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European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Empowering women to fight gender-based violence

Sumaiya at a sewing machine
© International Rescue Committee

Born into a low-income family in a village in Bangladesh’s southern Cox’s Bazar district, Sumaiya got married when she was only 15 years old. In the beginning, Sumaiya felt at peace sharing her life with her husband, Abdullah. Little did she know that her life would soon turn for the worse, but EU humanitarian aid was there to help her.

“After a few years, my husband started demanding dowry from me,” said Sumaiya. “He would usually beat me up if I couldn’t give him anything.”

To calm her husband down, she borrowed some cash from her family, who was already struggling to make ends meet. However, the peace never lasted long – it only took a few days before the violence resumed.

“Abdullah never took care of my daughter,” said Sumaiya’s mother Rashida Begum. “He had never given her a single penny for her medication or clothes. We had to meet all his demands”.

Domestic violence is unfortunately widespread in Bangladesh. According to a report by the World Health Organization, half of the women aged between 15 and 49 years experience physical or sexual violence by their partners during their lifetime.

Although the situation at home was far from ideal, Sumaiya decided to be patient, hoping that things would get better one day. The abuse however continued. After 8 years of living with repeated violence, Sumaiya realised that her situation would never improve. She decided that she had to end the relationship.

No one in her family objected to the decision. “The torture was becoming unbearable for my daughter, so we decided to support a divorce”, explained Sumaiya’s mother.

Reaching a separation agreement

In Bangladesh, different mediation services are available to mitigate and prevent domestic violence. These include mediation centres, neighbourhood justice centres and other informal institutions that help the individuals deal with disputes that could not be resolved through legal procedures. 

One such institution is Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), a national non-governmental organisation providing free legal assistance in Cox’s Bazar.

They aim to resolve disputes among partners in a more sensible way. It was where Sumaiya sought help after other forms of mediation failed. 

With EU humanitarian funding and technical support from the International Rescue Committee, the Bangladesh-based NGO helps residents access justice. They also improve the capacity of local justice actors, community volunteers and local government representatives.

With the NGO’s continuous effort, Sumaiya reached a satisfactory separation agreement.

Sumaiya and her mother in front of their house
Sumaiya and her mother
© International Rescue Committee

“We couldn’t rely on anyone but the aid from BLAST,” said Rashida Begum. “My son in law would not let things settle so smoothly. We didn’t have the money or power to seek legal support.”

I couldn’t imagine feeling better than I am right now,” said 23-year-old Sumaiya. “I am learning how to tailor clothes from my mother. I want to start working at home and make clothes for people”.

“People only come to us when they have already tried the last possible option they could think of and don’t know what else can be done,” said BLAST mediation officer Saddam Bin Anuar. “Most of them are domestic violence survivors and among the poorest. They come to us to find a way to make a fresh start.”

*Names have been modified for protection reasons.

Story by Ummay Habiba, Advocacy and Communication Specialist at International Rescue Committee, Bangladesh
Publication date: 13/04/2022

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