Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

8Nov/080

Women in prison

Having spent a year in prison already, 25-year-old Rahima still cannot reconcile with her living conditions. ‘The air, the walls, the people, the place- all of it has been a shock for me,’ she says. She struggles to wear the blank and emotionless expression that the rest of her inmates wear everyday, yet every time she speaks of her experience in jail, she fights back tears.

‘It is difficult to cope with all that goes within the walls of a prison,’ she says. ‘There were times when the prison guards molested me…they do sexually abuse women,’ she says softly, hiding her face behind her white saree. As soon as the guards walk in her expression changes and she mutters, ‘we have no problems at all.’

‘How can you not love the darkness, the stench, the suffocation and the crowds?’ asks fifty-year-old Khaleda in her raw husky voice. Her big eyes and rough expressions complement her loud and dominating voice. ‘After spending twenty-five years I don’t think I would ever want to go back. I get a taste of everything here - be it having tonnes of friends or being tortured, all of it is ‘fun’, she says sarcastically.

Khaleda knows the secrets of the prison, yet she refuses to speak up. ‘You know why I came here? My husband married another woman for no reason. He brought her home with her two children. I had done nothing. But he still did that. So I ate the two kids,’ she laughs aloud. ‘And then I got involved in a trafficking case and a lot more.’

In twenty-five years, Khaleda has seen the darkest sides of the prison. She has lived inside crumbled cells with no space to even sit or breathe. ‘I don’t like the idea of being moved to this new unit of the women’s prison. I love the people there. The Dhaka Central Jail is overcrowded, stinky, a torture hole but it’s still been my home for the past so many years,’ she says.

Khaleda is one of 200 women who are waiting to be shifted to the first female jail in Kashempur that opened this month, but due to a lack of staff only 21 prisoners have so far been moved to the new prison.

‘One of the worst things that women go through while being in jail is that they do not want to come out of it,’ points out Salma Jabin of Ain-O-Salish Kendra. ‘Emotionally they are damaged and to make things worse their families and the society refuse to accept them after their release.’

There are more than 3,000 women like Rahima and Khaleda who are in jails across the country. That the jails are hugely overcrowded and inefficient has become an accepted fact, say experts. A 2005 report reveals Bangladesh’s 67 jails house more than 74,000 prisoners, including more than 3,000 female inmates. According to a survey conducted by the Dhaka-based NGO Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, as of August 2007, the Dhaka Central Jail lodges more than 9,778 inmates and among which 679 are women. The prescribed capacity for this jail is 2,682 and the capacity for the female unit is 134.

Moreover, according to an investigation by the human rights NGO Odhikar, from 12 January to 10 July, 2007 a total of 2,86,000 persons were arrested across the country. Presently the total number of prisoners in jail is around 88,000. In the 11 central jails and 55 district jails, the total capacity is only 27,291. Therefore, there are three times more prisoners than there is the official capacity to hold in jail.

‘The jails across the country are grossly overcrowded,’ says Farida Akhtar, Chief Executive of UBINIG. ‘Women in prisons in Bangladesh are deprived of almost all basic, inalienable human rights. The living conditions are pathetic - inmates are often packed so tightly into cells that they have to stand all night. The fact that they are women means that they will be deprived and tortured more.’

‘Despite the provisions of the jail code, the food is substandard and inefficient,’ says Sazzad Hussain of Odhikar. ‘There are specific provisions in Jail Code for women and the facilities that they are to receive, but they are not followed.’

An investigation carried out by him and a team of investigators in Odhikar in late 2001 reveals, various problems such as jail authorities demanding bribes from inmates, lack of medical facilities, and harassment of female prisoners.

‘One of the major problems inside the jails has been bribery and corruption,’ admits Brig Gen Mohammad Zakir Hasan, also the Inspector General of the prisons. ‘In fact, for booking a seat inside the cell, a prisoner had to pay Tk 3,000 – Tk 5,000 depending on the jailor. In order to get food and even water one had to pay for it. The situation was such that, the prisoners had to pay for almost everything. The ordinary prison guards would charge from around Tk 200 to 500 for allowing visitors to see the prisoner. So, it was sort of a deal between the jail officials and the visitors of the prisoners to pay the amount and get things done!’

Sufia Khatun (45) interviewed by the team of Odhikar investigators after she was released on bail said in just two months that she spent in jail, her husband had to pay about Tk 20,000 in bribes. According to human rights NGOs, such activities still continue in the country’s prison system.

However, Zakir is confident that 90 per cent of such corruption has been reduced in the Dhaka Central Jail due to the recent steps taken by him and a group of intelligence officials. ‘I agree that in the rest of the jails perhaps 40 per cent of such corruption does exist but we are working continually to combat these. I have personally taken up the task of employing intelligence to find out the corrupt officials and report against them.’

‘Most of the women are in jail for trading drugs or prostitution,’ says Alena Khan of BSEHR. ‘The rest are mostly from poor families living in slums, and have been indicted for a range of offences, like theft, kidnapping, murder, child abuse. There are also a great number of Nepali women.’

In her capacity as a non-government jail visitor, Alena has witnessed the state of women in prison. ‘There are very few social workers who actually focus or work individually on women prisoners, which made it all the more difficult to combat the problems they faced.’

Another problem highlighted by the officials at Ain-O-Salish Kendra was that although the Jail Code states very clearly that the female unit must be looked after by female guards, this is not followed. There is an acute shortage of female police officers.

‘The rule that a female detainee or prisoner will be overseen by female officials is violated. The result is that they are subjected to abuse and maltreatment,’ points out Akhtar.

According to international conventions, there are specific standards and provisions that recognize the special needs and circumstances of female prisoners. For example, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment recognises the need for specific measures to protect the rights and special status of women, especially pregnant women and nursing mothers. ‘Issues such as these are not recognized let alone implemented,’ adds Akhtar.

Although, women’s organisations consistently stress the issue of abuse and harassment, Zakir denies such allegation and assures that the state of women in jail has improved dramatically. ‘There could be exceptions but we have ensured higher security and protection for women. In fact we have extended various facilities like sewing, beauty treatment training and packet making to ensure they feel at home.’

According to Alena, the Dhaka Central Jail has a separate unit for women, but they are still vulnerable because despite the division, men keep an eye on them and jump on any opportunity. Hence, shifting women to a separate jail altogether, seems to be the only way out.’

‘If the plan of the female jail is well implemented, it will make a huge difference in the state of female prisoners. We are already seeing some improvement in other jails. For example the opening of the new day care was a significant step,’ says Alena.

‘In order to ensure that improvements are actually being made, we need to be allowed to step inside the jail at any time,’ points out Akhtar. She explains that the cumbersome process and the reluctance of the officials make it impossible for most NGOs and workers to investigate the current conditions inside these prisons.

Despite the improvements and challenges, the one thing that remains unchanged is the social attitudes towards women in prison. ‘If a male prisoners faces obstacles settling back to normal life, for female prisoners it is worse,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘They become the victim of this vicious cycle. Once inside the jail, they are harassed and outside the jail they are not accepted and looked down upon?’

‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her’ wrote Chris Tchaikovsky, a former prisoner and the founder of the international forum, Women in Prison.

‘The psychological trauma that these women go through is unimaginable. In fact, a majority of the times, it is seen that these women who are behind the bars, have their own story of abuse, torture or helplessness,’ says Salma Jabin.

Filed under: Women No Comments
7Nov/080

‘Other countries will not be waiting’

Four major international reports released this year including World Bank’s Investment Climate Assessment report released two weeks ago, indicated a drop in the investment in Bangladesh, how do you see the situation?

Only one report – the UNCTAD report on FDI – discussed investment flows and indicated a drop in the flow of FDI into Bangladesh. The other reports looked at the investment climate and concluded that while some dimensions of the investment climate has improved in recent years, there has been deterioration in others. The bottom line is that the overall climate that affects investors’ decisions to invest has not improved to the extent desirable.

The slow improvement in the investment climate has two major implications. Firstly, investment is lower than it should be – this includes not just foreign investment or investment in large domestic companies, but investment in small businesses – the small tool-maker, the irrigation pump repair shop, the road side grocer, the small farm producing vegetables for export.

Most of these small enterprises may not be very dynamic or productive but they create large numbers of jobs which is critical in a country with widespread unemployment.

Secondly, the poor investment climate discourages innovation and dynamism. We don’t expect all enterprises to be dynamic, but in any economy, you need some enterprises which are trail blazers.

To what extent are we really open to such opportunities? If dynamism could impact the economy positively, then why is it that new businesses face so much hassle in terms of registration, getting loans and other procedures?

Access to finance continues to be a major problem-in terms of getting loans and interest rates. Moreover, most loans are short-term; about 70 per cent have to be repaid in less than three years and 50 per cent have a term less than a year. Businesses also have to put up a lot of collateral in order to get a loan and in most cases, banks insist on land as collateral.

The root cause is the inability of banks to differentiate between less risky and more risky clients. The banks themselves do not have the capacity, and the systems and institutions that help banks differentiate, such as a credit information bureau, are absent or under-developed in Bangladesh.

The credit information bureau has a very narrow coverage, in terms of the number of borrowers covered – and it only has information on recent loan repayments, not a long history of repayments, and excludes other payments such as utility bill payments which also can tell a lot about the credit worthiness of individual borrowers.

The main victims of this conservative attitude are the good investors and innovators.

Apart from the results themselves, what do you feel are the major constraints? Would you agree that this has been largely the failure of the government?

