To Be a Girl
I’ve been in Bangladesh for almost a week now. There’s a lot of comfort and familiarity this time around but I think there will always be a few things I will ever get used to. Like the little red ants in my bed every night. The constant, chaotic honking. And the lack of freedom I feel. As a female, I am never allowed to leave my hotel without my male ‘bodyguard’.
Today we finished the next phase of Community Health Workers (CHW) training with the first group of students. These students consisted mostly of Rohingya teenagers between the age of 15-19 who are living in villages outside of the camps. Some had to flee from Myanmar a few years ago and then escape the camps, while others were born in these villages because their parents had to flee Myanmar in the 1992 brutalities. I probably sound like a broken record here but my goodness was it ever amazing to see the students again. Seeing their faces light up as they came running towards me with arms wide open brought instant tears to my eyes and warmed my heart in a way I can’t even describe. It has been nearly a year since I saw them last but that connection we built felt stronger than ever.
In some ways, however, it seems to be getting harder and harder every time I come. The more time I spend with the students, the more connected I feel with them and the more emotional and heartbroken I feel with the overwhelming injustice they are constantly battling. For this training, we focused on some pretty big and controversial topics such as pregnancy, birth control and STIs. The women in the class opened up to me in private and shared some disturbing practices and beliefs their communities abide by. For example: Women are only allowed to eat one meal a day of just rice to prevent the baby from getting too large and causing complications during birth. Women are not allowed to use any form of birth control because it would be dishonouring to the men. And women are seen as unclean and ‘damaged’ when having their period every month so must stay hidden away. To name a few.
These beautiful, strong and brave young women shared these personal stories with me, with tears in their eyes, and a quiet but desperate plea for freedom. This past week I have witnessed sexual, verbal and physical abuse against women. I have seen and heard stories that keep me awake at night and leave a gut-wrenching pit in my stomach. I love these girls and want to do anything in my power to help them find the peace, freedom and joy they deserve. I want them to feel empowered, respected and loved.
Teaching on these topics has been harder than I thought it would be. The male translator would frequently tell me he will not translate certain things for me because “it is culturally offensive”. I wanted to scream: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED THIS TRAINING!! CHANGE MUST HAPPEN”. I needed to learn how to communicate truth and justice for women without being ‘offensive’ and getting myself into trouble. I stayed pretty firm on a lot of topics but did my best to say it gently, with grace and without judgement. Both the guys and girls asked a lot of great questions and truly seemed to be in awe that what they have been taught their whole life may not be what is true. We gave out dozens of Days For Girls packages which consist of discreet pads, underwear and cloths for women to use when they are menstruating so they don’t need to stay home from school and be banished every single month. We did education on the female reproductive cycle to hopefully eliminate some of the stigma around it.. .which I made both the girls AND GUYS to listen to 🙂 I don’t want to be an obnoxious foreigner coming in and telling people how to live, but I also want to fight for health, safety, truth and especially freedom for women. Please pray I can do this is a graceful way…it’s has been a much harder battle than I ever imagined.
I have tears in my eyes as I’m writing this. Tears seem to come easily these days. These young, brave, resilient teenagers want to make a lasting change in their communities and I feel honoured to be apart of their journey. I hope that at least one thing stuck with them from this past week and perhaps they will share it with others and then who knows what beautiful change can happen. I am choosing to believe this change is possible. Even as overwhelming and defeated it can often feel here.
Thank you for all of your constant support, words of encouragement and prayers…it is so needed and very much appreciated.