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Ayesha Abed led a life dedicated to work. At the core of her philosophy was the quest to ensure welfare of the people who were oppressed by the social systems pervasive in Bangladesh. She was a social worker, an organiser, and a visionary – all at once. In her personal life, she was a source of affection and love for her family members and friends.
In the early days of BRAC, an indomitable name was intimately associated with all the endeavours undertaken by BRAC. The name was – Ayesha Hasan Abed. Even to this day, this Ayesha Abed remains intricately intertwined with the existence and vision of BRAC. She was known as Bhabi (Sister-in-law) to BRAC’s employees and as ‘Bahar’ to her family and friends.
Regardless of the name with which she was called, until her untimely demise, she embodied the soul of BRAC. With deep affection and an extraordinary personality, she bound everyone in the BRAC family together. During the formative days of BRAC, she stood beside Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and together, they tirelessly worked towards organising and transforming the lives of the people living in poverty.
Ayesha Abed was born on January 13, 1946, in Karimganj, Assam, a state in British India. Her father, Yahia Khan Chowdhury, served as a Deputy Magistrate in British Raj. Among her four sisters and two brothers, Ayesha was the youngest. Due to her father’s job, she moved to various cities in the country during her childhood. After completing her senior Cambridge examination from Dhaka’s Viqarunnisa Noon School, she pursued her higher education at Kushtia College. After passing the Intermediate examination from there, she enrolled in Dhaka Holy Cross College. Later, she pursued her studies in English literature and obtained an MA degree from the University of Dhaka. In 1972-73, she worked as a teacher at Siddheswari Women’s College in Dhaka.
On 7 April, 1973, Ayesha Abed got married to Fazle Hasan Abed. Soon after the wedding, she went to Sulla in Northeastern Bangladesh, where BRAC had been working since the prior year. During that time, relief and rehabilitation work were in full swing. Both Ayesha Abed and Sir Fazle were engaged in efforts to help war-affected people rebuild their lives.
It was there that Ayesha Abed established a deep connection with the work BRAC was committed to. She was touched by the struggles which people faced just to survive. She felt a deep yearning to work with the people of rural Bangladesh.
Later, she joined BRAC as an executive assistant. During that time, she came to work on the BRAC Gram Shomikkha Project alongside Senaratna, an anthropologist from Sri Lanka. Ayesha Abed, as a coordinator of BRAC’s research unit in various rural areas of the country, gained experience in rural power structures, socio-economic and cultural conditions, and the ways of doing development differently. Gradually, her ideas and scope of work expanded. She realised to establish the rights of the people who are marginalised by systems, they must organise themselves. People must be made aware and organised to resist the influence and exploitation of the powerful.
Ayesha began her work with the aim of creating access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities for communities living in poverty through a practical approach. For this purpose, organising the people was a prerequisite. She initiated her work to motivate people, to organise them through cooperatives for income generating activities. Ayesha Abed engaged herself in research to gain a comprehensive understanding of the long-standing exploitation process embedded in rural structures.
Ayesha believed that literacy and awareness should go hand in hand. In 1974, the BRAC Material Development Unit was established to create practical teaching tools for adults. Ayesha Abed played an instrumental role in establishing and managing this unit. Inspired by the philosophy and methods of renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, she focused on developing tools for adult literacy, including health education materials and visual aids. These tools played a significant role in BRAC’s adult education programme. From 1976 to 1981, until her death, she served as the managing editor of BRAC’s monthly magazine ‘Gonokendra’.
Ayesha Abed had a deep interest in the role women played in rural societies in Bangladesh, their position in the family structures, and their empowerment. She firmly believed in the inclusion of women in all development activities and was perpetually concerned about inducing self-reliance among women, which she considered as their lifelong right. From 1977 to 1979, through BRAC’s Sulla, Manikganj, and Jamalpur projects, she established a close connection with the lives of communities living in poverty, especially women living in remote villages, engaged in their struggle for a better life.
The Jamalpur project was completely women-centric. Managing various types of tasks, she involved these women in income-generating activities. Although she directly did not engage in marketing the products created by women workers, she facilitated their market linkage, making it easier for them to achieve economic self-reliance. It was from this perspective that she played an active role in establishing ‘Aarong’.
In 1980, BRAC took over the management of Aarong from MCC. From that time until the final moments of her life, Ayesha Abed served as the Chief Executive Officer of Aarong. During the period of Aarong’s development and expansion, she doubled down on her efforts.
Birth of Aarong and Ayesha Abed
Ayesha Abed’s life was truly dedicated to work. At the core of her philosophy was the plight of the people living in situations of poverty. She was simultaneously a worker, organiser, and planner while being a source of love and affection for her family and friends. In terms of competence, integrity, and dedication, she was unparalleled. This person, who was sweet-spoken and sociable, had a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the oppressed people in society, especially women. This love was not confined to mere feelings. Standing beside them, she paved the way for the development of their dormant talents and made efforts to bring recognition and respect to them.
She actively and continuously participated in BRAC’s overall activities. In terms of policy formulation, programme development, and implementation, she always shared responsibilities with Fazle Hasan Abed. She had a sharp vision and a sense of responsibility for any task, however big or small. Along with that, she possessed deep human empathy and sensitivity. She travelled extensively with Fazle Hasan Abed in various areas where BRAC was working. She was present in the humble homes in remote villages, just like one of their own. The news of her arrival would spread, and rural women would rush to bring her to their homes. Everyone wanted to have her at their own place. During those times, Abul Kashem, the boatman of the Murkuli office, remembered how Ayesha Abed, exhausted from a busy day, would sit down at the office and started teaching him how to identify letters – under the light of flickering kerosene lamps.
On July 11, 1981, when she passed away, her death deeply affected the entire BRAC family. Her departure could never be compensated. She left behind two children, Tamara Abed and Shameran Abed. In her short life, she had induced high aspirations because of her intelligence, creativity, and commitment. Her sudden death unexpectedly silenced that.
Ayesha Abed dedicated her life to improving the lives and empowerment of disadvantaged women in society. With the aim of fulfilling that dream, Ayesha Abed Foundation was established after her death. Through this foundation, efforts were made to enable rural women to be economically empowered. Prior to this, through Aarong, efforts were made in the production of handicrafts. Now, Ayesha Abed Foundation took the initiative to further expand those activities. Skilled women in rural areas were given direct opportunities for employment. Training arrangements were made for the enthusiastic ones to teach them the skills required for work.
The first programme of the foundation started in Manikganj in 1983. Afterwards, Ayesha Abed Foundation was established in Jamalpur, Sherpur, Jashore, Kushtia, Sylhet, Gorpara, Pabna, Rajbari, Kurigram, Nilphamari, Jhinaidah, Magura, Trishal, and Cox’s Bazar. In these 15 locations, nearly 70,000 women have gained employment opportunities through 11 auxiliary production centres and 802 sub-centres. Ayesha Abed meticulously organised her life’s work for their benefit. It was for them that Ayesha Abed had dedicated her lifelong efforts. Her dream has taken them far ahead on the path of economic self-reliance.
Ayesha Abed is no longer among us today, but her memory will forever remain with us at BRAC, and her absence will always be felt.
Shajedur Rahman is the Head of Leadership Communication and Employee Engagement at Communication Department at BRAC.