I do not see a sense of urgency in government to deal with the investment climate issues. At the very top level of this government, there is understanding of the need to improve and change things. But, overall in the government machinery, including in several top policymakers, the sense of urgency is absent. There is a fear of moving away from traditional practices and adapting to a change. The typical response is that things need to be carefully thought through, proposals need to be reviewed, and a host of people need to be consulted before a reform can be enacted or a policy can be adopted.

Of course, the government needs to do its due diligence. But there are instances where the government machinery has done things fast with all the due diligence and consultations.

So it can be done and has to be done. Other countries will not be waiting just because we are slow. They are reforming fast and we need to run faster if we are to survive in this competitive world.

Isn’t this here that the central Bank of Bangladesh should take appropriate measures?

The Bangladesh Bank also has tremendous influence in shaping the climate for investors, in some ways even more than the other bodies such as BOI and Ministry of Commerce. While there have been many improvements in Bangladesh Bank over the years, this important institution still lacks adequate capacity to understand the globalised world and what it implies for business in Bangladesh.

There is a conservative and risk-averse behaviour on the part of the central bank that is preventing our entrepreneurs from grabbing many of the opportunities that the globalised world is throwing up. Business people often complain, for example, about onerous foreign exchange regulations.

In the past two years, the caretaker government has taken a number of reform initiatives, to what extent have these reform initiations been effective, especially when reports point out that no tangible evidence has been seen as such?

The caretaker government has taken two major steps that are of strategic importance – Bangladesh Better Business Forum (BBBF) and Regulatory Reforms Commission (RRC). This has led to a structured form of dialogue between the private sector and public officials for the first time in the history of Bangladesh and this has been a major achievement.

The BBBF has representation from several ministries and agencies and because, it is headed by the head of government, it can address the inter-ministerial issues. The private sector has also done their bit by coming up with 250 plus recommendations, some of which have already been implemented.

There is of course still a long way to go and the bureaucracy needs to be faster in implementing reforms, but this a very promising start.

The RRC is another institution that has come up with some very good recommendations including two recent ones on reforming land administration and pension administration.

But the challenge is the same: how can you make the bureaucracy more pro-active in implementing the recommendations?

The chairman of RRC, Akbar Ali Khan, himself said this week that ‘there was lack of cooperation from different government bodies, especially the environment ministry, Board of Investment (BOI) and Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms’.

The office of the Registrar is an important office in any country. A good business registry has comprehensive information on the birth, death of enterprises, its operations, annual reports and more.

The role of this office is crucial and it has not been carried out well. There is a need for streamlining processes, reducing discretionary power and eliminating corruption, improving staff capacity and office facilities. Recently IFC has supported the computerisation of the office but this system needs to be adequately utilised.

The Board of Investment is supposedly an investment promotion and facilitation body but has turned out to be an essentially regulatory body, and a poor one at that. Most of the BOI staff once worked for the Directorate of Industry and have an old petty regulatory mentality. Fresh blood is needed in the BOI. There is also a need for a change in the board composition, bring in more officials from the private sector, build better investment promotion and advocacy capacity, and move from being a regulator to a facilitator.

Work started on a three year Strategic Plan in February this year. But again you have the same problem – the Plan has been discussed by the Board several times but not approved yet. It has been nine months and we don’t know how much longer we will have to wait.

There have been many examples of projects of international agencies where developing countries like Bangladesh has been hampered tremendously – following years of criticism, now countries like India and China are resisting their need for aid. How should the governments of developing countries address these issues?

It is true that international agencies bring a lot of experience but this does not mean that they never make mistakes. Development is a complex exercise and sometimes our approach may be deficient. The important thing is whether we learn from our experience. The World Bank Group has rigorous evaluation procedures which help us do so.

The Government also has an important role in ensuring that aid is used effectively. It should do a better job at identifying the needs of the country and deciding where aid is required - in what form and for how long. It needs to coordinate donor activity better so that there is no duplication. There is also a need to develop the capacity to negotiate better with international agencies. We have seen this in India and China where they have dealt with donors in a much more sophisticated manner - it is not that they did not use foreign aid, but that they did it sophisticatedly.

It is important that the role and activities of donor agencies are subjected to continuous monitoring and assessment. But this has to be done based on sound logic, reliable data and good understanding of how donors work.

Filed under: Profiles No Comments
24Oct/080

Ensuring our right to know

For most of the Bangladeshi citizens, some of the worst and horrid experiences perhaps involve dealing with public institutions and government officials.

From getting a passport to a tax paper or just a birth certificate, include weeks, and more often months of running from one desk to the other, standing at the gates and corridors, coaxing the sleepy and ignorant officials to get through the officer-in-charge.

In the first week, you will probably try to figure out who the actual person responsible for providing your information is. This will involve you going to one desk, wait for a few hours and be told to go to another desk and the week will end by the time you know who to contact.

If by some luck, you get through the actual person who will get your work done, you must wait for a few more hours until he finishes his cup of tea, or even just sit up from his slouching position, reach his hands out, and take out the piece of paper from the file.

Most often, it will depend on his mood really. If he wishes to, he may ask you to come back anywhere between the next day to the next one year, to inform you that either he does not have it or as a responsible official he cannot disclose it.

‘It’s a nightmare to even think of approaching any of the public institutions for any form of information,’ says Golam Mostafa, a businessman. ‘You would rather pay your way through, than to run through months, from one desk to the other, one place to the other to get any form of information out. Go ask any relevant government institution that – just from starting up your own business to wanting information concerning investing, banks and license – you are bound to go through this painful and lengthy procedure.’

Similar are experiences at a police station. ‘It’s an experience you would rather not have,’ says Imran Asam, a student. ‘This one time, I went to the station to find out about the status of a report we had made about our stolen car. I was asked to sit for hours, and then at the end asked to come the next week. Three weeks down the line, I was told the file was not found and that I should come later- it’s been two years, and do I dare ask the status of the case?’

If you are a journalist, who is ought to be able to enjoy outmost press freedom and the right to information, it’s not any different. One of the most dreadful task for you then will be to get a comment from a government official or just a piece of information- a document from a ministry.

You call his office repeatedly only to receive the ‘sir is at a meeting’ or ‘please call an hour later’ reply. Then, having tried and failed to get him on the phone for a couple of days, you decide to go to the relevant ministry or division or department.

Inside the ministry building, you move around from one room to the other, if ‘sir is not in his seat’, asking the grumpy assistants for his whereabouts. The personal officer takes time to inform ‘sir’ that you are there. If you have the patience, and you are persistent enough, ‘sir’ has a minute for you before a very important meeting.

He informs you, on some occasions eagerly and on others dismissively, that either his superior officer is only authorised to speak on the matter or a junior officer is better informed to speak about it. Of course, the senior officer refers you to the same or a different junior officer. Only the most polite official will take his time to explain to you that as a government official he or she is bound by the ‘Official Secrets Act’ not to speak to you. Not that he wants to speak either.

In case of the many policies and laws being drafted and approved, there is hardly any information that a citizen is aware of. ‘One week you hear a lot in the news about debates over a certain policy or law being drafted, and a few months later, one fine morning you hear that a new policy or a law is in place, and you hardly know what it is all about and it is supposedly impacting your life,’ says Salma Huq, a lecturer at a private university in Dhaka.

Supposedly, a citizen, according to the constitution of Bangladesh, has the right to information. Over the years, across the globe it has been constantly stressed that every citizen must have access to information in all spheres of life. According to experts, access to information in specifically public bodies have been of outmost need as the public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good.

‘They should provide us with those pieces of information that they hold because it is our information entrusted in their hands, not their information,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad. ‘A democratic society must have access to information, as it is a tool of power and development which are crucially important for the growth of a nation.’

In 1997 the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a request to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression to look closely into the right to seek and receive information, as the earlier provisions did not impose a corresponding duty to any entity. In 1998, the Special Rapporteur reported on the issue and notes that ‘The right to seek, receive and impart information imposes a positive obligation on states to ensure access to information, particularly with regard to information held by governments in all types of storage and retrieval systems.’

According to article 19 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and article 19 (2) of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, both of which deal with freedom of expression and both of which Bangladesh has ratified, the right to seek, receive and impart information is an inalienable right of every individual. Bangladesh is further party to the Vienna Convention, the Limburg Declaration and the Bangalore Colloquium, which makes it a legal obligation of the state to introduce the right to information in domestic laws. So far, 75 countries in the world, including neighbouring India, have ensured the ‘right to information’ of its citizens through the enactment of laws under different titles.

Right to Information Ordinance 2008

In a modern democratic state, ‘the right to information,’ more popularly described as the ‘right to know,’ is a prerequisite. It is in view of this, that last month, on September 20, following years of debate, that the Right to Information Ordinance 2008 was finalised.

According to Article 4 of the Ordinance, section A states that ‘Every citizen shall have the right to information and every citizen, through application or request, shall know any decision, written proceedings of or any work performed or proposed to be performed by any authority’.

‘It’s a step that was long over due and certainly something we welcome,’ says Abdul Matin Khasru, former law minister. ‘Although initially the government had undertaken a participatory approach in drafting the ordinance, it was not so later on. There was a need for participation of many stakeholders throughout, but since the ordinance will be placed in the parliament for approval, it can be amended.’

The finalisation of this act comes in two folds- for one it is, as Khasru points out a step that has been long overdue, and indeed a progressive move. The other overriding impact of this ordinance is the fact that it has not taken into consideration of various issues and points, tabled by various stakeholders including the media.

‘Earlier on, Bangladesh did not have any specific ordinance that related directly to people’s right to know. Rather, what it had were certain clauses,’ says Khasru.

