Youth smash sexism in Bangladesh
“When Dad brought us all fish for dinner, Mum always made sure I got the best bits. My little sister, she always got the leftovers.” says Mohammad Hassan (17) at home in the southern Bangladeshi city of Barisal.
“Mum said, ‘You, son, you'll take care of us in the future, so you need to sharpen up your brain.’ To my sister, Mum would say, ‘You’ll be leaving for your in-laws soon, so you won’t be here to take care of us.’"
“Also, I got to go to the village fair when it was in town, and I went to a good school,” Hassan recalls. “All this made me feel pretty good about myself. I thought that it was great to be a boy."
Walking to and from school each day, Hassan used to taunt and torment girls as they passed by. “I’d encourage my friends, and they would push me on,” he says. “ I’d never say stop.”
In Bangladesh and across South Asia, sexual harassment is often called ‘eve teasing’.
“It’s a kind of mental torture,” says Farzana Oishee (14), a student in Barisal. “And when girls complain, they’re often the ones who get blamed.”
“Many people see sexual harassment as normal, so victims feel powerless and blame themselves,” explains Munir Hassain, a physician and youth engagement officer from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
“The scars are not immediately visible, but they’re deep, harsh and long-lasting.”
But it’s not just discrimination and harassment that pose a threat to girls in Bangladesh.
Child marriage robs three out of every five girls of their futures, and a national survey has shown that half of all women suffer violence in their lifetimes.
“When girls get to 14 or 15 years-old, their parents start fixing up marriages for them,” says Oishee.
“They’re sent off to their husbands' families, where they can be beaten, among other things. And their husbands might abandon them, so some girls even kill themselves.”
“We’ve got to let people know about this, so we don’t become victims ourselves.”
In May 2015 Hassan heard about a new youth club in town.
Supported by UNFPA, staff at the club helped young people develop positive attitudes towards themselves and to women, and give them the skills to build healthy, happy and respectful relationships.
“It's all done in a fun way, and I learned a lot from the games and training,” says Hassan.
“I started pushing my parents to treat my sister better at home. I said to them, ‘Mum, Dad, I can bring in money for us, but so can she if you give her the same chances I have.”
“I was different with my friends after that as well, " Hassan adds.
"When a friend eve-teased a girl then I would ask him, ‘What if she was your sister?' After thinking about it he understood, and said he wouldn’t do it anymore.”
Similarly, in the conservative, far-southern district of Barguna, Mohammad Islam (18) has changed the way he treats women since joining a local club.
“When I learnt that it wasn’t God, but society that divided work between men and women, I started helping my mum at home," he says. "I chop vegetables, bring jars of water home and wash clothes.”
“I even stopped my dad from marrying off my sister," he adds.
"He shouted at me, but I threatened to call the police, and I told him that I have to stand up to stuff like this.”
Love, life and growing up
“When I first had wet dreams, I got worried and quite embarrassed,” recalls Hassan.
“I thought I was sick, but I couldn’t talk about it with my brothers or my friends - with anyone really.”
With patchy progress in teaching sex education in schools across Bangladesh, Hassan is one of many teenagers to suffer needless shame and confusion while growing up.
Ignorance also pushes up the risk of sexually transmitted infection and along with age-old attitudes, contributes to Bangladesh having the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in southern Asia.
To help bring down the risks, the UN Population Fund supports government-led efforts roll out a curriculum for teenagers that tackles love, sex and growing up.
The two-year ‘gender equity movement in schools’ (GEMS) course also takes on damaging and deep-rooted attitudes towards women and girls in society.
GEMS is being rolled out in over 300 schools and 50 madrassas (Koranic schools) along with the work in over 150 youth clubs, like Hassan’s in Barisal.
“It was through the club that I understood wet dreams aren’t a disease," Hassan says. "It’s natural, and there’s nothing to be afraid of."
“When it comes to violence against women, we see it everywhere in our society,” says Mohammad Ameen, a teacher at the Modhobadda Noor-e-Dakhil madrassa in the central district of Patuakhali.
“GEMS fits with [Islamic jurisprudence]," he explains.
"It shows our students that no violence against women is acceptable, no matter how small the incident. It makes it clear that everyone must always say ‘no.'"
In 2016, the government approved the GEMS course for use in all Bangladeshi schools and according to Professor S. Wahiduzzaman, a Director-General in Bangladesh’s Ministry of Education, the project “should be spread across the whole country."
“The project helps adolescents break through the cycles of inequality and discrimination that fuels violence against women and girls,” explains Eshani Ruwanpura, a youth Specialist with UNFPA.
“We get them while they’re young, before damaging gender norms are entrenched, and before bias, prejudice and violence set in.”
Back at the youth club in Barisal, Hassan is a now team leader.
"After better understanding myself, I broke free of all those wrong beliefs. So I felt far more relaxed for it,” he says.
“Many of us here are educated, but there are many who aren’t, and we need to bring them to the club."
"Society created [gender discrimination] so I want society to get rid of it. Girls can do anything boys can do, so if I become a doctor or an engineer, of course a girl can too.”