In Dhaka, public transport is an unpleasant — and often dangerous — experience, especially if you’re a woman or girl. Bangladeshi volunteer Atika Shafa, 21, is part of a team of 10 young people who volunteered with International Citizen Service (ICS), and who now want to help make transport safer for women and girls.
Over four days, they put stickers on more than 500 public vehicles telling women about a government helpline to help them access justice for the harassment they so commonly face.
By Atika Shafa
For me, it started with my height. I’ve always been tall, but with the average Bangladeshi woman standing at just under 5-foot, it’s fair to say that my own 5-foot-8 stands out.
On public transport you don’t want to stand out. But as women and girls, we automatically do.
Men harass us, abuse us, and assault us every day as we navigate Dhaka’s crowded roads to get to school and work. In 2017, at least 21 women were raped or gang-raped on public transport in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital city.
I’m always really vocal on challenging men when they harass me.
If I’m travelling on the bus and a man touches me intentionally and I raise my voice — to ask him why he has his hand there, why he doesn’t have enough space — it’s normal for the men around me to jump to his defence.
No one supports a girl when she raises her voice.
Making women aware of how to get justice
I’m part of the ICS National Youth Engagement Network (NYEN). We’re a group of engaged ICS volunteers who have returned from our volunteer placement but want to continue the work.
Between us we work on different projects, but as a small group of 10 we decided to do something about harassment in our city.
The government already runs a toll-free phone line open 24/7, accessible to any woman or child in Bangladesh, where they can talk to experienced lawyers, psychosocial counsellors, and advisers if they’re experienced violence.
When you call, you’re asked where you are and they’ll take an incident report and statements from other eyewitnesses. They’ll use CCTV to find the perpetrator and make sure they face justice. From speaking to my contacts in the police, they say it’s working and women are making complaints.
But after six years, too few people have any idea this service exists.
We struggled to convince drivers that harassment was bad
So we decided to launch a campaign to help make sure that women and girls were aware of how the service could help them.
We printed hundreds of stickers with the hotline phone number and a message about everyone’s right to not have to face violence — and set out to stick them all over public transport in Dhaka city centre.
We began with the government buses, far away from our homes. We tried to convince them that it’s a government number, and that it’s good work. It took a while, but we finally managed to persuade the drivers to let us put up stickers inside.
Unfortunately, most drivers reacted badly. They refused to stop the buses for us. The drivers were even harassing us while we were promoting our anti-harassment campaign — the irony!
But we also had those who told us how they catch men out while they’re harassing women — and stop them and school them.
At one point the police saw us struggling and asked us what we were doing. After reassuring them we were promoting the government harassment helpline, they even stopped vehicles for us.
We stickered 500 vehicles. We can reach 15,000 people
Later that week, we appeared on four national radio stations to talk about our campaign, and I hope their female listeners will now be more confident in calling out harassment.
By the end of the week, we’d stuck stickers on more than 500 vehicles.
Ranging from big 50-seat buses to small 3-wheeler rickshaws, if they are all full and on the road, more than 15,000 people could see our messages at any one time. In a city of seven million, it’s small, but it’s a start.
I have a younger sister and a younger brother, who’s seven years old. I’d like to say that my brother is small but he's knowledgeable about what girls go through in Dhaka. I’ve travelled with him and he’s seen me get harassed.
It makes me so proud when I hear him tell me to raise my voice — for him to think like that at his age, he’ll be a good man when he’s older.
And as for my parents, the experience has made them proud of me. My family are very conservative — they don’t even let boys in the house. But through ICS, and my volunteering afterwards, I’ve convinced them that, as a woman, I can have these freedoms and still do just fine.
The UK's Department for International Development funds the work of ICS because it believes in the power of young people to bring about positive change in some of the poorest communities around the world, and that by creating thousands of active citizens we can shape the future for the better. You can raise your voice in support of UK aid here.
The National Youth Engagement Network (NYEN) is a youth-led initiative enabling young people to tackle the issues important to them alongside ICS alumni from different agencies, local communities and the ICS consortium of partners. NYEN is being piloted in multiple countries worldwide. Find out more here.