These clauses are Official Secrets Act 1923, Evidence Act 1872, Rules of Business 1996, Government Servants (Conduct) Rules 1979, and the oath (affirmation) of secrecy under the constitution act as an impediment and barrier to getting access to information.

While clause 5(1) of the Official Secrets Act has been designed to protect military and strategic secrets, on many occasions, it has been the most popular excuse of government officials to deny information. Section 123 of the 135-year old Evidence Act stipulates that only the head of the department of any government machinery holds power to disclose information. The more recent Rules of Business specifically bars government officials from disclosing information to members of the press. Crucially still, government servants are bound by both their oath and service rules to refrain from disclosing information.

In 2002, the Information Commission drafted the ordinance which was in pipeline till date. The proposed act included clauses such information being properly recorded, catalogued and indexed, the publication of information, the procedure for the access to information which includes a fee of Tk 5 and a time limit of fifteen days, as well as exceptions and enforcement measures.

The ordinance provides for a three-member autonomous information commission headed by a chief information commissioner, mandated with a four-year term, to enforce the law and deal with complaints from the information seekers.

According to reports, the government will appoint staff at the suggestion of the commission to discharge its responsibilities across the country. The president will appoint the chairman and members of the commission at the suggestion of a five-member selection committee headed by a Supreme Court judge.

The others who will be sitting on the commission will be two lawmakers from the treasury and opposition benches of the parliament nominated by the speaker, the cabinet secretary and a government representative.

People will have the right to seek information from public offices in a prescribed form with a fee. The public offices will also maintain information so that the people can get information on demand. In this case, people living below poverty line can apply in white paper without paying fee.

According to experts, there are various dimensions and spheres of life that a Right to Information Act can address, economy being one of the major focuses.

‘Over the years people have been kept in the dark about the economic policies pursued by the government and the direction the economy is taking,’ says Dr Anu Mohammed, a professor of economics at Jahangir Nagar University. ‘That we have signed the GATT and have become a part of global capital control is known and understood by few. Ordinary citizens, who had to pay for this through rising cost of living, did not have a say in it.’

‘In the future, all major contracts including that of oil, gas and coal and strategic papers such as the PRSP will come to the public domain hopefully through the right to information. People can then decide what is best for them and we can avoid events like those in Phulbari,’ adds Anu.

Grey areas

The approved Ordinance, which is expected to be signed into law, has many areas that need ratification, say experts.

According to the Ordinance, ‘As per the ordinance the related officials will supply primary information on issues including arrests and releases within 24 hours.’

‘The scope of the current ordinance is restricted to only “primary issues”,’ points out Rubana Huq, CEO, Mohammadi Group.

‘This clause of the ordinance had 48 hours, following objections, this was reduced to 24 hours,’ says Manjoorul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News, ATN Bangla.

The ordinance further stipulates officials sitting in new posts to be created in most government offices and NGOs give the people information within 20 days of receiving applications.

Organisations funded by taxpayers’ money and NGOs run on foreign funds are required by the ordinance to ensure people’s right to information, officials who attended the meeting of the council of advisers said.

‘Under this, we feel other organisations including private institutions should be included,’ says Shawkat Mahmood, president, National Press Club. ‘Many functions of private bodies are relevant, the information held by them can equally be important for citizens. People should also have the right to access to those pieces of information held by private bodies that are necessary for the exercise or protection of any other right. This can only ensure a transparent system.’

According to private institutions, however, they should not be liable to such information acts. ‘We provide our balance sheets to joint stocks and other report platforms, what more is required. We are a profit making organisation and all across the world, private institutions are not liable to such laws,’ says a businessman, preferring anonymity.

‘The public sector itself lacks the required infrastructure to provide adequate information. That is an area that needs to be worked on. Right to information is indeed a valid demand. But the public sector has to be first covered completely before moving on to the private,’ says Rubana Huq.

In addition to this, the ordinance has made exemption on six security and intelligence agencies from the reach of the new ordinance. These agencies are often accused of overstepping their legal jurisdiction, point out experts.

‘Criminal Investigation Department of the police will routinely have information it cannot divulge for fear of hampering an ongoing investigation. But the CID personnel are also often accused of harassing innocent citizens and the law should instead have made a distinction in what kind of information this agency would divulge so that a modicum of checks and balances could be ensured,’ says Bulbul.

Similarly, the financial irregularities, the budgetary indiscipline, the lack of accountability, and the alleged political machinations of many of the other agencies, cannot be brought under democratic public oversight under the new law, say experts.

Although welcome, the ordinance did not include the explicit points that the Press Association and others had indicated earlier, says Mahmood.

‘Odhikar believes that the draft Ordinance will curb, rather than extend press freedom, and the people’s right to know,’ says Adilur Rahman Shuvro, director, Odhikar. ‘The draft ordinance proposes the establishment of an Information Commission, which will eventually help the authorities concerned to evade the responsibility of giving information. If the ordinance is promulgated, people- even a journalist - will need to apply in a prescribed form for information and the authority will have the power to reject the application or provide the information sought.’

Challenges

While the ordinance, in many ways does conform to specific rights of citizens to know, many feel that the country does not have the given infrastructure or system to follow this law.

‘RTI has now become a hot topic,’ says Shahdeen Malik, the eminent lawyer. ‘But, practically, the government in its present capacity does not possess the ability to implement the law. Government offices and NGOs registered with the government, who have also been considered under the same law, will need a totally new budget and will need to introduce a new section to disseminate information.’

Government offices will have to change the way they operate and keep efficient computerised records of everything for rapid release of information. The administrative management will have to change. ‘At its current state, it is next to impossible,’ he adds.

‘The idea and its benefits must reach all levels of society and reach throughout the country for it to function properly – which was essentially one of the major reasons for demanding units to be set across the country,’ says Khasru. ‘A person living in Rajshahi or a remote village will not be able to access the provisions of this law.’

‘In a society which is dominated by the culture of secrecy, male domination and conservatism, the right to information can actually empower women, given this is followed,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

It is for time to tell the actual impact of this law, point out experts. ‘Given that time is given and proper system is developed, the country can see the benefits in a few years, if not now. In addition to this, in due time, amendments can also be made to make this RTI an indeed empowering law,’ points out Khasru.

Filed under: Human Rights No Comments
17Oct/080

Yasmin’s legacy

On August 24, 1995 a fourteen-year-old girl was on her way to her mother’s house. It was a quiet evening in Dinajpur, when a group of police officers picked her up and assured her that they would drop her home safely.

A day later, her dead body was found at the roadside and the entire district of Dinajpur rose up in arms against the police and the local administration, forcing the government to take note of this incident.

Yasmin Akhter’s case represents one of the most shameful moments in Bangladesh’s history. The public protests ignited by Yasmin’s rape and murder made her a symbol of violence against women, of the violence of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless. But at the same time, public protest and women’s movement in reaction to Yasmin’s murder also became a means of social resistance to such violence.

Following strong judicial inquiry and police investigations, the three officers were finally arrested in 1997. Two out of three policemen convicted in Yasmin rape and murder case were hanged in Rangpur jail after midnight, nine years later on September 1, 2004.

The executed convicts were assistant sub-inspector of police Moinul Haque and constable Abdus Sattar. Their last appeal for life, the presidential clemency, was rejected. This was often termed as a beacon of justice served in a short time, the duration being almost ten years. Yet, the third constable Amritlal Saha, years later is still absconding.

Yasmin’s murder led to widespread protests in Rangpur – one police station was besieged by a crowd for two days. In the ensuing riot, officers fired on the protesters. Six people were killed and there were calls for the government to stand down.

‘An administrative flaw and our failure are visible when we see that we have not really done anything in case of those who were killed,’ says Farida Akhter, executive director and founder of UBINIG, a human-rights organisation.

For the longest period of time, the local police force tried to block the investigation in an attempt to protect their colleagues. Activists and lawyer continued to hammer on the case, until the officers were executed. ‘The lone fact that police officials actually tried to block the investigation and at several times created barriers for this justice to be served, is again a powerful indicator of how our society has been shaped,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad.

‘The departed soul of my daughter will now rest in peace,’ Yasmin’s mother Sharifa Begum had said to the media, on the day the two police officers were hanged. ‘I pray to almighty Allah to save all other girls from predators, including police.’

Thirteen years on, nearly two months back, August 24 marked exactly thirteen years since that fateful incident took place. Social and women activists strongly point out that, legally and socially Yasmin’s justice has not been served. Yet this year in Dhaka, National Forum to Resist Repression on Women was perhaps the lone organisation which observed the day with a public function. The press and civil society seemed largely to ignore the day’s significance.

‘Yasmin’s case was one of the most symbolic cases,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Yet, on a day such as this, there was very little done from the society or the press for that matter. Yasmin’s perpetrator is still around free and this fact represents the weak and ineffective judicial system in our country that failed to serve justice of this case even after so many years.’

Yasmin’s case remains to be symbolic and representative in several ways. For one, it was a case where those ought to preserve the security of citizens- the police officers were the perpetrators, secondly, the case also represented, as Ayesha points out, the weak and flawed judicial system.

‘After her body was found, it was easier to state that she was ‘prostitute’- reiterating the patriarchal society we live in and the narrow perceptions towards a woman’s respect and rights.’ adds Ayesha Khanam.

‘At the moment Yasmin’s case is at standstill,’ explains Advocate Zead Al-Mamun, one of the lawyers from Mahila Parishad who has been dealing with this case. ‘After the inspectors were hanged, following an appeal that was rejected, a warrant was made in Amritlal Shaha in that very year, as he had escaped. This warrant of arrest has been hanging till date- for ten years. It was the responsibility of the police to execute this, but unfortunately nothing has been done from that end.’

