The American photographer Irving Penn once said that a good photograph touches the heart and, once seen, leaves the viewer a changed person. “It is, in a word, effective” he concluded. Last month ActionAid put these words in motion, capturing on film the stories of marginalised Bangladeshi girls at risk of violence and abuse.
The non-profit, humanitarian charity sent disposable cameras on a journey of 4,965 miles to five of their ‘Happy Homes’ shelters in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. When they arrived, five girls were asked to document a typical day in their lives there. The aim was simple: to shine a light on child exploitation and gender violence across the country and in so doing, maybe – just maybe – effect change.
Amid the dancing, drawing, singing and laughter, all seemingly 'everyday' activities, there is a unique story. 14-year-old Jhorna, 12-year-old Shathi, 12-year-old Tania, 15-year-old Shima and 17-year-old Fatema are just a few of the lucky ones. They now have a safe roof over their heads and school to attend. In Dhaka alone, an astonishing two million children live in street slums, many of whom are girls at risk of sexual abuse, violence, forced labour and trafficking. This is why ActionAid’s locally recruited staff scour the city: they’re determined to get as many vulnerable women and girls as possible off the street and into a safe space where they can flourish.
Violence against women isn’t confined to the Bangladeshi capital – it’s a national epidemic that shows no signs of dissipating as we approach 2017. Patriarchal norms and systems make it difficult for women to develop and ActionAid is acutely aware of the barriers they face in trying to protect them from danger. Cases of violence against women abound, and incidents of rape, acid attacks and child trafficking are depressingly common. UNICEF estimates that approximately 400 women and children fall victim to trafficking each month in Bangladesh; according to a United Nations study with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, more than 10 million Bangladeshi women experience physical or sexual violence every year. Most shockingly, more than 40% of women have had their first experience of forced sex by the age of 14.
In light of such appalling statistics, ActionAid is keen to underline the importance of ‘safety’ and ‘happiness’. All five shelters – in the Dhaka districts of Lalbagh, Mohammadpur, Mugdapara, Karwan Bazar and Sutrapur – provide day care, including meals, counselling and education. Girls who are at greater risk become permanent residents, and once they’ve settled in every child is enrolled in a mainstream school. Vocational skill sessions are also offered, providing young women with an exit strategy – a career – once they leave. Over 17,000 girls have accessed these drop-in facilities to date.
Why choose photography as a medium to explore safe shelter, I ask? “We wanted to show a very real picture of what life might look like for a girl staying at the home,” ActionAid’s Claire Wilkinson explains. “By giving the girls the cameras, we hoped to gauge a typical day through their eyes; from the moment they woke up, to the moment they went to bed. The girls were then able to tell their own story, as opposed to a camera looking in.”
These five disposable cameras don’t just capture the mundane day-to-day – they dig much deeper. Each photograph shows us what can be achieved under a safe roof, portraying the daily routines that are currently denied to so many girls on the streets of Bangladesh’s megacity.
Introducing: Jhorna, Shathi, Tania, Shima and Fatema. These are their stories…
The photos were taken as part of ActionAid's 'Safe from Harm' Christmas appeal.
This Christmas, the charity is calling on the UK public to sponsor a girl to keep her safe from harm. Child sponsorship money helps support the child, and their whole community. It funds projects like Happy Homes, keeping the most vulnerable girls off the street and safe from harm.