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'I feel that I am able to make the women in my community proud and encourage them to raise their voices more'

  • Published at 01:36 pm June 21st, 2018
  • Last updated at 01:24 am June 22nd, 2018
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Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu

FEM Founder Zaiba Tahyaa talks about her recent award, past influences and future plans

Zaiba Tahyya is one of the two Bangladeshi youths who has been named among the winners of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2018, and will take her place in UK alongside 12 other winners of the prestigious award from Asia. 

The Queen’s Young Leaders Award recognizes, supports and celebrates exceptional people aged between 18 to 29 from across the Commonwealth, who are taking the lead in their communities and working to improve lives across a diverse range of issues. It was established in 2014 with the approval to run until 2018, making the latest edition possibly the last. 

Zaiba is the Founder and CEO at FEM (Female Empowerment Movement). She was selected for her work to promote equality in society and reduce violence against women in Bangladesh through training and employment of women in low-income areas of the nation.

With a degree in Criminology, Zaiba got the opportunity to do an internship at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) for one summer, where she got to learn about the issues of mobility and the helplessness among women in Bangladesh. Since then, she has carried out a number of ventures in Dhaka. Her projects include one on anti-harassment, which uses paintings on the sides of buses to raise awareness of the issue. She has also collaborated with the legal firm to create a self-defence project for women, and partnered with a youth-based organization to teach women how to ride bicycles. Under this project, 40 girls receive self-defence and cycling training every five weeks. 

In a recent conversation with the Weekend Tribune, Zaiba talked about her work, future plans and dreams.

First of all, how do you feel about being chosen for the Queen's Young Leaders Awards 2018?

It's surreal – it's actually coming in a week, in fact. This is the last edition of the Queen's Young Leaders Awards and someone else actually suggested me to apply for this. 

Not only is the award a personal achievement, but I feel that I am able to make the women in my community proud and encourage them to raise their voices more. It brings more credibility to our work as women, and puts us in a much better position, I believe. 

Most of your work is based on women empowerment, gender equality and self-defence. So what drives your interest to work in these areas?

Having lived and studied abroad, I was not aware of the criminal justice system and the vulnerability of women in Bangladesh. I did an internship at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) for one summer, where I came to know about the prevailing mistreatment, abuses, and violence against women in the country, especially in low-income areas. 

Being a research intern, I was involved in a study on the “two-finger test” conducted for rape victims to prove the rape. So I went around, and had to interview a number of people regarding how the whole thing actually works. The things that I found out were really, really disturbing – there were a lot of disturbing stories that came through – to a point where I actually had a breakdown. Once I interviewed a judge, and his story revealed very disturbing details – I remember coming back home, crying, thinking that I didn't want to continue. From then onwards, it was kind of embedded in my mind that I had to do something about this. 

What is the ultimate goal of Female Empowerment Movement (FEM)?

My experience as a researcher in the legal firm gave me a unique insight into these problems and the vulnerability among women in Bangladesh. So after my internship, I decided to develop programs for women that not only create awareness, but also work with the physical empowerment of women. FEM aims to empower women in various ways such as through training for skill development and by taking care of their health.

Tell us a bit about the anti-harassment precautions FEM has been working on. 

When I was writing my thesis, I had to do a lot of literature reviews. One of the books that I had to review was titled “Why Men Rape” where they actually talked about Darwinism – theory of the evolutionary mechanism that talks about survival of the fittest – and it said that men rape women in order to exercise power. 

So, I decided to design a project where I thought we could look at places or instances where women are prone to sexual violence, and ways to increase their mobility and security. One way was self-defence – it's basically a form of martial arts training that will help increase the confidence of women. People think that we're teaching women how to attack, but it's actually symbolic.  This is actually meant to give them a mental boost because we want them to be able to approach situations that they never thought they'd be able to face. 

We designed a program called 'Project Attorokkha' which focuses on self-defence training of women in urban areas. We connected with BLAST again, and they were already working on an ongoing project with urban slum women. They decided to grant me access and we started the trainee project with a few training girls. It was great to see the development among these girls – just five weeks of training gave them the confidence to stand up to situations that they'd never imagined to overcome before. 

In fact, these girls went back to their own communities and it actually worked as a ripple effect. 

What are the obstacles that you had to face while working on this initiative?

It was very difficult to convince the parents of girls to let them learn self-defence and cycling. Integration and building trust with the community was also a challenge for someone like me, who wasn't quite familiar with the environment in urban slums. Convincing these young girls and teaching them why they needed to learn the skills that FEM is providing was also a major obstacle that we had to overcome. 

Although it was a challenge for us at the beginning to integrate the whole project, FEM participants were endowed with support from each other after the success of its first session. 

What are the projects that you are currently working on under FEM? 

For the trainees of 'Project Attorokkha', FEM has initiated a program that trains them in computer literacy and cyber security. In October 2017, FEM finally came up with a training hub which serves as an after-school club for women in urban slums. The hub has been successfully conducting English language teaching, self-defence and bicycle training. Moreover, FEM has introduced engineering classes where girls can learn how to make circuits and electric emergency fire alarms. 

Currently, we're still continuing with what we're doing but we're also trying to move on to an entrepreneurship model. We are working with the mothers of the girls who are learning self-defence, teaching them certain skills like tailoring, collaborating with certain companies where we're actually employing them and also outsourcing work for them. 

What is the gap in the development sector that you're trying to fill through this initiative?

What was lacking before, in my opinion, is that although there were a lot of awareness programs when I first started out, they were basically all about what women can or should do after they'd been harassed. I feel like nobody really discussed why they were harassed and no one really took any effective preventive measures. 

Through this initiative, I'm trying to fill out the physical aspect of this issue – I believe awareness programs are essential, but in the long term, we need to be more practical and teach girls and women life skills, such as self defence, and how to protect themselves when it comes to being harassed. 

Do you think there's a way in which parents and teachers can incorporate self-defence training in the education of girls? 

They certainly can – not in the sense that girls should always feel ready to be attacked – that's the wrong approach - but I feel like there should be some kind of physical activity that will help increase the confidence of girls. 

What are your future plans regarding FEM?

FEM is planning to expand it projects throughout the country. Instead of working with women in urban slums only, I would really like to introduce hubs in rural Bangladesh and make sure a positive change in lifestyle of women all over the country.