In addition to the fact that nothing was really done in case of the third criminal, Yasmin’s case also included the gruesome process of the police trying to hide all forms of evidences. ‘They even made sure the first autopsy report was false,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

‘The autopsy was first conducted by civil servants in Dinajpur- greatly influenced by the police, they concluded that Yasmin was not raped,’ says Advocate Zaed. ‘Later, a board was formed consisting of principals of medical colleges, it was then that her body had to be exhumed from the grave, and it was proven then that it was proven that she had been actually abused and raped.’

Further depiction of injustice in this case, was that those who had conducted the earlier autopsy and submitted a false report were not punished, rather released after trial, says Advocate Zaed.

‘We look at Yasmin’s incident from several dimensions,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘For one there was the issue of class, since Yasmin was economically at a more vulnerable position the police officers had the audacity to commit such a crime. A significant point concerning this case and in fact various others was the reflection of failed administration in our country.’

Akhter points out that the failure of Yasmin’s case has been also influenced by the ruling political parties; rather than keeping the case autonomous, as each ruling party changed, the stress and the focus changed with political interest. ‘One of the major failures for us has been the simple fact that we have not been able to keep this issue of a woman’s right irrespective of political power. In case of Yasmin and several others, the role of administrative powers – the way they looked at this issue and took it to the court was significant,’ says Akhter.

Apart from the fact that Yasmin’s justice is yet to be served, there are countless other cases of women’s rape and abuse that have not received due judgement or treatment. Even as human rights groups, over the past decade have championed the cause of helping victims of sexual assault file cases against their aggressors and the financial clout to carry cases through the courts of law, the incidence of rape seems to be phenomenally on the rise in the country.

According to statistics compiled by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, about 458 women and adolescents were raped last year while 201 were gang-raped. A total of 126 were killed after rape, 48 were burned and 125 women were victims of acid violence.

Experts point towards repeated cases such as Yasmin, where the perpetrator was again the police- those ought to ensure the security of a citizen.

On the afternoon of October 8, 1996, exactly a year after Yasmin’s case, an 18-year-old garment worker, Shima Chowdhury, was walking with her boyfriend, Abdul Hafiz towards the village of Majidapura near the city of Chittagong.

A group of police officers suddenly arrested both of them on the grounds that a woman may not walk with a man to whom she is not married. They were both taken to the nearby Moghdi police camp and kept for a day and then transferred to Raozan thana where Abdul Hafiz was sent to a cell and Shima was kept in the safe custody at the OC’s room.

Later that night, Shima was forced to drink something, after which she was raped four policemen. As Shima lay unconscious, the officer-in-charge called a doctor, after which she was transferred to the emergency ward of the Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

Following tests and dotor’s examination, it was proved that Shima had been raped which led to media and women’s rights groups attention. Shima was however kept in isolation and not allowed to meet anyone, and the officers claimed that she was a prostitute and had been raped by her own boyfriend and not by police personnel.

‘On October 15, Shima was again sent back to the ‘safe-custody’ at the Chittagong Jail,’ says advocate Alena Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights.

In January 1997, Shima’s health deteriorated and even after repeated requests by the doctors and lawyers, she was not transferred to the hospital. Soon afterwards, Shima Chowdhury died.

Shima should never have been in custody and, at the very least, she should have been released as soon as her medical condition deteriorated, says women’s right activists.

‘The case reflected the corrupt and the dirty system that so many women have been victims of,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Once again, the whole idea of labelling her as a prostitute seemed to keep these officials away from any form of worry.’

On July 14, the trial judge set free all four policemen accused of raping Shima, as there were not sufficient evidence.

‘The irony of her case was the same as well, the police tried to save the culprit who was also a police officer. In fact the judge in the case herself stated clearly that the investigation was flawed. She also said that the accused, the witness and the culprit included only the members of the police,’ remembers Alena Khan. The case was reopened, through movements and protests. ‘Reopening the case meant running to so many places, moving through the years of procedures and so much more.’

Like Yasmin, Shima’s justice is yet to be served. ‘But, we will not lose hope,’ says Khan. ‘We have taken the case to the court and those who had been involved in this incident and had assisted the police officer have been charged and we are battling to ensure that at least they are punished. We cannot stop this fight- it is indeed a long fight, but not an impossible one.’

Indeed, the fight is a long one. Yet, as people point out the legislative, administrative and the whole social system calls for a change. ‘We have gone through more than a decade since those incidents, yet how much have we achieved in terms of a woman’s right – in terms education, economy, family and more, is a larger question,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘The patriarchal society that we lived in is still the same – the perceptions and the way the society has been shaped is yet to change.’

‘A woman’s right needs to be autonomous,’ Farida Akhter adds. ‘The administrative set up needs to be accountable and needs to be able to address some of the dimensions which cause the failure of such cases from being solved and also for such cases not to take place, in the first place.’

Filed under: Women No Comments
10Oct/080

‘I don’t think I am that stupid to take the idea of a national government seriously’

It’s been about a year since the anti-corruption drive kicked off in Bangladesh - till date the government has arrested scores of politicians -including two former premiers and dozens of ex-ministers and lawmakers. It was said that the aim was to clean up graft-ridden politics in Bangladesh. Following various turns in the recent events and release of several politicians, how do you see the future of this drive and the Anti-Corruption Commission itself (ACC)?

In short, the future is bleak, if we end up electing corrupt politicians again. However, if reasonably decent politicians can be elected or re-elected, the present anti corruption drive may not lose its momentum. Secondly, our expectation from the anti-corruption drive was probably unrealistic- prior to 2007 we had our main anti-corruption law (prevention of anti-corruption 1947) in the books for the past 60 years. But in the past 60 years, there has not even been 60 successful prosecutions of high profile corrupt persons.

Anti-corruption establishment - the bureau of past anti corruption drive, and present - hardly had sufficient or even reasonable expertise, skills or experience in nailing corrupt persons. The present anti-corruption establishment inherited a large numbers of officials from the past tenure.

The past bureau has been in one word, dysfunctional. The present commission does not have even a single full-time trained prosecutor or lawyer. It has very few investigators with expertise in anti-corruption investigations as such. Given this institutional background, it is not surprising that they have not succeeded tremendously. It is due to these reasons that I am not terribly disappointed. These institutional flaws can be corrected without much difficulty, but one has to recognise these weaknesses and take appropriate steps.

Do you feel that any steps are being taken for these institutional flaws to be corrected, especially after the $150m loan for a good-governance programme granted by ADB - a major portion of which is targeted to go towards the Anti-Corruption Commission?

I am not aware of any form of comprehensive actions or interventions that are being addressed as of yet.

There has been much anticipation over the two top leaders - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia’s meeting for the first time after almost a year, in the coming days. What are your views?

I do not expect much from this meeting, honestly. Though the meeting has hit the headlines constantly, one or two discussions among these top leaders will not resolve any of the major problems that the country is facing today. I do not think they have any magic lanterns to do so. Since my expectations are too few, I am honestly not much bothered about this meeting.

What are your views concerning the upcoming elections? What do you think this election will bring about?

Logically, the only aspect I can think of is that we would be coming to a formal understanding - meaning this is an umbrella to the legality or validity to the actions undertaken by the present government.

Clearly, there will be constitutional issues to the legality of the caretaker government being in place for a period of more than two years. It is for us to see if the two leaders will validate all the deeds of the present government in the next few weeks and that will probably give a clearer picture for the upcoming elections.

You mentioned the legality of the present government taking over for a period of more than two years. How will this be treated ahead of a ‘credible national election’?

This issue cannot be considered as void. Earlier I had fewer doubts concerning the constitutional validity and continuity of the present government, but increasingly I am becoming doubtful. I feel, some kind of indemnity will be required or at least this will be too important an issue, for the parliament not to consider.

With the elections set to take place after two years, how do you see the idea of a national government in Bangladesh?

I do not think I am that stupid to take that seriously.

It’s been almost a year since the separation of the judiciary. It was assumed that this will result into a well co-ordinated justice system for the country? How do you evaluate its performance?

The public perception, as I understand is that the judiciary is subservient to the government than it was in the recent past. Clearly, so far, I do not think there has been much of a positive outcome or impact of this separation seeking justice in the court of law. Institutional and infrastructural support necessary to the truly separate judiciary is yet to be provided. More disturbingly, there has not been any form of visible effort at enhancing the administrative and managerial capabilities of the judiciary to enable it to administer independently.

A number of dialogues and discussions are coming up for the political parties, how do you see the future of the political parties in Bangladesh?

The purpose of a parliament is to provide a platform for the political parties to oppose. In other words, by definition, a parliament is a place for dialogue between political parties. I do not see why these discussions and meetings need to take place elsewhere. The issue of these meetings have arisen, however, due to the fact that these political parties have not been engaged in the parliament. An alternate to this problem should be to engage them in meaningful dialogues in the parliament.

You have worked extensively in the field of juvenile justice and how do you see the state of the justice system for juvenile at present?

The state has clearly improved to a certain extent. Now if there is any news of arrest regarding children below 16, automatically it creates a stir among the relevant stakeholders. In many instances, judges of the High Court division have taken up their own initiatives.

Secondly, the average number of children detained in jail has gone down significantly - figures show a substantial fall. In major cities across the country at least, police has become aware of juvenile rights. In addition to this, the Department of Social Welfare has started to take appropriate steps - some probationary officers have been appointed. All of these indicate that the juvenile justice system is actually moving ahead. Having said that, there is a need for provisions in the Children Act 1947.

