4:34 pm - Saturday October 18, 3006

Bangladesh: In pursuit of freedom

Kerry Kennedy

People love freedom so much that they have withstood great armies, famine and intractable poverty.

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.

bangladeshThe 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 our 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. 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 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. 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.

Impressive operation

We met a woman who worked at the collapsed Rana Plaza sweatshop. She said she never wants to work in the clothing industry again. 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.

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.