On a recent trip to Bangladesh, I had the privilege of visiting an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women across the country. Scroll down to read the stories of five of the women I met there, all under 35 years old.
Hidden among the chaotic streets of Dhaka is the Tarango women’s shelter, a Fair Trade NGO that helps rehabilitate and provide work for some of the country’s most vulnerable women. It’s a lifeline for those who are able to access it; tragically, the demand is greater than the shelter can currently accommodate.
Life as a woman in Bangladesh is fraught with difficulty and danger. Despite having been governed by women for the past 20 years, the country has struggled to improve attitudes around gender equality, and horrific violence towards females remains commonplace. Child marriage, acid attacks and repeat domestic violence are a grim reality for many women across the country.
Recent findings indicate that 72% of women here have experienced domestic violence at least once in their lifetime; last year alone, officials recorded 191 murders of women at the hands of their husbands. These figures are harrowing, but the reality is that the true severity of the problem is hidden, and in all likelihood a lot worse than the published stats suggest.
One of the most damaging practices impacting the general safety of girls and women is the dowry system. Put simply, the tradition requires the family of a prospective bride to pay a sum of money to the groom at the time of marriage. Its origins are unclear but the practice is widespread across the Indian sub-continent, and often leads to disputes resulting in the death of the bride, if a groom’s demands are not met.
The dowry system is one of the main reasons that the birth of a daughter is still largely seen as a burden on a family in a country like Bangladesh. The outcome is that many girls are put to work as children, and still struggle to access education. Most families simply cannot afford to send them to school, while simultaneously putting aside money for a dowry.
The practice, known as ‘Joutuk’ in Bengali, has been illegal for years in Bangladesh but enforcing the ban is near-impossible, especially in the more rural areas. Mahmuda Khan, a Gender Advisor for USAid, liaises with the Bangladeshi government on all gender-related policies. I spoke to her about why the new legislation hasn’t amounted to tangible change. “The dowry system is incredibly hard to eliminate as it is a complex social, class-related issue. The state needs to do more to enforce the law, as ignoring it contributes to the discriminatory socialisation process most females undergo here, and a general deep-rooted negative perception about one gender having a subordinate role. Women here do not grow up with confidence or self-worth, or even knowing their basic human rights.”
Addressing this lack of confidence and self-worth is top of the agenda at Tarango. Originally founded in 1989, it offers support to women by way of providing free education, training, and housing for those that need shelter. Its principal aim is to restore women’s dignity and independence by empowering them with skills to work, then helping them find employment locally, or within Tarango’s own small-scale artisan production facility, where handbags, purses and other accessories are made from recycled materials.
Before meeting some of the shelter’s live-in residents, I sat down with Tarango’s CEO, Kohinoor Yeasmin. She took over the organisation from its original founder, who came to Bangladesh on a Christian aid mission shortly after the country achieved independence in the early '70s. In its earliest form, Tarango was simply a financial relief service and reached fewer than 200 women. Today it runs as a 360-degree female empowerment programme (with no religious agenda), promoting social change not only in Dhaka but all over the country, to a network of 25,000 women.
“It’s crucial that we have a presence in both the city and the countryside,” Kohinoor tells me. “In the smaller, more rural communities, there’s the potential to eradicate certain problems completely. When we work closely with local politicians, and the true pillars of the community, we can teach them the importance of gender equality, and really feel the progress. In the city, especially in the slum areas, gender violence is harder to tackle. There are swathes of young women migrating here to work in factories. They arrive in a big city like Dhaka knowing no one, so it’s easy for them to be taken advantage of.”
The following stories are just a handful of the heartbreaking cases that Tarango has seen over the past few years and continues to deal with on a daily basis.
Progress is slow but within reach, and the women I met were brave enough to share their experiences, not only to shine a light on the problems in Bangladesh, but to give hope to women encountering violence everywhere.
Tarango doesn’t currently sell its products online, but you can find limited runs of the items the women make at the V&A Museum, Harrods and Barneys New York. Charities such as Action Aid contribute donations to the same cause. Please give generously here.
With thanks to Shahnaz Ameer for translation.