State responsibilities regarding protection and children in distress is hardly being implemented. The State has only taken into account immunization and provision of primary education, to some extent, as a major responsibility while there are many areas that need to be addressed. Children clearly remain marginalised from the standpoint of state responsibilities’ and this certainly calls for desperate change.

There have been various comments made concerning the legality of policies and establishment of commissions during the state of emergency. Is there truly a legal question to such steps taken by the interim government?

I do not really take into account of comments of legality made by Tom, Dick and Harry.

The right to information act was drafted in 2002 and has been under various criticism and debate. According to reports, the act is soon to be finalised and implemented, how do you evaluate the existing draft and also the result of finalisation?

The Right to Information Act has become a sexy topic, at the moment. But, in very short, the state does not possess the system, infrastructure, expertise or capacity to be able to pull of this act. There are bridges that need to be passed before such a system can actually be effective.

Filed under: Profiles No Comments
12Sep/080

Rebuilding and reforming

A few years back, having spent more than two weeks running from one desk to another at the Dhaka City Corporation for a trade licence, Jalil Rahman was about to give up and go back to his village in Naogaon.

‘I came to Dhaka in the hope of starting a business,’ he recalls. ‘I had sold the last piece of land that my father left us and come to a cousin’s house. He had told me the prospect of opening a decent furniture shop is immense. However, little did I know about the bureaucratic process that lay ahead.’

Soon Jalil realised that running to countless desk with the forms was a complete waste of time and that all he needed to do was bribe the officials. ‘I paid about Tk 4,000 for my way through and Tk 1,000 more for the forms to be filled up properly.’

Jalil now has a furniture shop at Panthapath in the city.

‘Trade licence was the end of it,’ he says. ‘Money has always been an issue for me. Two years after I started the shop, I ran into a serious financial crisis. I had no choice but to apply for a loan. That was another nightmare.’

At the Sonali Bank, one of the leading nationalised commercial banks in the country, Jalil was asked for countless documents. ‘I had no idea what those documents were about and my application just gathered dust for months.’

Jalil’s is not an isolated case.

Businessmen across the country face and complain about the hassle of starting up, running or closing down a business. ‘Why should it take so long and so many procedures to allow a person to start a business in Bangladesh, compared to much fewer procedures and days in the US, the UK and even Thailand?’ Lila Rahman, an owner of a boutique shop based in Dhanmondi, asks. ‘In a country like Bangladesh, where income and growth are major issues, you expect that people should be encouraged to start a business by making the process as friendly as possible. But the reality is quite different.’

Even bigger businesses call for desperate actions. ‘I still remember how we had to run to 32 different desks with documents for exporting our goods,’ says Rubana Huq, CEO of Mohammadi Group. ‘Fortunately, just before Ramadan, the government took an initiative to keep all the depots open except Eshak 24/7. Even if our trucks reach during the early hours of dawn, we are able to hand the documents over.’

‘Accommodation in the depots still continues to be challenging,’ she adds. ‘The trucks, at times, had to wait a long time before they are unloaded. Recently, it took us 72 hours to unload 13 trucks. This is a clear indication that there is a need for massive improvement.’

The infrastructure and capacity problems aside, bureaucratic bottlenecks and regulatory impediments, businesspeople complain, hinder the growth of business in Bangladesh. The constraints to the growth of business are numerous. Several studies indicate that Bangladesh needs to improve significantly. According to the recent World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2009 report, Bangladesh has achieved significant improvement in three of the ten indicators covered, and yet, its global ranking has slipped by a few places – to 110 out of 181 countries.

Syed Akhtar Mahmood, senior program manager, IFC Bangladesh Investment Climate, Fund and one of Bangladesh’s leading global experts on regulatory reforms, explains this paradox: ‘The world has become much more competitive even with regard to the pace of reforms. All kinds of countries are going big with reforms. For example, the Doing Business 2009 list of the top ten reformers includes countries such as Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso and the Kyrgyz Republic. Countries now have to run to remain in the same place and run faster to move ahead. Bangladesh’s regulatory reform efforts during the past year are commendable but we now need to go for faster and bolder reforms.’

Over the years, the trend for Bangladesh in this ranking has been downward, particularly due to the costs of dealing with licences, the number of signatures required for importing and exporting, and overall bureaucracy involved in starting a business.

Experts agree with these assessments. ‘Most of the requirements for regulation of business commencement and closures are derived from the earlier colonial legacy,’ says Professor Muzaffer Ahmad, chairperson of the Bangladesh chapter of the Berlin-based Transparency International. ‘There is a need to update and liberalise the overall legal structure.’

‘The regulatory business environment has been costly and poorly administered. Laws and regulations that govern business activities are mostly out of date, inadequate, inaccessible and ineffective,’ says Abdul Matin Khasru, a former law minister. ‘Citizens, not just businessmen, have had to go through terrible forms of harassments and all kinds of bureaucratic processes due to the poor regulations. Areas outside Dhaka call for further desperate measures, as the situation is worse and the overall administration and regulations are in a terrible state.’

‘These laws and regulations need to be reviewed and the Law Commission cannot do it unless requested by the government. Therefore, a commission can look into these reforms, make recommendation and monitor the implementation,’ says Muzaffer Ahmad.

He cites the example of countries such as the United States where there are regulatory bodies for food and drug, and the system is transparent and the monitoring is strict and effective.

In order to tackle some of these problems and promote a conducive and business-friendly investment climate, a 17-member Regulatory Reforms Commission was formed by the government in October 2007. The commission was tasked with updating the decades-old rules and regulations of the country so as to infuse dynamism into governance, administration and the economy.

The commission focuses primarily on cutting through the layers of red tape that surround and affect entrepreneurs. ‘The aim of the commission is essentially focus on the rules related to the country’s investment, commerce and trade that are complex and fraught with procrastination,’ says Apurba Kumar Biswas, CEO of the commission. ‘Apart from that the commission’s aim is to look into various issues that call for reforms – pensions, services and more.’

The working areas of the commission include identifying all rules, by-laws, and government orders in force in Bangladesh; identifying unnecessary rules, sub-rules and making recommendation for repealing those; and examining necessary rules and orders and identifying all complexities and procrastination created by the existing rules.

As part of its work, the commission prepares recommendations for necessary reforms in existing rules and government orders to simplify them and remove red tapism, and ensure due public services.

‘Chaired by Akbar Ali Khan, the commission truly feels that the country is neither overregulated nor under-regulated – rather ill regulated,’ says Biswas. ‘Therefore, the focus is to examine and research some of the areas that require reforms or amendments and make these recommendations, and once approved, pass it on to the relevant ministries. Having done so, the commission is also involved in the monitoring phase, ensuring weekly updates so that the old age practice of shelving away documents is limited.’

Some of the major recommendations of the commission in nearly a year of operations include processing and approval of foreign private loans, formulating necessary rules and regulations for recognising private courier services, amendment to the land registration law, reforming location clearance certificate and environmental clearance certificate rules, streamlining the duty drawback and exemption system, and simplifying the capital machinery import clearance system. These recommendations are in various stages of implementation. Till date, the commission has made a total of 33 recommendations, eight of which are under implementation.

Critics of the commission say legal complexities and lengthy procedures do not affect the businesses alone. Major public utilities such as transport, courier service, land registry, certificates, pension funds and many more are entangled in the bureaucratic process and legal complexities.

‘I strongly feel that the Regulatory Reforms Commission should focus on more than just business-related rules and regulations,’ says Muzaffer Ahmad. ‘Specifically, in the case of public utility services, there is a major need for the age-old laws to be amended.’

‘The commission has had a wider focus than just business-related rules and laws,’ says Biswas. ‘A high-powered task force focused on land administration has recently completed an extensive study tour to India, where they saw for themselves the status of reforms in this field that have led to a simplified land administration framework. The task force is currently in the process of finalising its report for submission to the commission.’

A generally unknown facet of life in Bangladesh that the commission has focused on recently is the status of the mushrooming courier service providers in the country. According to the Post Office Act, 1898, courier services are illegal, and should be penalised. However, it is well-known that such services are integral to meeting the demand that is currently left unfulfilled by the government’s official postal system.

‘It’s strange that courier services in our country have been illegal for over a century,’ says Rajib Ahmed, a banker. ‘But without them, it would be very difficult to conduct business and ensure that our correspondence gets where it needs to be.’

To address this issue, the commission has recently recommended amendment to the Post Office Act, 1898, and the draft amendment has been finalised by the posts and telecommunications ministry in consultation with the stakeholders and sent to the Cabinet Division for approval by the council of advisers.

The commission has also recently turned its focus on the pensions system. Although different schemes have been undertaken over time in preventing tardiness and complications in providing retirement facilities and ensuring payment of pensions to retired government employees, the reality on the ground has remained more or less unchanged.

‘The commission has received many requests from people at various levels to tackle this issue, and responded by drafting recommendations for significant changes to the pension rules and regulations to reduce procedural complexities and curb inherent corruption in the existing process,’ explains Biswas.

The major recommendations focus on automatic processing of pension for public servants, removing the need for applications. Given this is effectively implemented fewer documents will now be required to claim pensions. As the retirees are compelled to submit complex documents such as citizen certificates and bonds to pension forms; implementation of this recommendation would mean that simply showing the national ID card or birth certificate will be sufficient.

Moreover, public servants who have no outstanding liabilities or cases in their careers will receive their pension cheque in their bank accounts within two and a half months before their LPR ends, and monthly pension cheques will be transferred to the recipient’s account automatically. Further, public servants who have worked 10 years in temporary posts under the revenue sector will be entitled to pension under the new recommendations. ‘It is now for us to give it time and see if this is actually effective and paves ways for an effective regulatory system in the country,’ says Muzaffer.

