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     Volume 4 Issue 35 | February 25, 2005 |

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Libraries for Everyone

Kavita Charanji

From being a microbiologist at ICDDR,B and founder faculty member of the Microbiology Department of Dhaka University, Saiyeda Qudsiya Akhtar has come a long way. Today she is the founder of Ibrahim Shohbat Meer Welfare Organisation, a trust formed on February 18, 1989. The organisation is named after her late eldest son who met his untimely and tragic end in a swimming pool accident in 1988. As Qudsiya puts it: "I gave up my job in 1991. I just wanted to keep the name of my son alive."

The organisation has two aims: to provide health and education to the underprivileged women, and orphans in particular. Under education, since 1991 the trust has established 42 libraries in orphanages all over Bangladesh. The long term aim is to set up 2,400 libraries in all the orphanages in the country. "If we have the funds, we can set up 2, 400 libraries within two years," maintains Qudsiya, the daughter of the late Professor Saiyed Abdul Hai, professor of Dhaka University and Salina Sultana, teacher at the Central Women's University.

A typical library of the trust caters to orphan girls in the age group of 6-18 years. The six feet by three and a half feet library has a wooden almirah with glass doors, 1000 books and a small carpet.

A visit to the orphanage Sharkari Shishu Parivar, Tejgaon throws light on the functioning of such libraries. Probably, among the best of its kind in the country, the orphanage of 200 girls, has story books, travel, life histories, classical books like Nazrul, Tagore and popular authors. Lucky, in class six, says that she goes to the library every day during the holidays. She likes story books and is in the midst of reading Ekushey Palash because it is about the freedom struggle.

And no, the TV habit or other distractions have not made these girls into couch potatoes. Many orphanages do not have a TV and some restrict the viewing to a few days. At the Tejgaon orphanage, for instance, watching TV is possible only three days a week for drama/cinema and news everyday on BTV.

Qudsiya is content with the response. "The orphan girls often phone me and say 'Aunty please give us some more books'. They are really interested in reading," she asserts.

The trust has also opened a library in Dhaka Central Jail. The objective is to start an income generation project for women prisoners. The capital for this project will be provided by the trust fund. The benefits will go to the individual prisoners. This small amount may change their lives when they are released from prison. This incentive moreover, may also make it easier for the women to get through their prison terms.

In addition, Qudsiya runs a small home-based library in her Dhanmondi office.

The organisation has also given 16 scholarships for underprivileged women. This is a lifeline for the orphans who are released from the orphanages when they are 18 years old.

A paper presented by a teacher from Jahangirnagar University at a Zonta Club meeting revealed that last year thousands of girls and women were trafficked from Bangladesh on the record and many cases went unrecorded. "The problem is that the orphanages do not know where those girls go after they are 18," says Qudsiya. "That teacher mentioned that most of the trafficked girls are from the orphanages."

The trust gives scholarships of Taka 1, 000 a month for each girl. The aim is that they will stand on their feet in various professions, whether it is as nurses, para-medics or technicians. Other options are running bakeries or shops. Small help has come the way of the trust from local donors. To cite an example, Millenium Hospital has offered to train 10 orphan girls in nursing free of cost. However, there is a hurdle: the lack of girls with a science background.

Qudsiya was inspired to go into a full fledged scholarship programme following her first success with a girl (who she prefers not to name) from an orphanage. Left in the orphanage at the tender age of two years by her housemaid mother, the young girl could very well have been another forgotten name. The trust, however, came forward to support her with a scholarship of Taka 1,000 a month when she was in Class six. The aim was to give her this sum so that she could improve her standard. Now in her second year of Master's, she has successfully completed her SSC, intermediate and BA exams. She has married into a good family and works in an insurance company. Her husband knows about her background and the couple will soon be proud parents. "This example inspired me to start a scholarship programme for orphan girls," says Qudsiya.

What's new for the self-professed 'ambitious' Qudsiya? There are several projects which she hopes to oversee, but she focuses on her newly launched quarterly science magazine Mashuq for the young, an institute of biotechnology and a small orphanage. As she explains, "There is a big need for such a biotechnology institute because currently we get all our vaccines from overseas. We have talent which is apparent in the performance of our young people in biotechnological institutes overseas. If they can do it for other countries, why can't they do it for our own? We just don't have the facility."

Another idea is to open an orphanage for only 100 children in Dhaka. The aim is to give them life long guidance, not just send them away at the age of 18 years, as is the current practice in orphanages.

Ibrahim Shohbat Meer Welfare Organisation is a beacon of hope for the underprivileged, particularly orphan girls. As the case studies testify, there is many a success story to light the way.


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