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In Bangladesh, a Steady Pursuit of Freedom

This is an adaptation of a letter written by Kerry Kennedy, writer and President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, for her daughters Cara, Mariah and Michaela after a recent visit to Bangladesh.

WASHINGTON, Jul 9 2014 (IPS) - Visiting Bangladesh has been a lifelong dream of mine, but all that I had heard about a people who love freedom so much that they have withstood great armies, famine and intractable poverty could not prepare me for what I’ve seen in the last three days.   The Bengali patriots’ courage and endurance in the face of the Pakistani army forty years ago is the stuff of legend in our family. I remember your great uncle Teddy (Kennedy) telling us about his visit to the Calcutta refugee camps, where tens of thousands lived not in tents but in sewer pipes.

Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy

In a small wooden room packed with women in bright saris, we met a proud shareholder of the Grameen Bank – ­the transformative micro-lending institution founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammed Yunus ­– who borrowed 5,000 taka (about 80 dollars) and bought a rickshaw, and then 20,000 taka (240 dollars) and bought a cow, and then 30,000 taka (480 dollars) and bought land.

Thanks to her hard work and the Grameen Bank, she now has a house full of furniture, a field full of food, water, a working toilet and a television set. She saves 100 taka a month, and this year she will receive 100,000 taka (750 dollars) from her savings.

We met a store owner and her husband, who borrowed from Grameen to buy solar panels, which have allowed them to expand their storefront and provide light to the brick house they share with three siblings and their in-laws. 

“I hope we can take inspiration from the people of Bangladesh and rededicate ourselves to democracy and freedom, knowing that the price may be high, but the sacrifice is well worthwhile” – Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights

We met a young woman on a Grameen scholarship who will be the first woman in her family to go to college. She is majoring in computer science and plans to start a business in the Information Technology sector that will transform her neighbourhood.

We met ten women who sit on the board of the Grameen Bank, all borrowers. They’re angry at the government and concerned for the future of the bank. The government recently ousted Muhammed Yunus from the board of his own bank on the pretence that he had overstayed the mandatory retirement age of sixty.

Then, finding no other legal way to do so, the government cajoled the rubber-stamp Parliament to change a banking law for the specific purpose of ousting the impoverished women from the Grameen board and replacing them with ruling party toadies, who, the women fear, will transform the multibillion-dollar bank that has helped so many escape poverty into just another slush fund for kleptocrats to draw upon.

We met a dozen women, many of them lawyers, all of them leaders of NGOs that address pressing issues like indigenous rights, due process of law, violence against women, dowry battles, rape and environmental justice. Many have been arrested, and many live under daily threat. One said her husband had been “disappeared” in apparent retaliation for her work. They are scared of the nation’s security forces, which are known for kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions.

And yet they wake up in the morning, kiss their children and their husbands, and return to work, a daily show of quiet courage.

We met a woman who worked at the collapsed Rana Plaza sweatshop who said she never wants to work in the clothing industry again. I met another who said the same thing but, he added, “we are poor, and we must work.”

They were among a crowd lining the hallway and sitting at intake tables at the offices of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration, the non-profit group charged with addressing reparations for the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster [which left more than 1,000 dead after its collapse in April 2013].

It is an impressive operation, manned by a team of dedicated professionals in labour, law and computer science, intent on making pay-outs to every single victim for physical and psychological injuries and to the scores of dependents who lost the family breadwinner in the tragedy. They have 17 million dollars to hand out, and calculate the need will be closer to 40 million dollars, but the fund is voluntary and no law compels the brands to pay their fair share. While some have been generous, too many others have refused to participate, because no law compels them to do so.

We met Adil Rahman Khan, who has organised a team of 400-plus human rights monitors and defenders across the country to investigate and report on violations of voting rights; on crackdowns on free speech and assembly; on torture, extrajudicial execution, disappearances; and, moreover, ­on holding the government accountable for its failures to protect the freedom that the Bangladeshi people won at such great cost 40 years ago.

Adil seeks accountability in a country where 197 anti-corruption officers are presently under investigation for corruption themselves. For his actions, Adil lives under constant threat of death. Last year, after issuing a report documenting a massacre by government forces of 61 protestors, he was taken away and held without trial for 62 days in a filthy cell, ridden with bedbugs and rotten food.

And, of course, we met with my dear friend  [Muhammed] Yunus. He invited us to come to Dhaka for Social Business Day, where people from scores of countries across the globe gathered to share their designs and experiences with creating businesses which seek not profits for shareholders but solutions to problems like housing or food access.

I have always been struck by the sense of peace and joy he conveys.  But I never appreciated how incredible that was until I saw him in Bangladesh.  He is under unremitting pressure from a government that seeks to destroy all he has given his life to build. And yet he endures, and invites us to somehow find peace amidst the chaos in our lives and find our joy through service.

What an amazing place, what an amazing country.  As we in America celebrate our own Independence Day these days, I hope we can take inspiration from the people of Bangladesh and rededicate ourselves to democracy and freedom, knowing that the price may be high, but the sacrifice is well worthwhile. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

* Kerry Kennedy is also a member of the IPS Board of Directors.

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