In May of this year I flew 5,000 miles from Heathrow to Dhaka.
I was about to embark on three months of volunteering overseas; my volunteer journey up until this point had seen me spend weekends in Holiday Inns in places like Shepperton and Stratford-upon-Avon doing team-building exercises with very different people from very different backgrounds, all with varying reasons for wanting to be there. I had been told I was going to Lesotho first, then Tanzania, then South America with no real mention of a particular part, until finally, Bangladesh, and now I was here!
I knew next to nothing about the place, I mean I had read a few Lonely Planet things about the food and knew where it was on a map but I had told myself I was going in with an ‘open mind’. Now, don’t interpret this as though I wasn’t committed to what I was doing and just after the holiday because that’s not the case, I wanted to learn for myself, I wanted to explore my home away from home. I was fully briefed on the work I would be doing, working with youth clubs and community groups, raising awareness of the issues with things like early marriage, promoting gender equality and finding maternal health facilities and resources, amongst over things. I had spent a good few afternoons looking at teacher sites for engaging with kids and young people because I mostly deal with drunken grown up human children who can’t handle their bevvies and three years of that meant Bangladesh would be welcome relief.
Although Dhaka is the capital city, I didn’t actually see much of Dhaka during my time in Bangladesh. We had security restrictions and I was based in the diplomatic zone, near Gulshan, with the UN, UK and US embassies next door, along with many other high profile neighbours. Here the streets were clean, you always had Wi-Fi and there was even a park guarded by some fella with a kalashnikov. On the other side of the wall was another world. From 8am to 8pm the streets were packed with traffic, people mingling in and out cars and bikes and busses and rickshaws that were also jostling for space on the road, no one ever seemed out of control, in fact, it was quite impressive, it was only when I saw my first car with rear aftermarket bumpers that I thought, yeah, maybe the roads aren’t that incident free after all.
I spent the most of my time in a rural town called Chitolmari. Here I worked with six other UK volunteers and six volunteers from Bangladesh, in one office block with about 4 other NGO’s. A stark contrast to the concrete jungle of Dhaka, Chitolmari was green as far as the eye could see, with rice fields, fish and shrimp ponds for miles, and small bustling village markets where everything grown locally was sold to the locals. If I went to buy anything it was usually twice as expensive and I'd be surrounded people by the time the transaction was complete who just wanted to see what the foreigner was buying.
The work I was doing here is part of a greater global scheme to reduce the inequality found in Bangladesh along with many other countries around the developing world.
Bangladesh has a population of over 160,000,000 people with a near 50/50 split in terms of gender; however, the attitudes and treatment of the female population is grossly dominated by the patriarchal society in which they live.
Girls are born into a world with the odds stacked against them, one in three are more likely to have a marriage certificate than finish high school before they reach 18, one in five will be married before they reach 15. Child marriage has detrimental effects on both the physical and mental health of these unfortunate girls, with increased likelihoods of maternal fatalities, post-natal depression and suicide. Gender inequality is one of the reasons for this; girls are seen as inferior and often don’t get the same level of support towards their education as their brothers, in more rural and poorer areas of the country these issues are only further exasperated by families who just can’t afford to give their girls a future they deserve.
Girls Club, or rather the girls' clubs that exist in the local youth clubs are full of inspiring young women from the ages of 18-35, with some in attendance even younger who, alongside their male counterparts are putting in the work to begin to effect change. These girls meet every week to discuss ways in which they can make their own lives, as well as the lives of countless others in their community better. It was with these groups that myself and my colleagues were working on reducing the effects of issues such as gender inequality, maternal health, menstrual hygiene and sanitation as well as child marriage and eve teasing (a local name for sexual harassment) in order to improve their chance of having the future they dream of.
It wasn’t without its downsides, like meeting 15/16 year olds who are already married and experiencing a new level of poverty you wouldn’t experience in the UK, and Bangladesh is suffering more and more from the effects of global warming making its arable land more hostile to agriculture. But as something to do with your summer I’d highly recommend it and if I ever get the opportunity again I’ll be heading back to Bangladesh in the future.