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Bangladeshi Lawyer Rizwana Hasan Awarded International Women of Courage Award

DHAKA and NEW DELHI, Mar 15 2022 (IPS) - In an exclusive interview to IPS UN Bureau, journalist Sania Farooqui is in conversation with Bangladeshi lawyer, Rizwana Hasan who was recently awarded the 16th Annual International Women of Courage Awards by the U.S Department of State. Hasan works primarily to protect the environment and defend the dignity and rights of marginalized Bangladeshis. Through landmark legal cases over the past 20 years, Hasan has changed the dynamics of development in Bangladesh to include a people-centered focus on environmental justice.

In her capacity as Chief Executive of the public interest law firm Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, she has argued and won monumental cases against deforestation, pollution, unregulated ship breaking, and illegal land development. In 2009, Hasan was named as one of 40 Environmental Heroes of the World by TIME magazine and was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2012 for her activism. In the years since, she has continued her crucial work in the courtroom to combat environmental degradation and the local effects of climate change, despite significant resistance from powerful interests and threats of violence to herself and her family. 

In this interview, Rizwana Hasan and Sania Farooqui touch upon various topics, including winning the International Women of Courage Awards, growing up in a patriarchal society to changes in the attitude towards women professionals, Hasan’s personal journey and challenges, what it took to become a lawyer and an environmentalist, and lastly impact of climate change, especially on marginalized communities.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Congratulations on being awarded the International Women of Courage Awards by the US Department of State. You are among one of the 12 extraordinary women from around the world selected for this award. Tell us a little about the award ceremony on March 14, 2022. How do you feel about it?

Rizwana Hasan: It’s a very different kind of feeling. Initially, it gave me a very positive feeling. Every award recognises your efforts, (although) it’s not (only the) person being awarded – it’s also the process, the cause for which you fight. So, I took it in that spirit. When I saw other names, (I realised) my work had crossed all these continents and reached the US. It’s not recognition coming from your family, which is equally important or even more important, but coming from a country like the USA, which is, God knows, how many continents away from where you live. It is something very assuring and very empowering.

IPS: I want to talk a little about growing up in Bangladesh. Do you see changes in the attitude towards women in professional positions? Do you see a marked change in progress for women, especially those in rural areas?

RH: I would answer your question with a yes and a no. We have women in Bangladesh in leading positions (and) in many professional positions. It’s not that we are only getting professional jobs; we are getting leadership positions in many professions. We are taking up challenges. We are reaching heights that are unknown to many of our male counterparts. With women getting empowered, this is a definite threat to patriarchy.

(However), we operate in a very conservative society, and many women quit their jobs because they don’t have that support system to continue.

When women become independent and start speaking their minds, that is a definite blow to patriarchy.

For rural women, it’s more difficult. There is a disparity between urban and rural women regarding education and capacity, training, and access to the system. But again, some women leave Bangladesh and travel thousands of kilometres to enter the labour market in Middle East countries, which is a starting point for them. A few women in rural areas take up the challenge and try to find access to mainstream service. But the violence and exploitation they face in those markets are drawbacks.

IPS: At a time when women’s issues and rights in Bangladesh are in the news, tell us a little about your journey to becoming a lawyer and an environmentalist? How easy or challenging was it for you to pursue your passion? How would you compare your initial days of working on sensitive issues to now?

RH: I work to promote the notion of environmental justice. When I started working in this area, it was all very rosy, new agenda, very fashionable agenda. When I started going very deep into the crisis, I realised it was a very hard-hitting agenda, a very political agenda. You have to take a stand against very organised economic powers. Initially, it was easy, and I continued in this arena because I probably did not realise its consequences. So initially, people would take you lightly, as if it’s a romantic agenda. But when you started talking against real estate development because they were filling up wetlands, when you started talking against the shipbreakers because they were porting toxic vessels and dumping the western vessels on your beaches, (then) things started getting difficult for me.

So yes, (while) TIME Magazine may call me a hero, I am not a favourite to the realtors, shipbreakers, ship cultivators, and the polluters. On a personal note, it is fulfilling and satisfying because this is the best thing I could do for my children. I may practice other branches of law and earn a huge amount of money, but at the end of the day, my children will be inhaling polluted air and drinking water that’s not potable, their food will be unsafe. As a mother, I am standing for an agenda that I think is in the best interests of my children.

IPS: Who are the women pioneers in Bangladesh (that influenced you)?

RH: At this point, I would name two, Begam Rokeya Sakhawat, who started women’s education and then we have poet Begam Sufia Kamal. Both embraced different aspects of women’s liberation and their freedom. I also have Khushi Kabir, Sultana Kamal, Ayesha Khatoon, Rubana Haque – the Bangladeshi woman who went to the top of Everest – in mind. I am sure others have played a pivotal role in encouraging me.

IPS: Why does the world need to wake up to these climate change issues and act now? Some reports estimate that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. How urgent is it for people to start looking at climate change?

RH: During the (Covid-19) pandemic, we have learnt we must live with nature; we can’t win over nature. We are in an era of climatic change, and climate change threats are quite deadly. If I am not mistaken, fifty-two small island countries will go underwater if the temperature rise can’t be controlled by 1.5 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. We are on a pathway to a 4-degree increase. If that happens, then 52 island state nations will disappear. One-third of my country will go underwater, Mumbai, Karachi, and our neighbour, the Maldives, will disappear. With this comes the disappearance of civilisation and the disappearance of nations. We will be forced to draw the map of Bangladesh very differently.

During the pandemic, we realised that, even if we have crores and crores of dollars in our pockets, we won’t be able to buy food if the food supply system is disrupted, if the water is contaminated. You will not be able to buy the very expensive French bottled water even if you have enough dollars in your pocket. So, money will not solve your problem. The development paradigm has to shift. We have to rethink the development model and design them to be compatible with nature. I think all of us have to concentrate (on these issues); otherwise, actually, we will be betraying the future of our future generations.

IPS: Do you think we are doing enough to recognise the seriousness of climate change and how it impacts our lives, particularly those from marginalised communities?

RH: Our failure is deliberate, and our failure is criminal. I say this because you see a country like the US, which has a very good understanding of science, which has all the technological command and financial command in their hand, denied the reality of climate change until the presidency changed. They are doing it, the powerful economies are doing it, and they continue with their exploitative development model because they cater to the needs of a few oligarchs, fossil fuel companies, and some other corporations. We are not being mindful of our responsibility to the next generations.

We now have alternatives in hand. It’s not that we are (just) ignoring the challenges of climate. We simultaneously deny safer alternatives. We are trying to defend the current exploitative development model. There is inequity between urban and rural populations, and there is inequity between the western and southern populations.

IPS: What do you hope to achieve through your work, and what would your message be for all aspiring lawyers and women in Bangladesh and worldwide?

RH: For women worldwide, I would want everyone to define their true interests and the true interests of their children. For young lawyers, I would ask them to do at least one environmental case in their lifetime. I can bet it will be more rewarding and more satisfying than fighting hundreds and thousands of criminal, civil and corporate cases.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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