Angela Gomes – Bangladesh

Linked with Banchte Shekha – Bangladesh.

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

She says: “They were my university. Every woman. Every life. I have learned everything I know from them”, … and: “thousands of helpless women seemed to beckon me to them”, … and: “the oppression and insults merely made me more determined to achieve my goal”.

She says also: “They were treated like house servants-underfed, beaten, and mentally tortured. No one respected them, not even themselves. They had no solutions to their problems. Life just went on” … and: “I wanted to find a solution for them, to work on the ‘woman problem’, but everyone-Father Ceci, the sisters, my family-thought I should go back to my own village and get married”.

Angela Gomes is a social worker from Bangladesh. She won the prestigious Magsaysay Award in 1999 for community leadership. She leads the organization Bachte Shekha (Learning to Live) in the Jessore region of the country. It teaches rural women a vast range of income-generating skills, including handicrafts, raising crops, poultry and livestock, fish farming, beekeeping and silk making. Her organization benefits some 20,000 women in at least 400 villages. (wikipedia).

Angela Gomes - India.jpg
Angela Gomes – Bangladesh

She works for Banchte Shekha.

Her Banchte Shekha organization offers female-empowerment programs to more than 25,000 women in nearly 430 Bangladeshi villages. IN THE EARLY DAYS, Angela Gomes used to borrow a bicycle and pedal alone through the dusty countryside near the Bangladeshi city of Jessore. She would talk to village women, listening to their problems and offering what little help she could. Indignant at this interference in their traditional ways, the menfolk would sometimes hurl rocks at her as she passed. For all the effect they had, they might as well have been throwing ping-pong balls. (full text).

In the village world of Bangladesh, a cruel code governs the lives of women. In a society already poor, women are poorer than men. A woman who is widowed, or who is divorced, or whose husband has abandoned her, is often left to fend for herself. When a woman lodges charges of desertion, assault, or rape against a man, those who determine her fate are men. In every way, a woman is less than a man. A great number of Bangladeshi women accept this as the natural order of things. ANGELA GOMES, founder of Banchte Shekha, does not. A Christian in largely Muslim Bangladesh, GOMES was raised in a small village near Dhaka. Resisting an early marriage, she became a teacher at Sacred Heart School in Jessore and was there drawn into Catholic charity work in the city slums. The destitute women she met there, abandoned and abused women cast off from neighboring villages, deeply disturbed her. She decided to do something. Walking from village to village in the outskirts of Jessore, GOMES began talking to women and learning from them. In 1977, she began forming women into small groups and teaching them how to make jute crafts and other products to sell. Then she taught them how to raise chickens and how to make fishponds and how to grow mulberry trees, having to learn all these things beforehand herself. Word of each small success spread from village to village. And soon, says GOMES, ‘Thousands of helpless women seemed to beckon me to them’. As she worked alongside village women, GOMES also spoke about the problems they faced as women. ‘Eventually’, she says, ‘they were able to see the thread connecting food, work, education, and rights’. GOMES studied the Koran and comported herself in proper Muslim fashion. And gradually, she won the support of open-minded Muslim clerics who understood, as she did, that the Koran was not the source of local practices demeaning to women. But she was not welcome everywhere. As an outsider who stirred women to action, she was harassed and pelted with rocks and excrement. To protect her little movement, in 1981 GOMES registered it as a foundation: Banchte Shekha, or Learn to Survive. GOMES gained financial backing from international NGOs and guided Banchte Shekha into new endeavors. Its members formed village credit societies and became birth attendants, barefoot veterinarians, and community organizers, as well as sources of practical knowledge about health care, family planning, and nutrition. In 1987, GOMES began training a team of paralegals in Muslim law and relevant legal procedures. As a result, in many villages today, cases involving domestic violence, dowry abuses, child support, and other gender-related conflicts are deliberated in public by arbitration panels convened and trained by Banchte Shekha’s paralegals, instead of by traditional all-male mediation councils. (full text).

In my life I know her as the most respected and dignified lady, who through her simplistic but courageous approach has really been able to make impossible to possible. She is none but our beloved Angela Gomes, my Angela Di. She might not remember me now, but she will always be there in my heart as an inspiration to my long journey through life. In the small village in Bangladesh where Angela Gomes grew up, women worked hard all day, but she says, “They were treated like house servants-underfed, beaten, and mentally tortured. No one respected them, not even themselves. They had no solutions to their problems. Life just went on.” Like the other girls from her village, Gomes was expected to marry at fourteen and settle down. But she resisted that idea and won a scholarship to a mission school run by the Sisters of Charity in Jessore. At the Sacred Heart School, Gomes progressed from student to teacher while still in her teens. She began to work with the nuns and Father Ceci, a Xaverian priest whose program for poor people in the slums of Jessore impressed Gomes greatly. Through the sisters and Father Ceci, she became very interested in finding out why women are so exploited and dominated. But unlike the nuns, who called the problems of poor village women ‘God-given’, Gomes believed that these women could learn to help themselves. “I wanted to find a solution for them, to work on the ‘woman problem’, but everyone-Father Ceci, the sisters, my family-thought I should go back to my own village and get married.”
Angela Gomes is an extraordinary mixture of warmth, good humour, strength, and determination. No is never a final answer for her. It took all of her persuasive powers, but within a year she was pursuing her own ideal. (full text).

Angela Gomes (born 1952) is founder-director of Banchte Shekha (learning to survive), one of the most respected women’s organizations in Bangladesh. Set up on a modest scale in 1981, the organization now accommodates 200 live-in trainees and also serves as a women’s shelter. More than 25,000 women in 750 village-based organizations are active members of Banchte Shekha, and more than 200,000 benefit indirectly from its agenda. Angela has been working on the issue of gender rights through social rights education and income generation programs. (Read all on 1000peacewomen 2005).

… It was in this phase of her life that she began resenting the secondary role that women in Bangladesh were relegated to. “At the age of 13, when I was studying with the nuns, I clearly saw the inequality between the sexes, especially among the poor. I hated the fact that women were abused and humiliated and wanted to do something for them – particularly widows, divorcees and single women,” she recalls. In 1975 – after she had completed her bachelor’s degree in economics, history and geography – Angela finally began her work in the villages. At one point, an indictment was drawn up against Angela, accusing her of being a bad influence on the community. Although she fought the charges successfully, she decided to take up the magistrate’s advice that she would be better equipped to deal with such attacks if she set up an organization, instead of working alone. (full text).

Miss Gomes, 47, runs one of the largest women’s rural organizations in Bangladesh. Operating out of a 1.5-hectare training complex in Jessore, Banchte Shekha (meaning Learn To Survive in Bengali) offers female-empowerment programs to more than 25,000 women in nearly 430 villages, benefiting through them an estimated 200,000 family members. (full text).

The way she approached them, Gomes explains, was to “start with what the women wanted, what they needed. They could not eat education. They needed food and work. Once they were sure they would have food-through having work and income-they began to understand how the question of getting more food is dependent on the question of getting more education. Then they became hungry not only for food but also for education.” (full text).

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