|Awardees with the chief guests. Photo: star file
Hana Akter received the award, a recognition of her contributions to the welfare of the female sex workers in Bangladesh. She humbly accepted the emblem, said a few words and descended from the stage as it happens in any other award-giving ceremony, where reputed social activists are honoured for their philanthropic activities. But Hana Aktar is not a member of the elite; she is a former sex worker- one of the many facts that made this seemingly ordinary “award-giving” event quite extraordinary. On a wintry evening, on December 10 on the sixty-second anniversary of the International Human Rights Day, Manusher Jonno Foundation took the initiative to acknowledge and commemorate the contribution of the unrecognised, grass-root level human right defenders. “They are victims of discrimination and human rights violation themselves but they didn't surrender to their adversity; despite all their inconveniences they decided to stand up and defend the rights of others. When privileged people like us work for human rights, it seems we pity the deprived. But these people conquered their obstacles and came forth to help, like real heroes,” said Farida Akhter, Executive Director of Ubinig and jury member of the award-giving committee.
Hana said that while everyone talked about women's rights, no one talked about theirs. So after being tortured and deprived beyond tolerance she decided to rise up for securing the rights of people like her. “Children of sex workers' don't have access to education, we don't get any benefits of a citizen; people treat us like animals. My life taught me to stand up for myself and I have dedicated my life for those who can't do that,” said Hana.
Hana was one of the thirteen grass root level activists who were awarded for their action against social discrimination.
84-year-old Monowara Khatun, one of the awardees, devoted her life to educate girls and women. “It's easy to talk about liberating and educating women these days, but back in 1947 it was a next to impossible. Women were not even allowed to step outside of their own homes, let alone be educated. When I used to request parents to send their daughters to school, they used to tell me that it's a disgrace for a family if the daughters and women went outside to work. It used to hurt me because I used to work outside,” she said while explaining the difficulties she faced to enlighten the female populace in the 40s. Despite all difficulties, Monowara Khatun tirelessly worked to educate and emancipate women socially and economically. According to her, she was then thought of as an antagonist who wanted to exploit women of Bangladesh; the award finally bestowed upon her, the respect she deserves.
It's not just gender-based discrimination that prevails in our society. People are discriminated against for physical disabilities, religion, ethnicity and economic condition. For twenty years, Nirmal Chandra Daas, a Harijan himself, worked for the community's social status as Bangladeshi citizens and their basic rights. Ajay A Mree, another aboriginal Bangladeshi, rebelled for thirty-six years to establish the rights of the natives of Madhupur. Ranglai Mro was arrested and brutally tortured for his protest against the land-grabbers in the Chittagang hill tracks; still he is continuing his fight against the oppression towards the tribes in the hill tracks. They have risked their lives, families and practically everything for their cause; their sacrifice and love for the deprived became even more apparent when they publicly dedicated their awards to the people they have been fighting for. Bishodmoni Toppo shares their devotion as like them she, putting her life at stake, led the protest against the Bengali oppressors who burnt seventy-two tribal families in Borombari of Niyamat Thana in 1993; she has been working with and for the native tribes since. Such another brave-heart Bichitra Tirki demanded the Government to either affirm the rights of the adivasis as Bangladeshi citizens or to ask them to leave the country while receiving her award. The anger and sorrow in her voice attested the torture and deprivation the community face in this country.
Jagdish Barman's struggle for ensuring the rights of the landless masses in Gazipur proves that ours is a country where might is right. Still, with his indefatigable spirit and hard work he helped 1500 families to retrieve their properties from powerful land-grabbers. “A shelter for living is one of the very basic rights of a citizen. Even after 39 years of liberation, we haven't been able to secure that right. But Jagdish single-handedly did the impossible,” said human rights activist Hameeda Hossain, while presenting the award to Jagdish.
Children are perhaps the worst victims of social discrimination. Orphan children, especially, experience the worst kind of deprivation. But Mosammad Bilkis Banu decided to nurture those innocent souls who were abandoned by the society, the government and even by their surviving parent. Benevolent Bilkis runs an orphanage entirely with her family income and provides the unfortunate children with food, education and shelter.
Md Abdus Salam Khondokar has been doing his multifaceted social activities to build up a civilised, uncorrupted, equal society. He aspires to continue to work as an activist.
Kavita Ranee Biswas received her award for her work against religious discriminations. “Most Hindu marriages are still conducted without any kind of registration. So a husband can easily abandon his wife and no one can do anything about it. Hindu women don't even have the right on their parents' properties; we are financially handicapped,” she says to explain the condition of Hindu women in Bangladesh. Kavita was married at the age of 13 and was a victim of domestic violence. But instead of abiding by the inhuman norms, she stood against them and devoted her life to help others like her. She thinks, receiving an honour for her contributions has increased the gravity of her responsibility and she hopes to carry on with her crusade.
Visually handicapped Md Nuruzzaman Miya is another anonymous hero due to whose contributions today our public transports have two reserved seats for people with disabilities. An activist for the disabled since 1999, Nuruzzaman dedicated his award to the 1.5 crore handicap people in Bangladesh.
During the month of victory, honouring the nation's heroes who are fighting against social discrimination blended with the motto of the Liberation War itself. “Bangladesh separated from Pakistan because of the inhuman discrimination against against us. My role as a freedom fighter just began with the Liberation War. We are yet to liberate our people from illiteracy, poverty, corruption and oppression,” said Shekh Abdul Kaiyum who received the award for his selfless contributions towards the socio-economic development of Khulna.
History has observed ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats. But these thirteen stories are the saga of those unfortunate civilians who did not even have the 'luxury' of an ordinary life. Still they dared to fight, not just for themselves, but for people like them as well. No awards can actually do justice to the extent of what they have done and have been doing. But this sort of recognition at least lets us know that in a country where politics is the alias for corruption, where deprivation is synonymous to life itself, there are Messiahs who are there to support, heal and empathise the sorrow and pain of the deprived, in silence.