Reba Ahtar is a different person than she was a year ago. At 35, she still walks hunched over with a limp and is reluctant to smile because of her missing teeth. However, thanks to the legal counseling, advocacy, and support she received from the Protecting Human Rights (PHR) project, she and her children are safe and on the path to a better life.
PHR is a $12.7 million United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project that uses a comprehensive set of interventions to address domestic violence, child marriage, and other human rights abuses.
Gender-based violence, including domestic violence and child marriage, is highly prevalent throughout Bangladesh. Despite legal advances, data available from government and international agencies show that in Bangladesh the rate of illegal child marriage is 66 percent, with more girls married before age 15 than in any other country in the world. More than 87 percent of women in Bangladesh have experienced domestic violence, and almost 90 percent of girls experience sexual harassment in public. With funding from USAID, Plan and its partners have made strides in protecting the rights of women and girls in Bangladesh like Reba.
When she was 20, Reba fell in love with a man from another religion. Her family ostracized her when they got married, so she moved in with her husband’s family. Because Reba had converted, the community accepted her and she was content for a short period of time.
Things slowly began to change. The family was poor and her husband began to take out his frustrations on her. He started to beat their three children. His family and the community knew what was happening in the home, yet no one took action.
The rate of gender-based violence in Bangladesh far surpasses the international average. For many Bangladeshi women, violence is an accepted part of marriage. However, as the kicks and punches left Reba with an empty mouth and a broken knee, she had enough. At a courtyard meeting in Chonhara Union, Potiya Upazila in Chittagong, she approached two social workers who had been trained and supported by the PHR project and urged them to visit her house. There, she showed them her injuries. Reba was provided with psychosocial counseling and immediate medical services. She was also taken to see a legal counselor.
For more than six years, the PHR program has been implemented by Plan and its partners, the Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association and 11 local organizations, across 102 unions in six districts: Barguna, Bogra, Chittagong, Dinajpur, Jessore, and Sylhet. PHR has focused on five interconnected components: 1) advocating for stronger legislation and enforcement of laws to reduce domestic violence; 2) building the capacity of duty-bearers—including law enforcement, the judicial system, civil society organizations, and the media—to better understand the laws, support survivors, and share their stories; 3) increasing access to justice and helping survivors make informed choices by providing pro-bono legal support and information, including through “doorstep” legal counseling; 4) strengthening direct services to survivors, including medical, shelter, and livelihood support; and 5) public awareness campaigns to inform people of domestic violence laws and shift attitudes towards harmful practices.
“I couldn’t walk,” Reba said. “My leg was broken. It was rotting and smelled,” said Reba. “Now I can walk. My [Legal Counselor] helped me more than my mother ever did. If she wasn’t there, I would be dead by now.”
The project has seen much success in helping to raise awareness and provide support to survivors. Plan and its partners focused advocacy efforts on the design, adoption, and enforcement of laws and policies that help protect women and children by penalizing child marriage and domestic violence. In 2010, the Government of Bangladesh signed into law the Rules of Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection Act). There is also now a trained cadre of social workers that, together with community-based Social Protection Groups, has encouraged communities to play a lead role in efforts to decrease incidences of domestic violence, as well as help survivors. Through the training of teachers and students, in addition to working in partnership with a range of stakeholders, PHR has supported local government to create child marriage-free zones, resulting in a decrease in child marriage in a number of the project areas over the course of three years.
After filing her legal complaint, Reba’s husband fled and his family would not let Reba back in the house. PHR provided Reba and her children with food and shelter for a short time to help them get back on their feet. Although many who live in Reba’s community still turn a blind eye to domestic violence, people who were once scared to speak out are now doing so in courtyard meetings. Awareness is increasing, and men are starting to think twice before hitting their wives. Transforming a community is a slow process, but until domestic violence is no longer accepted, survivors like Reba have a circle of support to help them find a means of survival.