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Call it out, dial it in: Bangladeshi youth volunteers stand up to harassment

In Dhaka, public transport is an unpleasant – and often dangerous – experience, especially if you’re a woman or girl.

Bangladeshi volunteer Atika Shafa, 21, is part of a team of 10 ICS volunteers trying to do something about it. Over four days, they put stickers on more than 500 public vehicles telling women about a government helpline to help them access justice for the harassment they so commonly face.

For me, it started with my height. I’ve always been tall, but with the average Bangladeshi woman standing at just under five feet, it’s fair to say that my own five foot eight stands out.

On public transport you don’t want to stand out. But as women and girls we automatically do. Men harass us, abuse us and assault us every day as we navigate Dhaka’s crowded roads to get to school and work. In 2017, at least 21 women were raped or gang raped on public transport.

I’m always really vocal on challenging men when they harass me.

If I’m travelling on the bus and a man touches me intentionally and I raise my voice – to ask him why he has his hand there, why he doesn’t have enough space – it’s normal for the men around me to jump to his defence. No-one supports a girl when she raises her voice.

Atika's team of volunteers stickered 500 vehicles across Dhaka
© Atika Shafa
Atika's team of volunteers stickered 500 vehicles across Dhaka

Making women aware of how to get justice

I’m part of the ICS National Youth Engagement Network (NYEN). We’re a group of engaged ICS volunteers who want to keep volunteering. Between us we work on different projects, but as a small group of ten, we decided to do something about harassment in our city.

The government run a toll-free phone line open 24/7, accessible to any woman or child in Bangladesh, where she can talk to experienced lawyers, psychosocial counsellors and advisers if she’s experienced violence.

When you call, you’re asked where you are and they’ll take an incident report and statements from other eyewitnesses. They’ll use CCTV to find the perpetrator and make sure they face justice. From speaking to my contacts in the police, they say it’s working. Women are making complaints – but after six years, too few people have any idea this service exists.

Volunteer Atika Shafa
© Atika Shafa
"As a small group of ten, we decided to do something about harassment in our city"

We struggled to convince drivers that harassment is bad

We wanted to run a campaign to make women and girls aware of how the service can help them. We printed hundreds of stickers with the phone number and a message about their right to not have to face violence – and set out to put these all over public transport in Dhaka city centre.

When we started, it was early evening. We began with the government buses, far away from our homes. We tried to convince them that it’s a government number, it’s good work. It took a while, but we finally managed to persuade the drivers to let us put up stickers inside.

By the end of the week, we’d stickered 505 vehicles. If they're all full and on the road, more than 15,000 people in Dhaka could see our messages at any one time. In a city of seven million, it’s small, but it’s a start.
Atika Shafa
VSO ICS volunteer, Bangladesh

Most drivers reacted badly. They refused to stop the buses for us. The drivers were even harassing us while we were promoting our anti-harassment campaign – the irony! But we also had those who told us how they catch men out while they’re harassing women – and stop them and school them.

At one point the police saw us struggling and asked us what we were doing. After reassuring them we were promoting the government harassment helpline, they even stopped vehicles for us.

Dhaka has a population of 7 million. Most travel by public transport
© Shutterstock
Dhaka has a population of 7 million. Most travel by public transport

We stickered 500 vehicles. We can reach 15,000 people

Later that week, we appeared on four national radio stations to talk about our campaign. It was hard to convince them why it was important – but what ICS taught me was that networking and linkages have power! I hope their female listeners will now be more confident in calling out harassment.

By the end of the week, we’d stickered 505 vehicles. Ranging from big 50-seat buses to small three-wheeler rickshaws, if they are all full and on the road, more than 15,000 people could see our messages at any one time. In a city of seven million, it’s small, but it’s a start.

I have a younger sister and a younger brother, who’s seven. I’d like to say that my brother is small but he's knowledgeable about what girls go through in Dhaka. I’ve travelled with him and he’s seen me get harassed. It makes me so proud when I hear him tell me to raise my voice. For him to think like that at his age, he’ll be a good man when he’s older.

And as for my parents, the experience has made them proud of me. My family are very conservative – they don’t even let boys in the house! But through ICS, and my volunteering afterwards, I’ve convinced them that as a woman, I can have these freedoms – and do just fine.

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