Next month, as the commission completes its first year of operation, there have been repeated calls for extension. Advocates of the reform agenda claim that the reform process is continuous and cannot be completed within just a year. Others have stated that continuity and sustainability of reform processes are central.

‘If the commission does not exist after the caretaker regime, subsequent political governments may find it difficult to implement the recommendations, or they may simply disfavour the current reform agenda. There may, therefore, be a need to ensure that the reform agenda continues, by ensuring that it is institutionalised in some form,’ says Khasru. ‘We must remember that the reform process is continuous and we must give it some time.’

There is also a drastic need for due diligence in ensuring that new and draft regulations and laws do not impede the investment climate, whether directly or indirectly. This would involve increasing the mandate of the commission to allow it to conduct impact assessments of draft and proposed rules and regulations.

‘Ideally, there should be a central unit which would vet proposed regulations from the point of view of business or citizens (whomever it is relevant for) and that central unit should ask the line ministries/agencies to justify their proposed rules or regulations. Currently, only the law ministry vets the proposed rules and regulations and it does so only through a legal lens, i.e. whether they are consistent with existing laws and other rules and regulations,’ says Syed Akhtar Mahmood.

He says the sponsoring ministries should be required to answer questions such as: What problem is the proposed regulation going to address? Is regulation needed or are there other ways of addressing the problem, such as through increased competition in the market? What are the expected impacts? Where stake-holders consulted and, if so, what were the results of the public consultation? How will compliance be achieved? Is the regulation comprehensible and accessible to users?

According to Mahmood, government officials at different levels have a role in regulatory reforms. ‘We are currently working with a group of 40 deputy secretary level officials who would be trained in private sector related issues and good practices over a six-month period. In addition, they would carry out exercises where they would take some proposed regulations and answer questions such as the ones above.’

As much as the commission’s work is being praised, many remain apprehensive about its administration and legality. ‘One of the major questions about the commission concerns the legality of its establishment, came as it did under a state of emergency,’ says a former minister on the condition of anonymity.

As President Gerald R Ford said when he first started a regulatory reform programme back in the 1970s, ‘A necessary condition of a healthy economy is freedom from the petty tyranny of massive government regulation. We are wasting literally millions of working hours costing billion of consumer’s dollars because of bureaucratic red tape.

‘Although most of today’s regulations affecting business are well-intentioned, their effect, whether designed to protect the environment or the consumer, often does more harm than good. They can stifle the growth of our standard of living and contribute to inflation.’

His words held true for the US then and hold true for Bangladesh now.

Filed under: Human Rights No Comments
5Sep/080

‘Children need to be brought in for early detection’

You have worked in the area of children with mental disabilities for decades. How do you see the overall state now?

Previously, there were huge stigmas attached to children with disabilities. Parents felt socially ostracised, and, hence, were reluctant to disclose the child’s problems in public. A major part of my life was spent on campaigns to increase social awareness amongst parents, families and the community. A lot of time we had to also spell out the differences between mental illness, which is a psychiatric problem; and mental retardation, which is a developmental problem where early identification and intervention can go a long way in ensuring optimum educational skills and quality of survival.

What are some of the achievements that Bangladesh has made in provision of care services and research for these children?

Bangladesh today has a National Policy on Disability 1995 passed by the cabinet; and a Disability Welfare Act 200, passed by parliament. Another Human Rights Law on Disability, in tune with the UN Human Rights Convention, has been drafted. These have legal implications and also provide children with disabilities, parents and the community ammunition to challenge their exclusion from normal life, ie, schools, sports, extra curricular activities etc.

I also started the Bachelors and Masters in Special Education degree courses within the Institute of Education (IER) of Dhaka University; also in the Institute of Special Education of the Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation affiliated with the National University.

Every year special teachers are graduating from these institutes of whom many are being employed or have started their own special schools.

Given the burden of the problem, these services are nominal. All schools need to address the special needs to children in every class, as a normal routine procedure, with no stigmatisation.

What do you feel the challenges are in working in this area? Is there appropriate support available?

The challenges are manifold. Brain development is occurring at a rapid pace in the first three years. Therefore, it is already too late to identify children at school entry. That is why the primary health care sector needs to be brought in for early detection of children with impairments and disabilities. The second challenge is to provide special education needs to all children. These vary from child to child. For example, one child might benefit from a hearing aid, another from glasses, and another by being given extra time to complete class work.

Do you feel the government should put more focus in this area? If so, what role could the government could play in improving this state?

Only about 50 per cent children are able to complete primary school today, according to the Education Watch Report. So, do we think all the rest have special needs. In a way I feel that they do; or that the schools are only catering for the top 20 per cent students. All children need to be assessed in every subject and their strengths and weaknesses should be determined, so that the latter can be helped. Special needs should a subject which all school teachers must be competent in, at least the basics.

What specific areas of mental disability require further focus according to you?

There is a growing concern about disorders affecting communication and socialisation, specially childhood autism. These children need very specific intervention programmes in very controlled environments, with a one-on-one teaching; be it the parent, teacher or any other person. We need to have a country-wide epidemiological survey to determine the burden of the problems, which should include determination of the full range of special needs and developmental disabilities. The government of Bangladesh should initiate this. We have the technology to conduct such a survey. Only then resource allocation on a national scale can be made.

How did you begin your journey in this field?

This story dates back to partition or way back. But, it became more meaningful when I decided to get a Bachelor’s degree in education, and then a Master’s in the same vocation, which I then followed with a master’s in psychology. Immediately after I completed I was offered a post at the University of Dhaka. We lived in Narayanganj at that point and I would commute 25 miles each day to drop the children to school and then go to university.

That phase was also a decade for changes. While there was a visible change in the political climate, the need for focus on psychology was becoming slowly visible. But, then again, the mentally disabled were not really brought out into the open.

Often I would visit the psychiatry ward of Dhaka Medical College Hospital where children with handicaps were treated, but with little knowledge. It was at that time that many parents approached me and I truly wanted to help, but I also needed the proper training.

So, after victory, I went to Atlanta to obtain a doctorate. After coming back, I started talking to parents whose children had disabilities but there was no standardised test. Sometimes, you could not even tell whether a child was disabled and parents would not know until very late. My greatest challenge was to standardise a test for screening but it was also a difficult task.

You did introduce a standard test for screening?

It was a lot of hard work and miles of walking from one area to other. But I was full of zeal and determination and nothing could stop me. With financial support from Colombia University, in around 1987 we conducted a door-to-door testing and covered slums in Dhaka, adjoining areas of Elephant road, Dhamrai, Barisal, Kurigram, Rangpur and Chittagong. This consisted to of mostly children aged 3 to 9 years. Everyday, we would test 20 children which was based on performance, verbal and non-verbal testing.

By then you had also started the first school for mentally disabled children.

Yes, I had organised a parent’s movement – gathering parent’s whose children had disabilities. I had started talking to these children and at the same time designed different tools for IQ, psychosocial stimulation. And in a small bamboo hut on the corner of Willes Little Flower School, my first school for these children started. At the same time, I was keeping international contacts, meeting other centres across India and other parts of the world and work on creating similar facilities in Bangladesh.

How did Protibondhi Foundation come about?

Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation, also known as Kallyani was formed with twelve of my students.

Between developing distance training packages and conducting centre-based and distance training, I also introduced the department of Special Education, at my alma mater Dhaka University.

You were also the one to have introduced inclusive education. Tell us about that.

The importance and rights of every child to inclusive education was based on the established Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), the convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Disabled Persons (1993).

Inclusive education is yet to be a prevalent concept in Bangladesh but we are working tirelessly. The recognition for schooling for children with special need within regular education system or inclusive education means that teacher in regular schools need to be prepared for this challenge of handling children with special needs.

Most often, teachers in school do not have the appropriate knowledge or expertise to be able to teach these children. We started these trainings and are still advocating this in our school, whereby children with disabilities are mainstreamed into schools.

Tell us about your new school for the mentally disabled children.

The new school is a second school of the Prantibondhi Foundation. It’s titled Bangladesh Protibondhi Punarbasan Institute located at Mirpur. The government allocated some land for this school and we are now starting an all service centre – where screening, research, training of teachers and schooling will be available.

We hope we can move forward and reach out more children and be able to provide them the much needed services.

