Update of biography 2015:
44 years of activism and no end in sight
Ten years later, in the year 2015, Ashalata Baidya, a small, delicate woman from the outside, has not lost any of her fervour in the struggle for the right cause. She is a very strong minded and energetic person, who also has a good sense of humour.
Ashalata Baidya spends most of her time in the rural area. She loves to go to the villages, where she stays with the people she is working for and she only comes to Dhaka if it is unavoidable. Her simple office speaks for itself. This is an activist, not a bureaucrat.
“In the villages, everybody calls me “mother”, she says with a smile. “They consider me a leader. But I don’t feel like that – I am like them. I just know them and their situation.”
Ashalata Baidya started to fight for social causes at a very early age, when she attended grade 2 of primary school. When a girl from a poor family could not pay the school fees, the authorities wanted to dismiss her from school. Ashalata raised her voice as she felt this was an unfair treatment of the poor girl. The word spread to others, and they joined her protest. Together they achieved that the school let the girl continue to study without having to pay school fees. That was Ashalata Baidya’s first success in mobilising people for a good cause.
An important source of inspiration was her family, where she noticed that the female members were not treated the same way as the male. From the family level her work started later to spread out to the society.
Today, Ashalata Baidya thinks that many changes and progress in women’s empowerment have been made since she started to become an activist. She is also very optimistic that her work will be sustainable beyond her own active involvement. “There are strong women leaders”, she says. “There is a network from the village up to the upazila-level. The problem is that the government does not enough to support the people. If the government would support the work people do, their problems could be solved. The pressure of civil society is still necessary.”
Her lifelong commitment is mirrored in a row of awards she received both on national and international level. When we make the interview, she puts them proudly on her office table and shows them to the interviewer.
But Ashalata Baidya’s recognition came at a price. She never had time to marry and to start her own family. “Now, I would have time to marry”, Ashalata Baidya says with a mischievous smile, “but there is nobody who wants me any more.”
“I do not waste time, ever. I did not waste even an hour in my whole student life for any boyfriend. I did not even get married. I believe in hard work and sacrifice.”
Asha Lata Baidya (born 1956) is one of Bangladesh’s best-known freedom-fighters. She joined the freedom struggle of 1971 against Pakistan when she was only 15 years old and went on to lead the women’s guerrilla corps. After she completed her studies – suspended until her country won independence – she set up the Surjamukhi Sangstha (SMS). SMS has been working on issues ranging from setting up cooperatives and helping with loans to women’s empowerment, education, and environmental issues. More than 200,000 families have benefited from Asha Lata’s 34 years of tireless activism.
Asha Lata Baidya joined the struggle for freedom from Pakistan when she was still 15 and at middle school. “My father told them that he had no son,” she says. “His daughter, meaning me, would join them [the freedom-fighters]. I was very excited.” Asha learnt how to operate firearms and was trained in guerrilla combat. She led several operations as commander of the women guerrillas, the Mohila Muktijodha Dal. Only after Bangladesh had won its independence in January 1972 did Asha Lata resume her education, going on to complete her Bachelors and Masters in Bengali literature. In college, she set up small women’s cooperatives. Capitalizing on this experience, she formed the SMS soon after she completed her Masters. Today, Surjamukhi works in 42 upazilas in 17 districts, and about 200,000 families have benefited from their input. Asha has been working for 34 years now, organizing people at the grassroots level and aiding them to attain economic solvency. Surjamukhi has helped people set up cooperatives and small businesses. Asha Lata combines her business acumen with advocacy and awareness raising on subjects including human rights, gender issues, the environment, primary health, and HIV/Aids. She has also conducted programs on community-based disaster preparedness and nonformal education, simultaneously working to strengthen local government initiatives for women’s empowerment. Asha fiercely promotes literacy and enrolls children in schools. “I do not waste time, ever,” says Asha Lata. “I did not waste even an hour in my whole student life for any boyfriend. I did not even get married. I believe in hard work and sacrifice. I am hopeful that things will change for the better. ‘Asha’ means hope, you see!”
Surjamukhi Sangstha (SMS)
South Asia | Bangladesh