In the village world of Bangladesh, a cruel code governs the lives of women. In a society already poor, women are poorer than men. A woman who is widowed, or who is divorced, or whose husband has abandoned her, is often left to fend for herself. When a woman lodges charges of desertion, assault, or rape against a man, those who determine her fate are men. In every way, a woman is less than a man. A great number of Bangladeshi women accept this as the natural order of things. ANGELA GOMES, founder of Banchte Shekha, does not.
A Christian in largely Muslim Bangladesh, GOMES was raised in a small village near Dhaka. Resisting an early marriage, she became a teacher at Sacred Heart School in Jessore and was there drawn into Catholic charity work in the city slums. The destitute women she met there—abandoned and abused women cast off from neighboring villages—deeply disturbed her. She decided to do something.
Walking from village to village in the outskirts of Jessore, GOMES began talking to women and learning from them. In 1977, she began forming women into small groups and teaching them how to make jute crafts and other products to sell. Then she taught them how to raise chickens and how to make fishponds and how to grow mulberry trees—having to learn all these things beforehand herself. Word of each small success spread from village to village. And soon, says GOMES, “Thousands of helpless women seemed to beckon me to them.”
As she worked alongside village women, GOMES also spoke about the problems they faced as women. “Eventually,” she says, “they were able to see the thread connecting food, work, education, and rights.”
GOMES studied the Koran and comported herself in proper Muslim fashion. And gradually, she won the support of open-minded Muslim clerics who understood, as she did, that the Koran was not the source of local practices demeaning to women. But she was not welcome everywhere. As an outsider who stirred women to action, she was harassed and pelted with rocks and excrement. To protect her little movement, in 1981 GOMES registered it as a foundation: Banchte Shekha, or Learn to Survive.
GOMES gained financial backing from international NGOs and guided Banchte Shekha into new endeavors. Its members formed village credit societies and became birth attendants, barefoot veterinarians, and community organizers, as well as sources of practical knowledge about health care, family planning, and nutrition.
In 1987, GOMES began training a team of paralegals in Muslim law and relevant legal procedures. As a result, in many villages today, cases involving domestic violence, dowry abuses, child support, and other gender-related conflicts are deliberated in public by arbitration panels convened and trained by Banchte Shekha’s paralegals, instead of by traditional all-male mediation councils.
Banchte Shekha now operates from a 1.5-hectare training complex in Jessore, which accommodates two hundred live-in trainees and also serves as a women’s shelter. Twenty-five thousand women in 750 village-based organizations are active members. GOMES estimates that over two hundred thousand people benefit indirectly from Banchte Shekha’s comprehensive interventions in village life. Through its gender-awareness training and legal innovations, women and men alike are making their way slowly to a new era of gender equality.
This is her great hope. Known for her dogged persistence and hearty laughter, ANGELA GOMES reminds us, “The problems of poor women in Bangladesh have been centuries in the making.” But Banchte Shekha’s successes are hopeful. And, she says, “Every day is a new day.”
In electing ANGELA GOMES to receive the 1999 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her helping rural Bangladeshi women assert their rights to better livelihoods and to gender equality, under the law and in everyday life.
It is a great honor and privilege for me to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award. But I must share the credit with the women of Banchte Shekha (‘Learn to Survive”), the organization I founded to help rural women stand on their own two feet.
When I started teaching in school after college I began to travel in the villages of Jessore District. I saw the tears of suffering women who were victims of dowry abuse. I met women beaten up by their husbands or in-laws, mothers deprived of their motherhood because of the husbands’ insistence on ligation, women who were cast aside through illegal divorce. I saw women treated not as human beings but as commodities, less dignified than animals. I felt compassion for them and from late 1975 began to do something to help them.
I started work 23 years ago among rural women who were oppressed, destitute, depressed, dominated, exploited, neglected and backward. They were not educated, not aware, not capable of taking decisions—only a hostile environment prevailed around them. I had to face criminal cases lodged against me by troublemaker people of the villages. They claimed that I am destroying the social system by bringing the women out of their homes. They did it because it was against their own interest in controlling the women. They did not want women to become educated, to come out of their homes, to take up income generating work, to become conscious of their situation and try to do something to correct it.
There are few bad people in our society but most are good, honest and truthful. They are willing to help support the struggle against injustices when they learn the facts and when they are organized to give help as a group. The Honorable Prime Minister has quoted “you have worked tirelessly to give smiles to the deprived and oppressed women of Bangladesh risking your own life.”
I wish that everyone would have the faith to be the source of power, moral strength and courage. I have been so taken up with women’s issues that I have never thought of having any family life. The people with whom I am working are my family and the children for whom I tried to do something for their education, they are my children.
The great leader who is remembered with honour and dignity by the people of Asia along with Filipinos who keep the memory unfaded. I extend my heartful felicitations and deep respect on behalf of the backward rural women of Bangladesh.
Today’s awarding ceremony added a new chapter to my experience which is full of both sorrow and happiness and this will inspire and energize me for my future activities.
With the news of this award, the destitute, depressed, dominated, exploited, neglected, and backward rural women deprived of their rights and for whom I had been working for the last 23 years flashed before my eyes. I can’t but remember their faces while I am receiving this award. I am dedicating this award in their memory.
I thank everyone who has helped me in any way to achieve this honour and wish to have the blessing to continue my work until I reach my last. I would like to conclude with a little poem of mine, translated from the original Bengali:
Tell me, friend
For what does life and youth pass away?
With a heavy load on the heart let life find a way.
In the next moment my mind said:
Only after the slow decaying of the seed
Does the new fruit and the beautiful tree breed.
For ages humanity will breathe fresh air
And all will enjoy that fruit of my labor
Millions of human beings with the fruit enjoy
Let me sow the seeds of the future in pure joy.