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Yes, we can

  • Published at 03:31 pm March 9th, 2020
yes we can
Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain

Dowry, rape, trafficking, child marriage, physical torture, abduction -- what do we think of when we come across such words? Across the country, multiple cases of violence against women are reported every day. But, amid such hard times, some brave and dynamic young souls refuse to accept such behaviour and work diligently to stand up for themselves, as well as others. Their devotion gives us strength, consoles our souls and motivates us to work further. This month, Avenue T had the opportunity to sit down and talk to a few such brave women.

The story of a girl who wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind

With the dream of becoming a doctor, Rebeka Sultana Reba, a dynamic young girl from a village named Banorkhuti in Kurigram, was spending her days, studying diligently. But, last year everything around her seemed to fall apart by the sudden announcement of her marriage. She felt helpless when her father, a person with a liberal mindset, eventually got influenced by other elderly members of the family and decided to get her married off.

However, Reba was determined to continue her education and decided to speak her mind. “I questioned my father about how he could kill the dream that he had sown himself” she added. 

Illustrating the woes of being a child bride, which her friends had gone through, she notified her father: “All of them are living a life hundreds of miles away from the concept of living happily ever after, like in fairy tales. Instead their lives are full of misery.” Reba’s feeble mother applauded her effort by saying: “You did what I couldn’t do,” after the confrontation with her father ended. With her sound logic, Reba convinced her father and raised a voice against her own marriage at the age of 15.

"In our society, the voices of women often remain unheard, no matter what role she plays,” said Reba while sharing the despair of her mother, who never had the chance to voice her own opinions.

“It is my courage that helped me to stop my child marriage. Now, I have vowed to work for girls around me and make sure that they can speak for themselves” -- Reba, member of union level youth forum, and initiator, The Light of Unconfidence Girls

Though she managed to prevent the marriage at that time, deep down, she was stirred by the incident and thought about the girls who nurture similar dreams but don’t have the audacity to express it to their parents like her.

In order to work for the girls around her, who are subjected to such catastrophes in their lives “The Light of Unconfidence[sic] Girls” an organization for timorous girls was born. It’s been six months since she began advocating for the fact that being a girl does not make you incompetent in anyway. Sharing her own experience, Reba, along with 46 other adolescent girls, carries out campaigns among friends and peers about the consequences of child marriage. “The team remains highly active about any news of child marriage. We somehow get the information.” Whenever an underage girl is being forced to get married in the neighbourhood, the team tries to persuade the parents by enlightening them with existing laws, and the cons of early marriage.

However the problem lies in the societal mindset where the elders consider them unworthy of talking about this issue at such an early age. “Often the family of the girl threatens us of complaining to our parents and putting an end to our education,” said Reba.

“But nothing could stop us, right?” she added with a smile. So far, with her prompt actions, she has stopped four child marriages.

Each member of the organization gives Tk10 every week from their own pockets, in order to raise a fund to support the insolvent girls in the neighbourhood by buying stationeries for them. “Although it is still at a very small scale, this attempt is for girls whose education is affected due to lack of financial backup,” said Reba. Reba dreams of the day when all of them will be able to help underprivileged girls across the county. 

In search of independence

Although Sweety Akhter had to endure constant reproach for being a girl since childhood, the world around her shattered when her mother gave birth to two of her sisters, four years ago. 

Her father and their extended family’s endless accusations on her mother, is just another story of the bitter reality of our society, where considering the girl child unwanted, still prevails. Her father, a fourth class government employee, took the most predictable step -- remarrying in hopes of having a boy -- and left his previous family.  

An infinite amount of struggle followed as Sweety’s father denied providing any financial support. Poverty and survival has taught her many lessons. In order to feed four mouths, her mother started to sell ‘pitha’ on the roadside. However with the little earning that she had, Sweety’s mother had to prioritize among the basic needs.

Finally, Sweety dropped out of school, but that does not restrain her from chasing her dream to continue her education. “I left school when I was in class nine, but I refused to cut ties with education,” said Sweety. It’s been almost three years since the 18 year-old girl started tutoring children in the neighbourhood of the Citypolli area, to support her mother financially.  

Yearning to contribute more to the family, the enthusiastic soul completed the six month-long motorbike training for the BREAK project, under the company OBON within three months.  

“During this month as a bike-rider, I travelled around the city and discovered many new things. It feels like I discovered myself in a new way, which makes me feel confident enough to fulfill my dreams.” -- Sweety Akhter, President Dholpur Belly youth group, an ex rider of OBON

At the beginning of this year, Sweety started her journey as a rider with OBON. Describing the experience as “quite challenging”, she mentioned: “A rider has to have good command over navigation. As somebody who’s completely new in this profession, I had to struggle a lot initially, but Google Map rescued me.”

As she slowly became financially steady with the job, it created a hype among women in the neighbourhood. “When I entered the slum with my bike, mothers of other girls surrounded me asking whether their daughters can get such a job as well,” she shared.     

However, this lasted only for a month, and on February 11, she had to leave her job as her mother didn’t let her continue, since she was highly concerned for her safety, because of the frequency of road accidents.

Sweety is yet to leave the hope of getting back to her job, and wants to convince her mother to let her do so. 

Saving lives around her

Two years ago, Shohagi, a 14 year-old, got kidnapped on the way to school in Barakata union, Lalmonirhat. Shahnaz, a seventh grader, got abducted from the same locality in 2017. 

Flipping through the newspaper, oppression against girls, cases of child marriage, girls being tortured for dowry leading to suicide, abduction and even acid attacks, are things that we come across every day. However, these are the things that are making lives unbearable for many across the country.

At the age of 10, when Labiba Akhter  should have been enjoying her childhood, she had to face the horrible reality of incidents happening around her, to the girls in her locality, Lalmonirhat. It’s been six years since she has been devotedly advocating for girls’ rights. “As a member of the Girl’s Action Team, I have received trainings, and came to know about the rights of girls and children,” she informed. With her knowledge, she is successfully supporting girls to raise their voices.

In the kidnapping case of Shohagi and Shahnaz, the 16 year-old played an influential role in forming a large human chain of students and people of the region, to reach district and divisional level administration in prompting the procedure of rescuing both of them. “To rescue the kidnapped girl, attention from administration was required, along with the support from local people,” said Labiba. 

“Challenges for girls in my community are many. proper guidelines may help them to raise their voices in establishing their rights confidently,” said Labiba Akhter, General Secretary of Youth Network at Borokhata Union, Counsellor of Youth Network in Hatibanda Sub-district and Member of Youth Network in Lalmonirhat district

Although Shahnaz was rescued 13 days after the kidnapping, unfortunately Shohagi was trafficked to India. However, the good news is, after two years of exertion, Shohaghi was reunited with her family recently. “She was tormented and is struggling a lot to get back to a normal life. Now, we are trying to bring her back to a normal life through counselling,” said Labiba.

Her diligence in battling for girls’ rights and protection in her area has made a place for her in the community. “People including parents, teachers, religious and the local influential personells have started valuing the youth’s words, and are gladly supporting them,” said Labiba

To make people aware about protection and security issues regarding child marriage and sexual abuse, Labiba is closely working with the female children, and their parents. “As a member of the Youth Network, I visit various households and convince parents not to get young girls married off.” Till now she was able to stop 30 child marriages and prevent the dropout of 10 students who are continuing their education.

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