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Mitali Dhar loves her bike. She has travelled far and wide on her two-wheeler. It has not always been met with respect – she was pushed off her bike once during a visit many years ago to a remote spot in Sylhet. “ I sat beside the tube well and cleaned myself up, wept and went straight back to the office,” says Mitali.
Mitali still remembers the exact date she joined BRAC, back in 1993. She had just completed her masters, and found herself stationed at Habiganj riding a bicycle, sometimes a motorbike, to work. This was a locality where people had never seen women riding bikes.
She once had an accident one monsoon season and needed to get stitches. The doctor ordered weeks of rest. Accident or not, frowned upon or not, her love for her work saw her back on the bike. “There were no roads at all in some places, but only narrow tracks which would get slippery when it rained” Mitali recalls.
Six months after the incident, Mitali was transferred to Manikganj’s poultry and livestock programme, where she led activities and training on sericulture, fisheries, and irrigation. She saw women who had no control in their choices now managing small businesses and making big decisions.
Her next transfer took her to Sherpur where she was met with a different kind of adversity — extortion. A group of young men would repeatedly show up at the office and demand money. BRAC officials kept refusing to pay up, and at one point, they broke the windows of the silkworm breeding centre and threatened Mitali’s assistant.
Mitali thought hard about it for a few weeks and decided to stand firm. She invited the men to her office for a talk. “All I did was explain what BRAC was doing in the area, especially to improve the conditions of women in poverty.” It worked. The men never made trouble again. “They started greeting me warmly on the streets after that.”
Mitali married a man from Sylhet. “There were three rivers between us and none of which had a bridge over them.” The newly married Mitali lived away from her husband for nearly a year till she was relocated again.
In Chhatak she rejuvenated a crumbling branch office that was still reeling from a major robbery. She was pregnant with her first child.
Currently overseeing 70 people in 22 branches in Sunamganj, Mitali still lives away from her family, getting to see the children only during her weekends. She forgets all the struggles she had faced when she thinks of the women she was able to stand beside. “What I did is just a tiny part of how BRAC is empowering women in Bangladesh. To me, even that is a big achievement.”
After spending 25 years at BRAC, Mitali does not want much in return, except a part in changing people’s mindsets and helping women stand up for themselves.