexual harassment in slums and low-income communities
“I got married at the age of 16 and soon after I got pregnant. Back then, I did not know anything about family planning. Early marriage is common in our slum. Most of the young girls are harassed by local young people both verbally and physically- also, they receive threats from “mastans” (goons) for rejecting marriage proposals. Therefore, guardians marry off their daughters at 14/15. A few days ago, I was returning home alone in the afternoon when a group of 3 or 4 boys standing on the sidewalk started pestering me. When I was about to walk past them, they started singing vulgar songs and tried to touch me. I was scared and ran away,” said 19-years-old Kakoli (not her real name), a resident of Kallyanpur slum.
Kakoli’s story also represents the situation of many girls living in the slums of Dhaka. They encounter various forms of sexual harassment and struggle due to a lack of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. These act as a barrier towards women empowerment and achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs). To overcome these bottlenecks, Urban Programmes of World Vision Bangladesh in collaboration with BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University organized ‘Urban Health Innovation Challenge 2021: Healthy, Safe and Inclusive Cities”.
BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health is one of the leading public health institutes in the country that carries out a wide range of research, advocacy and capacity building programs for disadvantaged communities. World Vision Bangladesh is a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization supporting the children, their families and communities worldwide who live in poverty.
The recently concluded contest focused on two challenges: 1) Limited access to SRH services and awareness among adolescents and youths in urban slums and low-income communities, and 2) Preventing the increasing rate of sexual harassment/abuse in urban slums.
In recent years, government and non-government organizations have succeeded in building awareness among people on menstrual hygiene, however very little has been done to disseminate knowledge on safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and family planning among the slum people. A study conducted by James P Grant Public School among 1129 girls aged 13-24 years residing in Dhaka slums revealed that 82% of respondents got married before the age of 18. The paucity of knowledge on basic sexual and reproductive health services often lead to unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion which leaves damaging impacts on adolescent mothers’ physical and mental health.
Besides abusive and humiliating comments, young and adolescents in the slums encounter, inappropriate touching, threats of kidnapping or rape for refusing marriage proposals. Sexual harassments and domestic violence are rampant in their everyday lives. Several sources reported that during the Covid-19 pandemic, these incidents increased significantly in the slum. Therefore, out of fear and to protect family reputation, often household heads decide on marrying off of their adolescent daughters at an early age.
This contest was aimed at solving the above-mentioned problems through the participation of youths from universities and marginalized communities. It received enormous responses. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, a total of 42 innovative ideas were submitted through the participants. This contest has been able to generate responses from diverse communities as well. For example, 1 team participated from the LGBTQ community and 6 teams were from different urban slums of Dhaka city. After rigorous screening, the top 6 teams were selected for presenting their ideas in front of the jury panel in the final round of the contest. On 31 March 2021, the champion, first runner-up and second runner-up of “Urban Health Innovation Challenge 2021” were decided based on the innovativeness, cost-effectiveness and feasibility of their ideas. The winners are Project Biroti (champion), Project Poriborton (first runner up) and Project Protimoncho (second runner up).
The names of the team members are -NoshinSayiaraShuchi, a student of MPHat BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health; Anika Salma Din, currently working at LifeSpring; ShahriarKabirShuvo, a student at Islamic University of Technology (IUT) and Sehnin Fatima Anusha, a former student of Microbiology at BRAC University. The team identified an unmet need for contraception as a key problem in the urban slum context and their solution is an app for building awareness on long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) use among young women living in slums. Currently, only 9% of women living in urban slums are using LARC whereas the target is 20%. Lack of knowledge on LARC results in repeated childbirth and the young mother’s physical well-being is compromised as a consequence. Team leader NoshinSayiaraSuchi said, “Young women even with minimal education would be able to use this app- information will be displayed in Bangla and simple animations will be used for better understanding. It will provide detailed information on different types of LARCs and nearby facilities from where young women would get sexual and reproductive health services with ease”.
The first runner up team was Project Poribortan. Team member ShamsadNaviaNovelly, Tasneem Qureshi and S. M. MashrurArafinAyon are all currently studying at the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Dhaka University. In urban slums of Bangladesh, around55%of slum girls are not aware of menstrual hygiene and around 76% are clueless about sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore, the team focused on reducing SRH service-related disparities in urban slums. “Project Poriborton will empower adolescents with knowledge on gender roles and violence and SRHR through the digital platforms. The project will be carried out in 15 classes and workshops by community peer educators and a website will be accessible from all devices. With community-level engagement, innovative approach, games and illustrations, the training will provide comprehensive sexuality education to the adolescents of urban slums”, explained by ShamshadNaviaNovelly, the focal of the first runner-up team.
The second runner-up team is from the Kallyanpur slum and the problem they identified is the increasing sexual harassment in the slums. All the team members are acting as game-changers of their community. Billal Hossain Juwel and EshaAkterLabonno are currently working as community researchers in ARISE (Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub) - community-based participatory action research of BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health. Rani Rahman Nodi is acting as a community organizer in BRAC, and Hannan Hossain Rubel and LaboniAkterMegha have also experience of working with several organizations.
Despite being part of a marginalized population, the team came up with an innovative solution engaging adolescents and youths of their community. Their idea was setting up a club, named “Protimancho” for supporting the victims of sexual harassment and building awareness through street dramas and debates. The uniqueness of their idea encompasses the formation of a watch group, setting up a complaint box in their community and creating skill development opportunities for the perpetrators. “The harassers are part of our family and social circle. They are not outsiders. Oftentimes, many of them don’t have any work, or friends to talk to. Our team will identify and counsel them for changing their mindset,” Billal Hossain Juwel, team leader of Project Protimonchodescribed.
Project “Fridays school”, secured the fourth position after they proposed to create a platform that would accommodate interdisciplinary knowledge and activities to shape their mental perspective, identity and personality for combating sexual harassment in urban slums. The fifth position was jointly held by Project “Uttaran”, a team of four members of a gender diverse population, and project “Zubosokti”. Project “Uttoron” proposed to establish a 24/7 helpline for women and the gender diverse population of urban slums which would be handled by the gender diverse community.
Ideas generated by the winning teams have the potential to change the precarious situation prevailing in the urban slums of Dhaka city. World Vision Bangladesh and BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health have envisioned to carry out research utilizing these ideas in different urban slums for ensuring a resilient, healthy and safe city.
This article was co-authored by Afsana Yeamin, Research Associate at BRAC JPGSPH and Swaksar Adhikary, Research Assistant at BRAC JPGSPH.