Girl-Power in Rural Bangladesh on The Rise

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By Kavita Charanji, Womens Feature Service

In a small room in Khilbarirtek village in the impoverished Badda thana area (sub-district) of Dhaka district, Bangladesh, a group of excited adolescents – 28 girls and two boys – are engrossed in playing indoor games. Some are busy with Ludo, while others are concentrating hard to come up with winning moves on the chessboard. All the children are between 11 years and 19 years of age.

A little later, they finish their games and organise themselves into groups to participate in a lively discussion on the topic of the day – which can be anything from domestic violence to the environment. This is followed by a relaxing game of volleyball.

Meet the young members of Kishori (Adolescent) Club, an initiative that is part of BRAC’s Adolescent Development Programme. These youngsters may have spent their formative years crushed under the burden of drudgery, but now thanks to the Kishori Clubs (KCs) they have an opportunity to broaden their horizons with the help of books, games and discussions. Says teenager Ayrien Akhter, a member of the Khilbarirtek KC, “We don’t get the chance to play such games or read at home so we thoroughly enjoy ourselves here.”

BRAC – believed to be the largest NGO globally – runs 8,600 KCs across Bangladesh. Housed in tin-roofed BRAC school rooms or rooms rented out by the local community, KCs are run after school hours. Club members meet twice a week for two hours and their activities are conducted by a trained girl who is still in her teens.

Tania Akhter, 19, is the leader of Khilbarirtek KC. She takes immense pride in her position. “I am responsible for operating the club. I open the club, display the books and magazines and hand out the games. It gives me the opportunity to spend my leisure time productively and also make lots of friends,” she says.

Supervisor Jasmine Akhter, 28, oversees 13 KCs in eight villages in the Badda thana area. A resident of Jamalpur, she undertakes an arduous bus commute to Khilbarirtek only because she enjoys her work immensely. She says, “It is very satisfying to meet such bright youngsters. I also enjoy talking and working with the community people.”

Apart from KCs, which play an important role in promoting leadership skills among adolescents, BRAC’s Adolescent Development Programme (ADP) includes other initiatives. There’s the Adolescent Peer Organised Network (APON) course that covers vital social, health issues and imparts life-skills such as decision-making, negotiation, effective communication and problem solving. The course is open to all KC members, teenage boys and girls in secondary schools and even those teens who are working. One trained adolescent facilitates the course.

Livelihood training, conducted as part of ADP, enable girls to learn skills for income-generating activities, including rearing poultry and livestock, tailoring and embroidery, sericulture, photography, journalism, beauty care and even driving.

Of course, there’s also the element of community participation, although this has been the toughest to achieve. Initially, it was difficult to get parents, local leaders, religious leaders and local government officials to understand the benefits of ADP. But that attitude has undergone a change. Rashida Parveen, 45, a manager at ADP, says, “Although there was a problem in the early years as we were dealing with conservative communities in rural areas and even in towns such as Cox’s Bazar and Sylhet, once we had explained the benefits of ADP, they were more responsive.”

A sit-in at a community meeting in Khilbarirtek demonstrates the high level of involvement that the local stakeholders now have in the workings of ADP. Gathered at the Union Parishad (the local government institution) office, Parishad chairman Mahfuzur Rahman, along with community leaders, school teachers, BRAC health workers and parents, has just finished seeing a multi-media presentation of BRAC’s six-month plan for tackling issues such as family planning, child marriage, safe delivery and steps for the smooth running of the KCs.

The community members are only too willing to open up and discuss the benefits of BRAC’s ADP. Rahman says, “Adolescents form 22 per cent of the population in Bangladesh. It is, therefore, important for them to be aware of vital social issues because they are the future citizens of the country. With the involvement of the community, the project will have a greater impact.”

Another keen supporter of the programme is Abdullahin Kafi, a teacher at a secondary school in the village. Says Kafi, “The women are not very forthcoming and we still need to mobilise them and the community at large.” He is also keen that the ADP is extended to schools. A first step, he suggests, should be to hold a workshop on ADP with teachers and other stakeholders.

Other community members, eager to share their views on the activities of the ADP, say in unison: “We want girls to know about important social issues. We didn’t realise the importance of these subjects earlier, but now we discuss these issues openly and want to know more about them.”

The ADP, which was launched in 1993, is a major success and has had a positive impact even in far-flung villages. Sixteen-year-old Pushpa Rani Das became a member of Rishipare KC in 2007. After receiving APON training, she and her husband Ram Charan Das jointly decided that they would postpone having a child until Pushpa turned 19. Her angry in-laws put up stiff resistance to their decision but once they talked to other KC members and the leader of the club, they changed their minds. Pushpa is now a literate and confident woman thanks to the extensive reading material she has access to at the KC.

Several youngsters like Pushpa and Ram have benefited from ADP. Evolving gradually over the years, the ADP has introduced many new initiatives like the Interactive Popular Theatre, APON Talent Hunt Show, disaster risk reduction and response, adolescent fairs, special networks for adolescent photographers, and ‘Amader Abhijan’ through which the information and skills they acquire are disseminated to a larger number of adolescents and community members.

Moreover, their special sports initiatives have been responsible for resurrecting many a childhood. Today, much to their delight, the young ones are adept at playing games like football, cricket, volleyball, badminton and kabaddi. An important introduction has been swimming lessons aimed at reducing child mortality. Young people are also trained as community swimming instructors who, in turn, teach safe swimming to thousands of children. Under the ADP’s sports for development intervention, girls’ football and cricket teams have been set up.

While there have been many success stories for the ADP, the only problem encountered has been the conservatism in some rural areas. ADP has had to contend with stiff resistance from powerful fundamentalist group in areas like Bhola, in south Bangladesh. “We are trying to involve the community through regular workshops. The girls would love to sing and play games but cannot because of community pressure,” reveals Rashida. Nevertheless efforts continue apace.

And it is certainly a measure of the success of this programme that it is now being replicated in countries that have witnessed rising fundamentalism, including Afghanistan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.