Angela Gomes, a Bangladeshi Catholic and a champion of women's rights, founded Banchte Shekha (Learning How To Survive) four decades ago. In this July 2016 file photo, she is pictured with members of her community group in Narail district. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Angela Gomes' white sari symbolizes simplicity and freedom, two tenets the 66-year-old women's rights champion lives by as she fights for the greater empowerment of women in this Muslim-majority South Asian nation.
She founded a community group called Banchte Shekha (Learning How To Survive) in a sprawling red brick estate in southern Jashore district four decades ago.
She still puts in long hours guiding and working with dozens of women as she continues to pursue her lifelong mission — to see as many as possible socially and economically emancipated.
Her organization has become a leading advocacy group for sustainable socio-economic development for women and children in Bangladesh.
"Throughout my life I have believed in and promoted how women can do great things if they are united and empowered. Women have great potential and they can change their lives, families and societies if they get the right support," Gomes told ucanews.com.
A woman of unwavering dedication and determination, Gomes has defied a number of physical, psychological and social barriers including high blood pressure, brain cancer and women's inferior status in this male-dominated and still very conservative society.
She has overcome these challenges to work tirelessly for the elimination of all forms of violence against women while advancing women's rights.
Founded in 1976 and registered in 1981, Banchte Shekha covers 18 districts, mostly in southern Bangladesh.
Over the years, the organization has thrown social, economic and human rights lifelines to thousands of women living in rural areas, including victims of domestic violence, divorcees, single mothers, and widows.
It also runs programs focusing on justice, governance and leadership, food security and nutrition, education for disadvantaged children, health services (disabled, immunization, mother and child care, breast cancer), capacity building, water, sanitation and hygiene, and income generation.
The group has sponsored the training of women and the formation of women's community groups and cooperative societies in various districts.
The ultimate goal is to encourage them to use their initiative to solve their own social, economic and legal problems, Gomes said.
Today, about one million people, mostly women, directly and indirectly benefit from socioeconomic, legal and human rights programs carried out by Banchte Shekha.
Gomes' outstanding work has brought her national and international recognitions and rewards. In 1999 she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian Nobel Prize, in the community leadership category. Fifteen years later, the International KIIT University in Odisha, India, conferred on her an honorary doctorate degree in recognition of services rendered on behalf of promoting women's empowerment.
"What I've done has brought me recognition but I never wanted to get anything back," she said. "I'd like to spread the call for women's rights and emancipation all over the country."
Angela Gomes has helped to improve the lives of thousands of women. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
An indomitable soul
Gomes' life story is an extraordinary tale of struggle, sacrifice and success.
She was born to a Catholic family in the Mathbari area of Gazipur district near Dhaka in 1952 as the seventh of nine children.
At the age of 13, she narrowly escaped being married off. Her father, a lowly paid schoolteacher, had such designs for her as soon as she graduated from grade five to lesson the family's burden.
Moreover, there was no high school for girls in the area in which they lived.
In those days, child marriage was a ubiquitous custom in socially and religiously conservative East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Girls were considered a burden for impoverished and largely agricultural rural families. Oftentimes, early and unequal marriages brought endless pain and misery for girls, especially domestic violence, both physical and psychological, leading in many cases to murder or suicide.
"I knew an early marriage could ruin my life. I wanted to lead a life of dignity and be financially independent. I used to wonder how I would be able to rid myself of the threat of a loveless marriage," she said.
Some time later she met Father Bergman, an American Holy missionary parish priest. He put her to work assisting the parish rectory, and convinced her parents to defer the marriage.
Later, the priest helped her to enroll in a church-run missionary high school in southwestern Kusthia district.
Her parents were reluctant to let her go, but she convinced them she would come back and get married after completing grade 10. Gomes never came back, however. And she never married.
After completing her education, she signed up as a teacher at the Sacred Heart School in Jashore.
In her free time, she began to visit impoverished areas including city slums, where she realized how widespread the abuse, exploitation and even torture of women was in her country.
This discovery changed her life and she started mobilizing women to denounce violence and stand up for their rights.
In doing so, she drew the ire of conservative groups including Muslim clerics. She received threats, intimidation and tirades. On several occasions, strangers would hurl bricks at her on the road.
Gomes didn't back down, however. Instead, she studied religious scriptures such as the Quran, and explained to men how the religion advocates for a more dignified life for women.
This won her the praise and respect of many villagers, as well as more open-minded clerics.
A model for oppressed women
Gomes' efforts have seen thousands of women escape violence and subjugation over the years. Her wards affectionately refer to her as "boro apa" or "elder sister."
Rekha Parvin, 46, a Muslim, and Monimala Biswas, 47, a Hindu, hail from Norail district. Both women married at an early age and later came to regret it.
Parvin soon found herself a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband while having to endure the emotional abuse meted out by her in-laws.
Both joined women's community groups set up by Banchte Shekha — a decision that changed their fortunes.
"In the past, I thought it was just women's lot to endure domestic violence, but not anymore," said Parvin, who joined the group in 2003.
"You must find ways to earn your own money, stand up for your rights and protest when abuse is inflicted on you," she added.
Monimala Biswas found that joining one of the groups helped her escape an abusive relationship. She also learned how to earn a living from agriculture so that she could support her family and pay for her two daughters' education.
"Angela Gomes is an icon for oppressed women like me. She has given me hope, dignity and freedom," Biswas said.