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Changing the lives of countless women

Threats do not deter Catholic from her mission with the poor

Changing the lives of countless women
Angela Gomes (center) visits poor rural women to listen to them (Photo reporter, Jessore, Bangladesh

March 4, 2011

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For more than three decades, one Catholic woman has been striving to increase the independence of poor rural women in southwestern Bangladesh through helping them earn a living of their own. Angela Gomes, 59, from Mathbari parish in Dhaka archdiocese has changed the lives of countless numbers of downtrodden women through her organization, Banchte Shekha (learning how to survive). The organization’s mission is to improve the quality of life for poor women and children both socially and economically. They do this mainly through raising awareness to empower women with skills to survive, and by helping women attain their legal and democratic rights. Starting in 1981, Gomes has overcome numerous challenges to achieve her goals for poor women. Banchte Shekha, which has its headquarters in  Jessore district, now operates 13 projects in 17 southwestern districts benefitting nearly 10 million women. Her work has been recognized not just in Bangladesh but also internationally. In 1999 she won the Ramon Magsaysay award for her work and was later nominated for 2005 Nobel peace prize. Back in 1981 “it was really painful for me to see how uneducated, poor rural women were suffering. I had no capital when I started, so I sold family ornaments to get money. The sewing trade for women was my first initiative for poor women,” Gomes said recently. “I had to face many threats when I went to speak to poor women in villages. I used to ride a bicycle and some people would throw stones at me or throw dirty water over my head. But I wasn’t discouraged and didn’t give up,” she recalled. Some village leaders accused her of corrupting Muslim women by them teaching songs, dances and how to protest against social injustice. They even put her on trial in village tribunals. “I attended various tribunals along with government officials and every time I beat them. I never thought about myself, but about the large number of poor women,” Gomes said. Many women say Gomes has changed their lives forever and affectionately call Gomes “Didi” (elder sister). “After two years of marriage my husband asked for a dowry of 100,000 taka (US$1,429) which was impossible for my poor family to pay. My in-laws made life hell after that, physically and mentally abusing me,” said Peyara Khatun, 20, a Muslim housewife. Gomes put Khatun in touch with the ‘Women Empowerment and Rights Establishment Committee’ which contacted her husband and persuaded him to go to counseling. “We’re a happy family now,” Khatun said. “Banchte Shekha helped me become financially independent,” said Hindu housewife Jharna Bagchi. “I had no work and the family was close to starving, so I took out a loan from the organization in 1997 and reared cattle. Now I have property worth around 400,000 taka,” the 50-year-old said. Gomes has made a big difference, said Jahanara Begum, 50. “She lives a very simple life in the Banchte Shekha hostel. I think she can make such sacrifices and lead selfless life because she is a Christian. We learning from her life,” she said. Angela Gomes said: “Through my life and work I’ve tried to teach Christian values, such as love, sacrifice and forgiveness. These values can change lives forever.” Related reports Government honors Catholic woman for service to country´s women Catholic Magsaysay awardee given an ecumenical reception Catholic Bangladeshi woman wins Magsaysay award BA13493.1643
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