Rahela Khatun – Bangladesh

Linked with The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association BELA.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “Earlier all I did was sit at home, cook and obey my husband’s orders. I never felt that I was of any worth! After joining this landless people’s group, I came out of the house, got to know other people and learnt the language of public speaking. Now, I do not think only about my own family, but also about the development of my country. Now, I am a person who can speak against injustice, mobilize people to join our struggle against corrupt machineries, and fight for poor peoples’ rights to life and livelihood”.

She also publicly raise questions: “Why should we not come out? We are not doing anything against the religion?” (The moulavi, head priest of the local mosque, warned Rahela’s husband, telling him that she was doing un-Islamic things, such as attending meetings with unknown men and going out on her own – bepurdah (without a veil). None of this served to stop Rahela.

Rahela Khatun - Bangladesh redim 50p.jpg

Rahela Khatun – Bangladesh (even in the original size of this photo you could not see her face – too dark / hidden).

She works for the Noai Landless Women Organization, and for the Deluti Landless Union Committee.

Rahela Khatun was born in 1965 into a large, impoverished family in Noai village, Khulna district. Rising above her poverty and desertion by both father and husband, she mobilizes support against the powerful shrimp aquaculture lobbies that are depriving people of their livelihoods. Despite attempts to introduce shrimp farming by both the government and farmers, her village and adjacent ones continue to be shrimp-free zones.Rahela Khatun was born in 1965 into a large family in Noai village, Khulna district. She is the eldest of eight brothers and three sisters. Her father, a daily-wage laborer, abandoned the family after his second marriage, leaving it financially precarious.

Rahela, her siblings, and their mother then worked as manual labourers or entered the fishing industry.

Rahela was married off, against her will, when she was 15 and this ended her access to formal education (she studied to class five only). Her husband was a schoolteacher at Rahela’s village and, educated though he was, was strongly opposed to the idea of a woman being interested in education. Her marriage was an unhappy one and the couple had no children.

Since 1980 (about the time she married) Rahela has been actively working against commercial shrimp aquaculture and related human rights violations in her village and neighboring areas. With no land to call her own, Rahela worked as a farm labor. After the introduction of export-oriented shrimp cultivation, agricultural farm laborers like her started losing work as agricultural lands were now being used for aquaculture.

Around 1980, she also came across Tara Mia, an activist with the NGO, Nijera Kori (Doing It Ourselves). He spoke of organizing groups of landless people to fight together for their right to livelihood. He also told her and other villagers that the indiscriminate use of land for shrimp cultivation was causing an array of problems, both socioeconomic and environmental.

It was then that Rahela understood the intricate connections between the various facets of shrimp farming. She began discussing this with other people and shortly afterwards five or six landless people formed a group. She mobilized the impoverished and the landless to participate in wage-collection movements and agitate against vested interests involved in commercial shrimp aquaculture, environmental degradation, human rights violations, and sheer hooliganism.

Rahela’s husband moved from recalcitrance to acceptance to joining her in her active involvement in community matters.

Today, there are 21 members (not including family members) in her group. From the beginning, Rahela has tried to involve both women and men in her activities, on the grounds that this inclusiveness makes the general environment more conducive for women to work and live in, and also helps reduce domestic violence.

One of her major victories was the writ petition against a government order declaring the 22 Polder area in Khulna district a shrimp farming zone. Rahela and her colleagues went to court and the order was declared illegal, forcing the government to withdraw it. When any violation of human rights or corruption occurs, Rahela and her group investigate the matter, organize press conferences and mass demonstrations, and lay siege to the relevant government offices. She organizes dialogues with different professional groups and civic bodies on the rationale for their opposition to shrimp farming.

Rahela also actively engages candidates contesting the Union Parishad and the National Parliament elections (barring those belonging to the fundamentalist parties) in open discourse. At these sessions, attended by thousands of people, she raises issues of concern and compels the candidates to publicly express their views on issues like commercial shrimp culture, environmental degradation, terrorism, corruption, and human rights violations.

Rahela’s activities have been disturbed by givens that whenever women get together and step outside the house, religious heads feel threatened and try to restrict their mobility. Fatwas against women seen as bucking the norm are common. Rahela’s method of protest against these fatwas is to tilt against them, to go on working.

An important step against shrimp aquaculture is that November 7, the anniversary of the death of Korunamayee Sarder, who died during a protest demonstration that Rahela had organized against commercial shrimp farming, is now observed internationally as Shrimp-Free Day (declared by the Industrial Shrimp Action Network, the apex body of the anti-shrimp movement organizations).

Today, when people wish to start a grassroots-level protest against commercial shrimp farming, they consult Rahela. Her work has also inspired the unorganized in shrimp zones in southern Bangladesh to collate their struggle. In Debhata and Kaliganj villages in district Satkhira, where a strong movement against shrimp culture has come up, the ruling party started, with the help of the administration, police, and hired goons, to dig in shrimp aquaculture by evicting local inhabitants and grabbing land. The people invited Rahela to set the protest ball rolling. (Read all on 1000peacewomen 2005).

… Two women have been provided with health education, Rahela Khatun and Ranjana Khatun who received the training, now educate slum women on basic health rules. The officials of the programme said, 495 families, of 1,495 people, in four slums were benefited from the programme. The programme put about 603 people on some kinds of job … (Holiday Country News).

links:

SOS Arsenic.net;

The women of Bangladesh are paying a heavy price for resisting the powerful interests in the shrimp farming industry;

Holyday.net;

Rahela Khatun nominated.

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