Filed under: Profiles No Comments
22Aug/080

Ready to go the distance

If going through a lengthy process and setting up a research unit on art and culture can bring the government to include art and culture as important issues like health, education and others in their agenda, then Israfil Shaheen would gladly go through it all.
‘As much as religious studies is important in school education, so is art and culture, we must work in reshaping the whole system, where the next generation knows the richness and beauty of our art and culture,’ he says on a sunny afternoon, sitting in his office in Dhaka University. ‘There are many gaps in our system and it is time to reshape it, its time to assemble this important topic into the system.’
The chairman of the Department of Theatre and Music, Israfil Shaheen has many dreams. He envisions the department, the art and cultural scenario as a tool that can move on to shaping the country- socially and politically. He does not blame electronic media, or the many mediums of entertainment that has made theatre, less visited by the younger generation. ‘I do not have anything against the progress that the entertainment industry has made, but it is inherent that we must have an institutional system through which rich art forms such as theatre can move along,’ he says.
Israfil is better known for his longtime involvement in Arayanak Mukto Natak (Arayanak’s Open Theatre), where he acted, directed and worked tireless since the beginning. In the past decade, Israfil has conducted numerous workshops and training programmes and given a new dimension to improvised plays. Some of his celebrated directions include ‘Three sisters’, ‘Macbeth’ (2005), ‘The Would be Gentleman’, ‘The Mousetrap’ (2003), ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘A Doll’s House’, Mrrichhakotika (Indian Classical Play), ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Uru bhangam’ and many more.
Born in 1964 in Poncha ga, Thakurgaon, Israfil had an idyllic childhood in the small village. His father was a farmer and they lived a simple life. The three siblings would swim in the river, steal mangoes and run around the open field. While at the government school, Israfil showed keen interest in public speaking and annual dramas. ‘Little did I know that I would grow a passion for theatre later on,’ he laughs.
After completing his HSC from Rajshahi government school, Israfil moved to Dhaka in 1983 and started his honours degree in University of Dhaka - it was then that he truly discovered his niche.
‘Being at the university was a life changing experience. Becoming a part of Aronok Natya Dal was like finding what I wanted to do,’ he remembers. ‘After that there was no looking back, I did almost everything in the group, from being a helping hand, to be an actor and a director.’
Working with Mamun-ur-Rashid was an experience in itself, says Israfil. ‘His work related a lot to the social and political scenario and that instilled within me a lot of passion to work along similar lines - to be able to depict everyday life and struggles and issues that needed emphasis.’
His first works were in fact directed by Mamun-ur Rashid - Guinea pig and Naan kar pala.
Aside from that, Israfil worked with the liberated theatre team and played in various remote villages.
After his graduation, in 1988 Israfil received a scholarship from the Indian Government to study at the National School of Drama, New Delhi. ‘Going to India and studying this art was a learning experience. It was a great exposure as we had the opportunity to work with experts from abroad, and learn different forms, styles and methods.’
As soon as he finished his Masters, Israfil saw new doors of opportunity through a fellowship he received on non-verbal/gesture theatre in India at the National School of Drama. After completing his fellowship, he pursued his doctoral programme at Rabindra Bharati University again with a scholarship. ‘At Bharati, I had the opportunity to teach what I had learnt and at the same time research and learn more.’
Coming back to Dhaka around 1996, Israfil was left with hunting for jobs and exploring ways he could contribute what he had learnt. ‘Right after coming back, I conducted 40-day long workshops in Dhaka, Kurigram and Nilphamari with the play Romeo and Juliet,’ he remembers. ‘The opportunity to teach at Dhaka University came after that, besides that I also started teaching at North South University and University of Stafford as a part-time professor, where I had the wonderful experience of directing numerous plays with a group of young and vibrant students.’
Israfil says there is a need for the media and the institutions to have better knowledge concerning art and theatre. ‘Most often the culture pages that we have in newspapers do not do justice to these forms. Which is why, I go back to my stress on the need of a research unit on art and culture- which will actually show the lack of knowledge and its importance, and at the same time pave ways for art, theatre, drama and cultural aspects to be a part of our lifestyle.’
At the moment, Israfil is busy with the Theatre festival, where fourteen plays, featuring world classics and contemporary ones, directed by students of batch six of the department are to be staged.
‘There are many obstacles and challenges, but despite that we continue to run the plays throughout the year and our struggle will continue till the very end,’ he ends.

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22Aug/080

Reeling into the cycle (with Sharmin Chowdhury)

There is a damp and bleak air within the hall that houses hundreds of female students at the Dhaka University. The long corridors lead to a row of rooms – each about 22 square metres in size and four seated. Apart from four beds the rooms are equipped with four desks and four closets. Most of the rooms are overcrowded, scantily furnished and damp. Outside, female students laze around at the open space throughout the afternoon some chatting away about the recent fashion and films, some hide themselves within the textbooks, and others chat on their cell phone. Inside the hall, at the far end of the corridor, is the room where about three months ago, a student hanged herself from the ceiling fan. ‘It’s still difficult to walk past that room where Sandhya hung herself,’ says a student. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with the feeling that something that might have subjected her to take away her own life will spare me or so many of us around. When I take a step forward, my body seems to stand still and invade me with these sinking thoughts.’ While University authorities have rested on the recent appointment of four counsellors to help these students- the students and teachers seem to be still reeling in the aftermath of what appears to be the fourth student suicide in about eighteen months at Dhaka University female halls. ‘Even though months have passed by, its still gives me nightmares,’ says a student of Rokeya hall, one of the four female hostels at Dhaka University. The suicides of these girls continue to haunt their room-mates and after every suicide the rooms are usually abandoned and then re-allotted to new students who have no connection with the incidents. ‘That is exactly how life revolves around the suicide incidents in the halls of DU,’ she adds. On April 15 this year, Sandhya Rani Sarker hung herself from a ceiling fan inside her room at the Begum Rokeya Hall. She was a fourth year student of the Institute of Education and Research (IER). ‘She was so bright and wonderful, I do not know where she went wrong,’ says her friend, still disoriented. Sandhya, who hailed from Khulna, was found hanging from the ceiling fan at 2:30pm inside her room No 80 of the extension building of Rokeya hall. According to her friends, the door of the room was locked from inside and the reasons for her death was unknown and till date a mystery. Following her death, on June 25, Zohra Khan Progya, also a resident of Rokeya Hall, committed suicide. She was a second year student of law at the university. She was the daughter of Nazimuddin Khan, a teacher of Berua Alia Madrassah and resident of Azmatpur village in Kaliganj upazila of Gazipur, hall authorities said. Reports suggest that Zohra had a brilliant academic record with GPA 5 in both SSC and HSC examinations. A number of residents of the dormitory said that she was quiet and unassuming and did not exhibit any troubles. They said she used to talk a lot over the cell phone with someone for some days and suspected that she might have a love affair with a Hindu boy and troubles with that affair may have led her to suicide. ‘She returned to the dormitory from home on Saturday and was looking normal and the next morning she was found dead,’ whispers one of the students. The trend of suicides has been alarmingly on the rise specifically among Dhaka University students, the largest and the top public university in the country that houses more than 32,000 students. The impact of such frequent deaths has been felt deeply by the students and staff members. In the past five year, reports suggest that more than 11 students have committed suicide, nine of whom where women. This past month, following the suicide of four Dhaka University students in the Rokeya hall in just one and a half year, the University authorities stepped up to take a much needed and long overdue step – appointing psychiatric consultants to each of the four female dormitories of the university to counsel the students. According to the university vice-chancellor, SMA Faiz, the increasing cases of such suicides among the Dhaka University students, especially female students, had prompted them to appoint psychologists in the dormitories. ‘Considering the gravity of the situation, we needed to take immediate action and appoint psychologists in dormitories,’ said Prof SMA Faiz. ‘Usually any form of appointment requires approval from the University Grants Commission, but in this case we did not wait for the approval. We have already posted advertisement while the commission is working on the approval.’ Nine psychologists will be appointed for five residential halls, two each at Rokeya Hall, Shamsunnahar Hall, Kuwait Maitree Hall, Fazilatunnisa Mujib Hall – and one in Nawab Faizunnisa Hall. Over the past years, for these students, there has been only one psychologist working at the students counselling and guidance centre of the university. Recent steps suggest that there will regular counselling undertaken by peer groups trained by the team of counsellors. The university walls are now pasted with adverts and notices concerning this new initiation that is hoped to reduce the alarming rates of suicides in the recent years. While, this remains to be an issue of much discussion and anticipation, many doubt the effectiveness of such a step. ‘There are many dimensions to counselling,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, professor, department of sociology. ‘For one this sessions need to be effective and each student need to be given separate time and attention. To what extent can peer groups really make a difference in such cases is a major question.’ The environment and ambience of the hall itself has a major role to play in the well-being of these women, adds Hannan. Professor Nazma Shaheen, shares her experience of the first suicide case she handled as a house-tutor of Rokeya Hall of the university. ‘The first suicide case I handled was, most probably, two and a half years ago, during the month of Ramadan. A female student committed suicide by taking Marshal, an insecticide. She was admitted to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). I and the provost rushed there immediately and the doctors said that they wanted to shift her in ventilation. We were trying to arrange everything but by the time I returned, she had died.’ Professor Nazma Shaheen has seen some more deaths like this which have left her upset and disturbed. She points out one of the factors for such occurrences as the way in which a woman is reared since childhood in Bangladeshi society. ‘So far, I observed most of the families rear their female children in a way that their main aim is to get an established or wealthy husband. But there is a lack of proper guidance. Most of the female students don’t know how to handle the relations with their boyfriends; they give away everything and continue to do so before getting betrayed. Finally, they become so emotional that they think their life is finished; they don’t even share their problems with any one, and get into depression and end up committing suicide.’ ‘Most young women in Bangladesh suffer from low self-esteem. From childhood they are brought up in such a way that they become dependent on others,’ says Prof Shaheen Islam of DU psychology department and director of the Students Counselling and Guidance Centre. ‘So, when a relationship breaks, they feel ignored and insignificant. They take desperate action thinking that they have no other purpose in life. Other young people with similar problems often imitate such action leading to a suicidal tendency.’ Mehtab Khanam, professor, department of psychology, University of Dhaka thinks that the majority of the cases involve relationship issues, which seem to affect these students tremendously. She says, ‘One of the major problems with these cases is that they get involved in undefined relationships meaning they seem to confuse their needs. They hardly give any thought as to whether they can actually afford it in the long run. So, on one hand one partner gets deeply involved and the other backs of, it hits them. They cannot seem to accept such betrayal and chose to commit suicide as they see it as the end of their life.’ In August 2007, Sabera Yasmin Papri committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in less than two months after another suicide incident. She was a third year student of the Institute of Fine Art and a resident of room no 112 of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, who died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. According to the provost of the dormitory, Professor Tahmina Akter, she had found out from her friends that Papri had phoned one of her friends from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) campus at around 1:30pm, requesting her to save her life as she had swallowed more than 50 sleeping pills. Following this phone call, her friends rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was washed, a few minutes after which she died. According to her friends, Papri was in love with an MBA marketing student of the university and their relationship was getting bad for a few days. The incidents leave a detrimental impact on the other residents of the hall. The friends and neighbours fail to believe that their friends have taken their own lives. Dipa, a friend of Sandhya Rani Sarker, said Shandhya died the day after Pahela Boishakh, ‘she wore a saree on April 14 and looked happy all day during the celebration, it was so shocking for us when we heard she was no more the very next day.’ There is also the problem of adjusting to a new environment; as the residents of halls do not belong to the city, they find it very strange here and fail to adjust. At home they are under strict monitoring, which is not possible here, so they do whatever they want and get into trouble, points out a house tutor. Getting into wired relationships is seen as a major reason of girl’s suffering from depression. ‘Since the girls stay away from their families they do not get proper guidance, they end up having wired relationships, like Hindu girl with Muslim boy, rich with poor, young with old, and then start having problems in their families, and finding nowhere to go they become frustrated and commit suicide,’ says Mosammet Asma Jahan, part-time house tutor, Rokeya hall, DU. While majority of the cases, do point towards failure in relationships and being cheated by boyfriends as one of the prime reason for such suicide incidents, many also point towards the setting of the halls and the University itself. Over the years, there have been countless cases, where students had committed suicide due to academic reasons, financial problems and often unknown depression. For some, a part of the reason comes from the fact that being a student of Dhaka University means that the students take up their academic achievement way seriously. ‘Being a part of the top university means that you are one of the thousands who had strived to be a part of it and when you fail to live up to the expectations and standards its depressing,’ says a student of Department of Economics. On June 4, a Masters student of Economics Antu hanged herself in their residence in Paribagh after she failed to get a first class for four marks. ‘She had been extremely depressed over this issue and repeatedly mentioned how we would never understand why it meant so much to her.’ Sometimes, financial problems also lead the students towards frustration. Khadija, a resident of Rokeya hall hung herself supposedly because of financial crisis. She had an affair with a private university student; her family did not accept it and stopped supporting her financially. She then started doing tuitions. For some reason she could not continue her job and was suffering from financial problems. It is suspected that money-crisis led her towards frustration and committing suicide. ‘The setting of the university halls is also an important factor. The halls need to be improved environment and hygiene is a major issue to be considered,’ says Ferdous Hannan. There are also stringent rules in the halls. The gates open at 6 am and close at 9.30 at most. If someone has to come late, she needs to have late permission, if someone wants to stay out she needs to inform beforehand, but it is not very effective as there are too many students in the halls. The house tutors time to time counsel the students if they find them upset or see anything wrong. They have observed that the group counselling has not been very fruitful as it does not reach the students on an individual level. Recently, they have brought in Prof Sadeka Halim, Dr Mehtab Khanam, Dr Shaheen Islam (counsellor) and many more to have discussions with the students. Most of the suicides seem to have taken place in Rokeya hall. Being the largest one with around 1500 students this hall has more risk of such mishaps than other halls. Though according to other hall’s residents this is the hall with all facilities; there are single beds, attached baths and individual lockers, students of this hall has a greater tendency to commit suicide. ‘Maybe it is because of the influences of other suicide incidents that happened around them,’ says a tutor of Moitree Hall. ‘The mental wellbeing of these students can be greatly ensured through the improvements made in the hall and identifying the problems that they go through- independent lifestyle, politics, academic pressure, family problems and much more,’ says Hannan. Many feel that the sudden freedom that these women get is also a major factor. It is understood that the innocent village girls struggle to cope with the city life here, sometimes get entangled in problems, make mistakes and do not share and this in turn push them to harm themselves at the end of the day. ‘Communicating, with friends and family no matter where you live is very important,’ says a student. The students also think that it is important to have control over your desires. Imu a resident of Shamsunnahar hall said, ‘Friendship is something that can help you out of all sorts of trouble. If we see any of our friends upset, we’ll make her smile by hook or crook, but those who stay aloof, cannot really fight with the odds around here.’ Dipa said, ‘A father whose daughter committed suicide after being pregnant wrote a letter to us saying that her daughter could have shared that with her parents, because she meant a lot to them, but his daughter did not dare to share her mistake since she thought she made the ultimate mistake of her life. Her father also suggested us not to do any of the stuff like his daughter did.’ Whatever the issues maybe, the situation calls for desperate help. While counselling is a step forward to improving the situation there is also a need for proper examination, individual attention given in making psychological well-being a part of the over all system.

