Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Other Side -- A Visist to Nari Jibon, a small women's aid project in Dhaka, Bangladesh

by Stine Eckert, Pulitzer Student Fellow

Stine Eckert traveled to Bangladesh as a Pulitzer Center Student. Learn more and see all her reporting:

Girls and women learn sowing, English and how to use a computer at Nari Jibon Development Foundation - A visit to a struggling women’s project in Dhaka. Part 3

“I want to get at least two or three computers hooked up to the Internet again,” says Golam Rabbany Sujan. He started as a resource officer at Nari Jibon in its beginning in 2005, later became project director.

The Internet was crucial for the Nari Jibon cyber café that gave women the chance to blog and write about their lives. He had to shut it down in February 2009. “Women don’t like to go to the cyber cafés outside because there are boys which make them feel uncomfortable,” Sujan explains the value of the café. And the women could apply their English and computer skills, too. “The students here were very proud to publish about their own interests,” he says.

But the 14,000 Tk ($205) per month to pay for the local Internet network were too much, Sujan says. He tries to keep up the Nari Jibon blog by posting occasionally from an outside cyber café.

His last post of June 23, 2009 tells the story of 13-year-old Rozina Akthar, who comes to Nari Jibon five times a week as she doesn’t go to school. As Rozina is deaf it was hard to communicate with her when I visited but she showed me her sowing. Sujan’s description on the blog of how Rozina recently got harassed on the street gives an example of the so-called eve-teasing, verbal insults that many Bangladeshi women experience but can do little about.

Mr. Sujan explains that at the moment the whole organization runs on about 14,000 Tk ($200) alone to pay electricity, the phone bill, some of the teachers and Ruma. Mr. Sujan himself and the English teacher work currently without pay.

The chance for more money only comes when Mr. Sujan can obtain a certificate to receive international donations. Since February 2009 Nari Jibon is registered as a Social Welfare Trust, a local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). But that is not enough, Nari Jibon needs to obtain the sought-after NGO Bureau status to secure international donations. Yet, just getting the local NGO status was a year-long project.

“It took 36 documents to sign and $1,000 in lawyer fees to get the current status of Nari Jibon,” says Nari Jibon Assistant Director Katie Zaman, a master student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who works on her thesis about women’s work and domestic violence in Bangladesh.

All the documents are ready to apply for the NGO Bureau status, says Mr. Sujan, but ironically more money is needed to get the certificates to tap international funds. It will need at least another 10,000 Tk ($150) in bribes, he says. “The more money we can give, the speedier will be the process.”

Without its major donor and international money, Nari Jibon relies mostly on smaller donations as the fees by the students are not sufficient to cover all costs.

Former main donor and founder of Nari Jibon Dr. Kathryn B. Ward is tired and frustrated. She says she had to pull the plug at Nari Jibon in November 2008 after spending over $65,000 of her own money and more in research grants in the past four years to get the project established. She paid for computers, sewing equipment, and the office infrastructures; students always have paid a small fee to join classes and use the facilities. Some of them, however, expected Nari Jibon to come for free altogether.

Originally Dr. Ward had hoped that other NGOs would fund some of the redundant and less prepared staff and aides at Nari Jibon. As she works as a professor of sociology and women studies at Southern Illinois University, she says she cannot longer direct the project from overseas, nor afford the funding.

The “Mother of Nari Jibon,” as the caption of a photo in the Nari Jibon office affectionately calls her, had to let go of her project but her concern doesn’t end easily. Just recently she sent another $150, which came from her local food coop.

She says after repeatedly giving directions to and promises from the Nari Jibon in Dhaka, its staff needed to take more initiative on their funding, sustainability, and operations. “At the same time, Bangladesh authorities have made registration very difficult.” As a result, Nari Jibon has had difficulties in finding other donors without government registration, she says.

Frustration doesn’t stop with the money. Even though Nari Jibon lists the success stories of its students and the girls I met tell of their joy and pride to be able to have Nari Jibon to pursue their own interest, change in society comes slowly for women.

“The sex workers [who came to Nari Jibon] still have to go home at night and come back with bruises in the morning,” Dr. Ward says.

Currently, she says she needs a break from Nari Jibon and Bangladesh: ”You can have the best intentions and do good things but that doesn’t help with the system in the larger Bangladeshi society.”


On the third floor of the apartment building in the area of Malibagh works the small organization Nari Jibon. Before they occupied several floors and can expand again when more money is available.

Dr. Kathryn B. Ward, professor of sociology and women studies at Southern Illinois University founded Nari Jibon. After giving more than $65,000 of her personal money, more in research grants, and time to establish the project she feels exhausted and frustrated.

Learn more and see all of Stine's reporting:

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