Need one reason to realize the importance of imparting proper leadership training and education to women? Well, we have got 3.5 billion! Yes, that is the female population of the world as of 2014 and it is increasing every day.
About 6 years ago, I remember sitting my mother down in our bedroom to try to convince her to allow me to participate in a leadership training that I had secretly applied to and got selected for as well. I was very nervous as she was already upset with me for not telling her I had applied and asked me why I wanted to participate in the program so badly. The million questions started arising: Was the program of any academic importance? What if it impacts my studies? How will I commute alone since the classes were during her work hours? I kept calm and explained to her how I feel like this would be a start of a new journey for me. My mother kept still and at last gave her 12 year old daughter the permission to step out of her comfort zone and start exploring the world. Little did I know back then that this experience would be the beginning of a journey of leadership and being a part of shaping the world starting from my community.
Bangladesh is a developing country. It has made significant progress in the Millennium Development Goals and other indicators in terms of providing opportunities for women. However, there is a huge gap between the urban and rural female students in educational opportunities and leadership. A female high school student in Bangladesh is more likely to be a victim of child marriage, sexual assault, or dropping out of school. By allowing an urban to rural exchange between young women in Bangladesh our team aimed to be able to strengthen their courage for a stable future. This would also allow us to share their stories with the community to point out the deficiency and lack of resources for advancement of young women in Bangladesh. Our hope was that these young leaders would go back to their schools and apply that knowledge to seek and promote female engagement in their community, creating a multiplier effect. And with this hope, 3.5 Billion Reasons was initiated.
3.5 Billion Reasons came into action with the determination of addressing the gap of education and leadership opportunities between urban and rural female students in Bangladesh. The women in this country are deprived of daily necessities mostly in the rural areas and to be honest any other places other than the capital city, Dhaka, where too, gender discrimination is prominent. 3.5 Billion Reasons team came together with the hope of creating a platform for young girls from the outskirts of Dhaka to gather around for a leadership training. The team chalked out a two day program with the following objectives:
- To enhance the participants’ leadership skills, which they would pass on to their peers, their community.
- To learn and exercise democratic principles in problem solving.
- To grow interest in participating and organizing community service projects.
- To keep pursuing education.
The initiative kicked off with a social media page of Facebook. Over a span of a few weeks, we were able to get a few hundred likes which only inspired us to work even hard for the cause. We were posting various articles on women empowerment, importance of education for women, and also the major milestones and achievements of local and famous women. On another week, we asked our likers to send us pictures of them holding posters and sharing with us a story of their encounters related to women in action. We received a very positive response and were able to share their stories on our social media page thus, passing on their stories to hundreds of other people.
In the meanwhile, we were planning our program; a two day leadership training where we would bring in 18 girls from the outskirts of Dhaka and pair them with mentors. I remember how hard it was to convince some of the schools’ principals and teachers to agree upon the project as it wasn’t something academic and in Bangladesh typical schools tend to focus on academics only, but after hours and even days of convincing we were finally able to gather the girls with leadership potential and dedication to bring a change to their respective communities.
The mentors that we reached out to were female students currently pursuing a degree in reputable public and private universities with leadership qualities and determination to commit to changing lives of others for the better. We had mentors who were studying to become a lawyer, businesswoman, aeronautical engineer and what not.
The participants started arriving and I was personally more excited to meet two of the girls that were arriving from my hometown, Chittagong. I met both the girls a few years back at an orphanage during an event for the children of that institution and have been in touch with them ever since. So being able to bring them out of the city to the capital city of Bangladesh was a new experience for the girls and I was so proud for being able to be a part of their journey.
Once all the participants reached the venue, the mentors were quick on their feet to engage them into conversations that eventually lead to fun activities such as charades being played. Around evening, all the participants and mentors gathered to watch ‘Finding Nemo’ over light snacks and drinks. While to most of the readers of this post this might seem like a very normal thing to do, after all, which child does not enjoy movies and junk foods. But some of the girls there were not fortunate enough to enjoy such luxury on a daily basis so it was heartwarming for all the organizers to see the girls settling in so well and coming together.
I remember clearly when I was receiving the participants earlier that day upon their arrival. Most of these girls were very nervous to even speak. It took us hours to break some girls out of their shells and we were quite shocked to hear from one individual that she wasn’t actively participating as she wasn’t fluent in English; a common fear residing in most Bangladeshis now a days. We comforted the girl saying that she didn’t need to be afraid as we weren’t some strict teachers but here to help her find the leadership skill within herself. She soon eased in and in no time became friendly with everyone else.
A session was held where the purpose was to rewire their brains so that when the next time the girls looked in the mirror they saw human beings and not just women. They discussed how gender roles are being determined by the society, recall instances where they were told they shouldn’t do something because they are a girl/ not as good as a boy, they were encouraged: public speaking, learning diplomacy, develop confidence, get over the fear of failure, be able to take criticism, form a support network etc. They were constantly encouraging the girls while they were preparing their tree of hope, vision board and writing a letter to their future self. The mentors and their mentees did end up having a bond by the end of the day that they now plan on carrying into the future. The girls have found someone in them who trust their capabilities and will always be by their side in times of distress.
The girls are going to come back to Dhaka in January to showcase what they implement when they went back home. They are working on opening women empowerment club, do book drives, host leadership training, and encourage community service in their locality. A few days ago, one of the participants reached out to me telling me how along with a few of her friends and help from the local people and teachers she was able to put a halt to a child marriage. She said she would not have had the courage and knowledge to do so if she wouldn’t have learnt from one of the cases she worked on at 3.5 Billion Reasons which was quite similar to what she encountered in real life.
Bangladesh is a country with thriving economy but with most of its female uneducated it is impossible to take the country towards prosperity. Like Bangladesh, there are many other countries facing similar situations. Mental and physical harassment, violence, deprivation from education and work opportunities women have been constant targets of such hideous activities. It is our duty as global, conscious citizens to help our sisters gather the strength and courage they need to stand up for themselves. Some of us are blessed with families who encourage us in our every step but we do not represent the mass. The mass is yet to come out of their shells and speak up for the unfairness that takes place with them on a regular basis.
We have to promise ourselves that for the future generations to live in a better world we have to start working from now and change our mindset. After all, we have 3.5 Billion Reasons to.
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By Ifreet Taheea, YLP Alumna 2016