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8Aug/080

And the bells ring on, in my feet

If her passion for dance could be justified by words and even brought to close proximity to how she feels about dancing, the celebrated dancer Minu Haque would perhaps gladly write many many books on them.

‘It seemed like we were meant to be- dancing and I,’ she says smiling, as the afternoon sunlight streams in through the colourful curtains of her apartment in Dhaka. Her big, doe shaped eyes sparkle with this inexplicable joy at having to speak about her work and her future plans in restoring the heritage of pure classical dance in Bangladesh.

Right she is, she is perhaps a born dancer, and you can see it in the way her fingers move, the way she steps up or sits- her every posture is characteristic of the aesthetic dancing queen. ‘I was always inclined to colours and shades and I always incorporated it in my every dance, every choreography, every beat to which we danced with bells on our feet,’ she tells me.

Born on June 1, 1953, Minu Haque grew up in a family that valued art and culture immensely. Passion was something that was natural in her family, she says. And why not? Minu is the daughter of her father, her sister is the celebrated thespian Shimul Yousuff, her late brother-in-law Altaf Mahmood, the legendary music composer whom we lost during the liberation war, needs no introduction at all.

‘My father insisted had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning. They both believed in religion but at the same time, they also stood strong in holding on to art and culture.

My father we learn singing and dancing, that too at a time when such practices were not approved by many,’ she says proudly.

Minu and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood- singing, dancing, studying, and growing up in a cultural environment. ‘Those were the best parts of our lives,’ she remembers fondly.

Minu started dancing from the age of six- and like her sister, she was a regular participant in radio programmes. ‘Back at the time, these radio programs were organised so well, and even though it was only audio, we would still dance- and the whole element of commercialism was absent back then. And perhaps that’s what exactly kept us on the dance stage so firmly. We did not bother about the money. And even though it was difficult to carry on with that limited income, we were happy.’

Minu speaks of her first tutor Dulal Talukdar, an exceptional dancer who was in the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in those days. It was from there that Minu graduated with a diploma in classical dance.

But her dancing career had seen many halts, the most prominent being the events in 1971, that left her family shattered, the scars of which linger on till date. ‘I do not think I can ever explain those events in words or be able to justify any of it today,’ she says softly. ‘It is so difficult to explain how jarring it was to be a woman and hide away for safety. As I was a dancer, the Pakistan Army had come to our house asking me to perform in cantonment, but I refused outright. On their third request, when I refused, they threatened me but that really did not change my perception of Pakistani Army or my decision, but at the same time I knew I had to run away.’

It was during that time that she hid in places for safety. ‘Back then groups used to be formed for escaping and I was going to be sent with Altaf bhai and others, but it was afterwards decided that he would join us later as he needed to record his songs, and it was sheer fate that I left, and right after that he was killed,’ she says looking away.

Thirty-eight years on, it still aches the same, yet she feels that period only made her stronger as a person, and her passion for dance only increased. ‘I continued dancing and worked with young dancers in restoring core classical dance. That is something that is fading away today sadly,’ she says.

In an attempt to keep the dancing culture alive, Minu had to struggle a lot and the struggle continues till date.

In 2001, Minu along with her family formed ‘Nrityashara In search of Heritage in Dance of Bengal’ a platform under which different dancing schools are run by artists like Tamanna Rahman, Munmun Ahmed, Kabirul Islam Ratan, Anisul Islam Hiru and others who focus on specific areas of dance- Kathak, Monipuri, modern and folk, Bharatnatyam and more.

Minu’s school Odyssey that is now running for years focuses on classical dance.

‘I feel, for a dance, every move, every step, posture, outfit- everything must present that aesthetic look and aura of the dancing spirit,’ she says passionately. ‘It is that essence that I would want the younger generation to take forward.’

The absence of sponsorship and support from the corporate sector, halls and organisations, make such initiations more difficult than ever, she says with a hint of disappointment.

‘We keep fighting, keep taking funds from our own and try to move forward. One of the most disappointing issues remains to be the fact that there are no halls for dance performances as such, and it must be a dance drama for you to be able to run it. And while the National Museum is available, the cost is too high. Moreover, there is whole issue of how can we keep this young and talented group here without supplementing them financially?’

Most of these young dancers that Minu and others work with come from remote villages or areas, and they must be given a little amount so that they can afford to continue dancing. ‘Despite the many challenges, we have made it a point to run our programs- our initiative to restore this rare art is not going to stop,’ she says.

Every month on the 16th (indicating the date of freedom), Minu and the group run their program at the Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University for a ticket of taka 10.

The theme for each month is in line with the cultural relationship- in February- the theme being language movement, in March, the theme was independence, later Pahela Boishakh, Rabindra and Nazrul and in July it was Monsoon.

‘It is difficult to find halls, or to fund each one of these events that are run by the whole group, but at the same time we know, that the dance must go on- and this art needs to be kept alive.’

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