Angela Gomes with a group of rural women in Narail district of Bangladesh. Gomes founded Banchte Shekha in 1976, pioneering the socioeconomic empowerment of thousands of poor rural women.
More than four decades after a Catholic laywoman founded a community group that paved the way for the socioeconomic emancipation of countless Bangladeshi women, it is struggling for survival amid dwindling funds.
“We are in a serious crisis. Donors and donations have declined significantly, and we get no funding for administrative costs. Salaries of our workers remained unpaid for months. Moreover, our training centers and microcredit programs have been shut due to Covid-19. I never thought such challenges would befall us,” Angela Gomes, 68, founding executive director of Banchte Shekha (Learn How to Survive), told UCA News.
“Our annual donations have dropped to about a half — from 10 million taka (US$117,647) to about 5 million taka. Large NGOs that used to finance our various projects have stopped funding due to their own funding restraints.”
Gomes set up the organization in Jessore district in 1976 and registered it in 1981. It covers 18 out 64 districts of Bangladesh, benefiting about one million women and their families in up to 400 villages.
Over the years, the organization has promoted social, economic and human rights empowerment for thousands of rural women including victims of domestic violence, divorcees, single mothers and widows.
It has undertaken programs 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.
It has mobilized poor rural women in community groups to teach them about their social and legal rights in order to end widespread domestic violence and to offer them financial and legal support. For economic empowerment, the group provided poor women support for livelihood training in agriculture, livestock rearing, fisheries and handicrafts.
It also started a medical-cum-care center for disadvantaged and disabled children and microcredit schemes for women’s groups in dozens of villages.
The group became a leading organization for sustainable socioeconomic development for women in Bangladesh.
Gomes’ decades-long dedicated work has brought her national recognition and numerous awards. In 1999, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her outstanding contributions to community leadership. In 2014, KIIT University in Odisha, India, conferred her an honorary doctorate degree for lifelong contribution to women’s empowerment.
A story of defiance and resilience
Angela Gomes’ life is an extraordinary story of defiance, resilience and success against various challenges — poverty, conservative society and brain cancer.
She battled poverty in the family, escaped from a looming child marriage, and faced abuse and insults from conservative villagers and clerics in the Muslim-majority country.
Gomes was born in 1952 to a Catholic family at St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Mathbari area of Gazipur district in central Bangladesh, the seventh of nine children.
As there was secondary school for girls in the area, her poor schoolteacher father wanted to marry her off after grade five, but she escaped with the help of the local parish priest. She was only 13.
She studied at a Catholic school in Kushtia district of western Bangladesh and later moved to Jessore to teach at church-run Sacred Heart School.
“I told my father that I would come back after completing grade 10. But I couldn’t come back and never had time to get married,” Gomes recalled.
While visiting poor families in slums and villages in Jessore, Gomes found women were facing widespread abuse and disrespect in families and society. She made up her mind to uplift downtrodden women and Banchte Shekha was born.
Villagers and Muslim clerics hated her advocacy for women’s rights and dignity. They hurled abusive words, bricks and human excrement to stop her, but she didn’t back down. Instead, she studied the Quran and explained to them how the scripture denotes dignified lives for women. It helped her win over her enemies.
In 1998, Gomes was diagnosed with brain cancer, but she recovered in 2010 after long, perilous treatment for years.
“By the grace of God, I am still able to move and work. I don’t know how long I can continue, but I hope I can keep my efforts as long as I am alive,” she said.
A dream to be fulfilled
For years, Gomes has dreamed of building a school, a college and a residential hostel for disadvantaged rural children. It has been delayed as it took a long time to secure funding for the project. The work was supposed to begin this year, but the plan has also been hit by Covid-19.
She believes this dream can be fulfilled in her lifetime, and even without her Banchte Shekha can continue the mission.
“I have tried to serve the purpose of the mission. Women are empowered and men are supportive of them. As this organization is based on women’s rights, not a financial organization, it will survive and move on,” Gomes said.
“I don’t worry much nowadays. I have created many Angela Gomes in the past years and they will keep this organization running when I die.”