“They were my university. Every woman. Every life. I have learned everything I know from them.”
Angela Gomes (born 1952) is founder-director of Banchte Shekha (learning to survive), one of the most respected women’s organizations in Bangladesh. Set up on a modest scale in 1981, the organization now accommodates 200 live-in trainees and also serves as a women’s shelter. More than 25,000 women in 750 village-based organizations are active members of Banchte Shekha, and more than 200,000 benefit indirectly from its agenda. Angela has been working on the issue of gender rights through social rights education and income generation programs.
Angela was the seventh of four brothers and five sisters. Resisting her parents’ attempts to marry her off early, she managed to get herself an education, paying her own way through school with community service. It was even at this precocious age that she knew what to do with her life. “At the age of 13, when I was studying with the nuns, I clearly saw the inequality between the sexes, especially among the poor,” she recalls. “I hated the fact that women were abused and humiliated and I wanted to do something for them-particularly widows, divorcees, and single women.” In 1975, after she got her bachelor’s degree in economics, history and geography, Angela finally began her work in the villages. She set up Banchte Shekha (learning to survive) in 1981 in a small fashion. Initially, the fact that she was very young, single, childless, and Christian was a massive hurdle. “I would try to talk to the women about their problems and they would say ‘Where is the problem?’ They had all kinds of problems, but only I was aware of them,” she says. With no resources or staff to support her, Angela traversed her villages alone, largely walking, or being boated over the considerable riparian distances. It took time, but with patience and single-minded devotion to her cause, she overcame the odds. On her personal front, though, Angela is going through a formidably difficult time: she is fighting ovarian cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. This is bound to have slowed her down somewhat, but she continues to travel and be actively involved in the running of Banchte Shekha. Initially confronted by prejudice for her youth, Angela today is Boro Apa (eldest sister) to the people she serves.
South Asia | Bangladesh