“I am unrecognisable, even to myself!”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tarango women’s shelter in Bangladesh has provided coordinated services for women and girls to help them recover from violence and find independence.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, poverty, fear and insecurity have increased around the world. They triggered an alarming escalation of violence against women and girls, particularly an increase in domestic violence, rape and child marriage. Bangladesh is no exception. Many informal jobs have vanished, affecting 90 percent of Bangladeshi women working in the informal sector,[1] and financial constraints have led to many men abandoning their families, leaving women and children vulnerable, homeless and at risk of violence.

Despite the spike in demand, essential services for survivors of violence have been disrupted. “Many shelters and services shut down during the pandemic. Luckily, Tarango did not have to suffer the same fate,” says Nazlee Nipa, Programme Coordinator at Tarango, a not-for-profit women’s organisation based in Dhaka. 

During the pandemic, Tarango, in partnership with UN Women and funded by the Government of Japan, was able to expand its integrated shelter house model that provides essential services and economic empowerment to women and girls who have experienced violence.

At the Tarango women’s shelter, women and girls can access temporary accommodation, medical and legal support, psycho-social counselling, and financial and vocational training. “After forming our partnership with UN Women, the scope of our response has significantly expanded. We can now give 360-degree support to any woman,” explains Nipa.

For many survivors, meeting other women thriving for a better future itself is an empowering opportunity. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

Safety and services

Saima Khatum* is one of 60 residents at the Tarango women’s shelter. “Ever since I was a child, I always lived in fear. When my father married me off as a child, or when my husband tortured me for dowry, people in my village didn’t help me. But now I’m living in a safe place. Tarango saved my life.”

Khatum received medical and counselling support at the shelter. She has started taking a self-defence class and is learning financial literacy and tailoring skills. “When I move out of the shelter, I will rent a house, and I will save enough money to give myself security. I feel confident that I can protect myself and find a job,” smiles Khatum. “Do you know how much my life has changed? I am unrecognisable, even to myself!”

Tarango supports survivors of violence like Khatum, as well as those at-risk of violence and other vulnerable women and girls such as single mothers, women with disabilities, LBTQI people, and migrant workers. “Our job is to make women feel safe and empowered, and to treat them with the utmost respect and empathy,” says Nipa.

At the Tarango women’s shelter, Nazlee Nipa (right) makes sure women and girls feel supported and empowered in a comfortable and safe environment. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

Bithi Akter, born with a movement impairment, lived in extreme poverty after her family lost their jobs during the pandemic. “When I first arrived at the shelter, I felt very welcome despite my disability. Growing up, people told me that I couldn’t do things others could. At the shelter, the staff told me that I could do a job like anyone else. They believed in me, and that gave me the drive I needed at the time,” says Akter.

At the shelter, Akter received training in tailoring skills. “Making dresses has always been my passion, but I could not afford any formal training. The training is a gateway into a new world – one where I can earn money to become independent. This will change my life.”

Akter is one of 200 women who have accessed income opportunities at the shelter. After completing vocational training and financial literacy training, each woman receives a job placement and two months’ cash grant to build their economic resilience.

Bithi Akter knows her disability does not mean the inability to become independent. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

Community outreach through the Girls’ Club

In partnership with Tarango, Girls’ Club advocates conduct outreach activities in communities in Dhaka to share essential knowledge about topics that impact women and girls. The advocates lead discussions about violence against women and available services for survivors, menstrual hygiene, and COVID-19 prevention and safety guidelines.

Advocates also act as watchdogs to monitor for any signs of violence and inform Tarango of any suspicious cases. Recently, Girls’ Club advocates recognised an incident of rape and swiftly referred the survivor to a crisis centre for urgent medical and police services.

“We have so much to offer,” exclaims Mita Akhter, one of 15 Girl Club advocates. “Previously, the community didn’t think young people, especially young girls like us, could get involved and speak up about serious issues like violence against women. But now they are starting to value the contribution we bring. Young girls are also victims of violence, and our voices need to be included in discussions. We can bring our energy and enthusiasm to add to the current wisdom and experience.”

Originally published on UN Women’s regional website for Asia and the Pacific