September 26, 2011

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A huge number of media photographers piled into a seminar arranged by BRAC’s Safe Citizenship for Adolescent Girls Programme, “MEJNIN” on the September 13th, 2011. Due to the congestion caused by press personnel, it was difficult to spot the notable guests.

A huge number of media photographers piled into a seminar arranged by BRAC’s Safe Citizenship for Adolescent Girls Programme, “MEJNIN” on the September 13th, 2011. Due to the congestion caused by press personnel, it was difficult to spot the notable guests. The seminar was a closing event for the pilot MEJNIN Programme, which was initiated experimentally by BRAC’s Gender Justice and Diversity Unit last year. The program targets adolescent girls, and helps them build relationships with their parents and teachers, allowing them to effectively share their difficulties regarding the phenomenon notoriously called ‘Eve teasing’.

‘Eve teasing’ is a form of sexual aggression that can range in severity from sexually suggestive remarks, brushing in public places, catcalls, to outright groping. This phrase that misleadingly suggests harmless and even playful behavior, has led to the death of forty Bangladeshis this year. Twelve of those killed were family members of adolescent girls facing eve teasing. Twenty-seven deaths are attributed to suicide, and most girls at this age found it terribly difficult to live on a day to day basis with this type of harassment.

As discussions continued during the seminar, it became clear that those responsible for the deaths were not only abusers and bullies, but also the parents, teachers, relatives and the society at large. It is unnerving to think of the way social constructs affect our youth. Still now, when a girl faces eve teasing on her way to school or college, she not only faces shame from strangers, but carries that responsibility for that shame with her. Questions like, ‘why do you have to laugh so much?’, ‘why didn’t you cover your hair?’ and ‘why do you have to wear that dress?’ are the expressions they are typically subjected to from their own parents. Given the percentage of suicides versus murders, it is clear that outsiders are not the only villain here. Changes are necessary from within these girls’ families and the societies which harbor these notions.

This fact was exactly the focus of the MEJNIN programme which tried to create the space of comfort for the adolescents who face such harassment everyday. Director of the Gender Justice and Diversity Sheepa Hafiz in her introductory presentation mentioned how BRAC ran this programme to create this safe space successfully for 15,000 women in 60 schools of Dhaka. The education minister Mr. Nurul Islam Nahid, highlighting the importance of this space, said that he visited every family where a teenager committed suicide facing such anguish and he found out that inevitably in all those cases, when the teenager felt that her last refuge of comfort–her own family–was not receptive to her tribulations, that’s when she decided to commit suicide. The seminar attendees were unanimous in agreeing that change has to come from within these groups where the basic attitude towards women is that their independence is limited by their gender.

Mili Biswas, a female police commissioner and panel member of the MEJNIN seminar, expressed how difficult it was for her when she had taken a job as a police officer 20 years ago. As the only female officer in the Police, she was constantly questioned. The recruiting of women in Police stopped for 10 years after that until it was restarted again in 1998. Now the officer ranks of Police boasts almost 200 women. She mentioned that nowadays, she could see changes occurring and they can accept more challenging and important jobs. Minister Nahid echoed her statements and said that change is a gradual and longstanding process and one only has to see the progress in the last 15 years to see how things have changed for women in Bangladesh. As gradual as these changes are, she mentioned that nothing brings change faster than economic empowerment.
The following day’s programme by BRAC Adolescent Development Programme brought in a large number of women entrepreneurs at the Livelihood Seminar and was a testament to what economic empowerment can do for women. Seventy out of five hundred adolescent girls who received esthetician training from BRAC to start their own business were the participants of the event. Each girl present had a story of success to tell. Some girls could now support their families’ businesses while others were able to take on the burden of paying for higher education. Just 12 days of training had changed their lives. They were each earning 15,000 to 20,000 taka a month and many were thinking about business expansion. Beauty parlours at rural centres? Who would have thought? But yet these girls sensed the opportunity and became successful entrepreneurs. The entire day they had an opportunity to talk to their role model — the most successful female entrepreneur and beautician Kaniz Almas Khan who advised the girls and and gave them tips of the trade. They got business advice from BRAC business school professor Mr. Mamun Rashid, former head of Citibank NA and head of the centre for entrepreneurship. They even posed questions to Shameran Abed, programme head of BRAC Microfinance, on how to get more seasonal loans. By the end of the day, they were charged up, ready to get back and grow their business. By the end of the day, the programme leads in BRAC came to the conclusion that now its time to scale.
These two events are, in effect, good examples of BRAC’s work in Bangladesh. Not only does BRAC work for social change and empowerment but it also provides the business tools so that even the most marginalized in the society can truly live up to their potential. Innovation + Scale = Effective change.
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