Bearing Witness in Bangladesh

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 In early 2019, Communications Co-Director Ashley Armstrong (second from left) traveled with Asia Program Manager David Bruer (third from left) to Bangladesh to meet with landless group members supported by long-term Inter Pares counterpart Nijera Kori.Credit: S M Mahfuzul Islam Rahat

We’re on a rooftop near Chandina, Bangladesh, sitting cross-legged on a woven mat. A gentle breeze reaches us from the rice fields. A kind woman offers us fresh coconut water to drink, and I’m relieved – Ottawa doesn’t get this hot. I’m facing a woman many years my senior, Achia, who lives in the community surrounding us. She is a member of a landless group supported by Nijera Kori, one of Inter Pares’ longstanding counterparts.

Since the 1980s, Nijera Kori has mobilized landless people in small groups to demand their rights. They now support over 200,000 group members across the country.

We’ve just finished a discussion with Achia’s landless group about violence against women, and have come up to the rooftop for a more private conversation about life in her village as a woman.

When Achia speaks, her eyes water. She firmly taps my knee, letting her hand rest there. She shares how, over the last thirty years, the landless group has given her strength through what has been a difficult life. She speaks with urgency; she is someone who wants to be heard.

In my communications career, I have had the opportunity to bear witness to many people’s struggles for justice. I have seen how being present and truly listening to someone plays an immensely powerful role in recognizing them and their struggle. Intimate moments, like sharing coconut water and conversation with a stranger in rural Bangladesh, build human connections. These connections let us be, and feel, seen.
I take very seriously that women like Achia have entrusted me to share their story so that others may know who they are, how they live, and how they resist. So that one woman, living a world away, comes into focus.

At Inter Pares, our role isn’t only to support struggles abroad – but also to bring those struggles back home, to share them with you, with our allies and supporters across the country. We also share these struggles with our government, so that informed policy decisions will support groups like Nijera Kori.

Sitting on that rooftop, I’m moved to silence by Achia and her community’s struggle to stand up for the rights of women and landless people in Bangladesh. When we finish speaking, Achia clasps her hands, wrinkled with sun and age, and thanks me for listening. Upon my return to Ottawa, I break that silence. I put pen to paper, and begin to write.

Our role isn’t only to support struggles abroad – but also to bring those struggles back home, to share them with you.

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