Amader Golpo: Shahnaz Yousuf; Technological Advancement and Gender Equality through Adhunika
By: Nowshen Pranthi
Adhunika is a global, volunteer based organization dedicated to promoting technology usage for Bangladeshi women worldwide, in order to bring about positive social change in their lives, thus contributing to the advancement of gender equality in Bangladesh and the empowerment of Bangladeshi women.
1.) Where are you from? What was it like being a Bangladeshi woman here?
I am originally from Bangladesh. I came to the US as an international student and moved to a small town college. I was fortunate to be in a school where I got involved with many student clubs and met other students like me who wanted to make changes in this world by giving back. To answer what it was like to be a woman here at that time, I think at the time I saw myself as an international student who was trying to explore new ideas and was fortunate to live a community where the handful of Bangladeshi students, like the rest of the international students, were welcomed with open arms.
2.) What inspires the work behind Adhunika? When did it begin?
Right before September 2001, my husband and I moved to New York City with a dream of new possibilities and excitement in our hearts, but everything was shattered right after 9/11. I was still on a student visa, my work permit was running out, and my chances of receiving a sponsorship was dwindling. The combination of feeling hapless because of my work situation, yet, an urge to contribute to the community despite not having a work permit gave birth to the volunteer-based organization ‘Adhunika’.
In 2001, it started as a webzine — a virtual space to provide support for each other. As my education background was in management of information system (MBA) and Social Work — I believe it was the combination of both fields that came to play in building Adhunika. When I first came here as an international student, many people around me made me feel included in their lives. They helped me survive the harsh winters, the homesickness, and I couldn’t have done much if I didn’t have helpful friends by my side. Adhunika was my way of giving back to my community.
After seeing success with the webzine, one thought that kept coming back to me was how would girls in Bangladesh with limited access to resources set up a place to connect with and support one another, similar to the webzine. Or how could girls learn more about basic computer technology to feel connected and connect with other people all across the world. I felt this need to expand our support network here and build a support for and connect with girls in Bangladesh who might not have the opportunity to connect to the rest of the world. In 2003 with the help of friends and family, we set up a physical location for Adhunika in Dhaka, Bangladesh and initiated a project called ‘IT for Women’ for underprivileged girls who were coming to Dhaka from the villages of Bangladesh for higher education, and living in the local dorms near the center. For the first few years, the services were free for our students. Currently, participants receive a variety of services, such as, Computer Training, Education and Career Counseling, Health Awareness Workshops, Reproductive Health Workshops, Cancer Prevention Workshops, Medical Consultations, and a unique opportunity to connect to the volunteers based in the US and practice spoken English through live on-line classes. All these services are provided by a substantially low fee as the funds we raise bear most of the costs of all the programs.
3.) How does Adhunika build community? What values are centered in your work?
I believe in the saying ‘If you build, they will come.’ I wanted to create a space where we could share our stories, our successes, our failures, our fears, and our dreams to give hope that we are not alone when facing a crisis. Adhunika was built with the notion that people have a lot in common and are here for each other. The first couple of years I reached out to my friends and published their work, and slowly their friends and the global community of Bangladeshi women started sharing their work through Adhunika. In 2003, with the help of friends and family we started a project in Dhaka, Bangladesh called Technology for Women under Adhunika Bangladesh Society, which later became ‘Adhunika Women’s Centre’ (AWC) under Sajida Foundation, the organization that manages the center. Since the inception of the center in Dhaka, each year volunteers in the US raise funds to run the center and provide countless hours of service to the Center. After all these years, individual donations have remained our main source of income. Most of our volunteers become a part of our team through a shared passion to work for and give back to girls in Bangladesh. Our volunteers believe in Adhunika’s goal to increase the community spirit and build connections with people here in the US and with girls in Bangladesh. It always gives me great pleasure when I work with hundreds of volunteers or Friends of Adhunika, as we call them, throughout the year — without them we would cease to exist as an organization.
4.) What motivates the work Adhunika does?
Our primary aim to give back to our communities by connecting and supporting women and their work across the world still stands. In addition, we are motivated by zeal to see girls in Bangladesh become confident in the skills they learn through our classes and workshops. Adhunika is inspired by girls who come to our center, despite, not knowing anyone in Dhaka with a dream to strengthen their computing skills or their English language skills or to connect with new friends in a new city.
To provide these services in Dhaka, one of Adhunika’s main goal is to raise funds for the center called ‘Adhunika Women’s Centre’ managed by Sajida Foundation. And to do so, every year in April, to usher in the Bengali New Year, volunteers aka Friends of Adhunika organize an annual fundraising event in New York City. To hold a successful event, all volunteers based in the US work as a team., And it is a sheer blessing to work with these amazing human beings who, year after year, put on a wonderful event to raise funds for girls in Bangladesh who may never meet these volunteers who are changing their lives.
Each year, many volunteers also travel to Dhaka and visit the center to meet with the girls they have helped. These visits remain a strong motivator for the volunteers who constantly continue to provide time for Adhunika. Also, when I visit the center each year, the experience remind me
2017 will mark 15 years of Adhunika, and we are hoping many more volunteers will take part in the fund raising event. More so than that, we hope we can continue to provide the support and continue to give back to our communities through educating and building skill-sets in our students in Bangladesh and build the confidence of the girls who come to our center for support.
5.) What are some of the struggles you see the Bangladeshi community facing? What resources are crucial for our community to have?
Although our numbers as Bangladeshi women are increasing, I still see a gap for many women who immigrated recently from Bangladesh and also for women who have not found the right support to connect to other women in the community. Many times, I get requests from friends and their families for temporary shelters when women face domestic violence, particularly, for women who don’t have an opportunity to mingle with other women, and when going through a crisis, they are afraid to leave their abuser and are unaware of where to look for help. Time is changing and I see many women are becoming vocal about their rights and seek help within the community or reach out to others who can help them.
But there still needs to be more services where one can find resources and get assistance in Bangla so if we are in a crisis we know where to look.
6.) What are some hopes you have for your community?
I am already extremely hopeful when I look at the younger generation in my community. They are not confined in a space or an idea, and accept new challenges to achieve their dreams. They are going to new places, trying new careers, going out of their way to help the next person. Believing in themselves, the words which my generation hesitated to utter, the next generation is poised enough to speak those words through arts, poetry, drama, in rallies and in dreaming for a powerful, bright future. I hope all of us are going to support each other — be that our older generation, my contemporaries and the younger generation — to achieve all our aspirations and dreams. This hope leads me to share about one of our new initiatives by our youngest volunteers of Adhunika. One of the young volunteers (age 10) saw children living in the streets in Bangladesh during summer vacation. The children were struggling to go to school because of a lack of financial support and opportunities. That young volunteer came back to USA and formed a team (age 4–15) of volunteers and was able to raise enough funds to support 23 school-going children living in the streets to continue school for a year. Examples likes this continues to gives me hope that our next generation is not only thinking of their dreams, they are also taking action to help other human beings to achieve their hopes and dreams — may this be giving back to their local communities or to their parents roots sitting thousands of miles apart.
Thank you to the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project for giving me an opportunity to talk about Adhunika, it is a humbling experience to be part of this journey.