Rekha Parvin, a Muslim woman, overcame domestic violence and gained self-reliance with help from women's rights group Banchte Shekha. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Partially blind and with an unsteady gait, Rekha Parvin refuses to be defeated by the years of violence she suffered at the hands of her husband.
"It has helped me raise my voice against the oppression of my husband," said Parvin, 42, a Muslim mother of two.
Parvin, like many women in Bangladesh, was married off at a young age in order to lessen the burden of her economically poor family.
Her father died when she was 10 and her mother, a day laborer, struggled to feed her four siblings. So she was married off to a local businessman at the age of 14.
"My husband knew everything about my poor family. At the beginning he was well behaved, but it changed soon," she said.
Parvin's husband demanded a dowry of 100,000 taka, or almost US$1,300.
Unable to pay it, her husband would often not feed her. He would beat her with sticks, tie her up and stomp over her hands and legs. Once, he even put her in a sack, intending to throw her into the water, Parvin said. But at the last minute, she was saved by people who heard her cries. Police arrested her husband.
Later, released on bail, her husband continued abusing Parvin until 2000, when she joined a women's group in her village in southern Bangladesh.
"After getting involved I became aware about women's rights and leadership, and also learned livelihood skills to earn money," she said.
Nowadays, Parvin rears livestock and grows vegetables, enabling her to earn more money than her husband.
"Now, my husband is not violent anymore … My husband depends on me," she said.
Catholic woman Angela Gomes, center, set up a women's rights organization in 1981 aiming to empower millions of rural Bangladeshi women. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
The group she is part of is one among dozens organized by Banchte Shekha (learning to survive), a women's rights organization based in southern Jessore district.
These groups try to teach rural women about their social and legal rights, and provide financial and legal support.
They also offer livelihood training in agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries and handicrafts.
Founded in 1981 by Catholic social activist Angela Gomes, Banchte Shekha strives to empower rural women in 16 of Bangladesh's 64 districts.
Gomes, 63, has received national and international awards for her efforts. In 1999, she was awarded a Ramon Magsaysay award, often dubbed the Asian Nobel Prize.
"If the work is spread all over the country, we could embrace each other to live in peace, solidarity and love," said Gomes.
But her work is not always easy in conservative, male-dominated rural Bangladeshi society.
"I have faced many court cases and abuses," she said, adding that this does not deter her from trying to prove that women can make equal progress if given the right opportunities.
Parvin's story is important because the difficulties she faced are common in Bangladesh, while assistance is often scarce, Gomes said.
Bangladeshi women who fought against domestic violence with support from women's rights group Banchte Shekha receive recognition. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Dowry a crucial driver of abuse
Close to 90 percent of married women face various forms of domestic violence in their lifetime, according to a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2014.
Of 12,600 women surveyed, 65 percent said their husbands physically tortured them, 36 percent were victims of sexual violence, 82 percent faced psychological abuse and 53 percent were victims of mental anguish.
Only half the victims received treatment, while one-third said they didn't seek treatment for their injuries for fear of a backlash from their husbands.
"Traditionally, women are considered subordinate in our families and societies; they are denied equal rights and opportunities to education, employment and decision-making … They are considered a liability and face disrespect," said Ishrat Sharmin, director of the Center for Women and Children Studies.
Sharmin, a former sociology professor at Dhaka University, said violence against women is related to dowries, a custom common across South Asia, where a bride's family is expected to offer cash and valuables to a groom's family to secure the marriage.
"The dowry has been illegal since 1980, but sadly, it is still prevalent in many rural areas, and it is responsible for many cases of violence against women," she said.
Lack of legal aid
A lack of knowledge about women's rights and a complex justice system contribute to violence against women, says Fauzia Karim, president of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association.
"Most women in Bangladesh, especially rural women, don't know that there are strict laws against repression of women or where to seek legal aid from the government and women's rights groups," said Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer.
"Our legal system is lengthy and expensive. It's really hard for poor and illiterate rural women to seek justice. So, in most cases they endure violence and keep silent," she added.
In the meantime, women need to be empowered, said Parvin. Between working and looking after her family, Parvin finds time for her advocacy against domestic violence and child marriage.
"I myself am a victim of domestic abuse," she said. "So, if I hear about the abuse of other women, I can't stand it."