Lived experiences

Finding my place and learning to assert my rights: Growing up disabled in Bangladesh

June 15, 2020

Afsana Rahman
Afsana Rahman
Fabric blows in breeze

In Bangladesh’s national social vision, women with disabilities are at greater risk than their male counterparts. Sixteen million people are disabled in Bangladesh. Disabled women, especially disabled girls, are the most marginalized and deprived. Most disabled people consider themselves inferior or a burden. Often, our only desire is to survive, with a minimum standard of living, because we are taught that this is all that is possible for us. Perceptions of disability among most Bangladeshis remain largely negative. In rural areas, disability is often viewed as a curse brought on by the misdeeds of parents and is often believed to be contagious.

I was born with congenital limb loss, which meant that I only have one hand. I grew up in a middle-class family in a small village in Bangladesh, where most disabled people are deprived of education. This means they are not even admitted to the school. I was able to attend school, but my participation was limited. The school would not let me do any work in the practical classes because of my disability. I applied to participate in various cultural events at school, but due to my disability, I was not called. No one easily befriended me in school life. I had only a few friends. I was mentally broken due to these experiences, but I never thought of stopping my studies.

In Bangladesh, disability significantly impacts your ability to participate in society; marry, attain, employment, and maintain a healthy mental state. Often disabled women cannot get married because dowry has to be paid to the benefactor – dowry means an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage – women with disabilities have to pay a larger dowry than their non-disabled peers. If they are not able to pay dowry due to poverty, they cannot get married.

Moreover, abuse is commonplace. Rape or sexual harassment are the most common forms of violence against disabled women in Bangladesh. Among disabled women interviewed in a survey, about 84% reported experiencing at least one act of emotional abuse, physical, or sexual violence from their partner during their lifetime. To add to this, physical assault by family members or violence by an intimate partner is often not considered as a crime, but rather a day-to-day incident.

My experience with this started after passing intermediate. It was the worst time of my life. Due to poverty, my studies were stopped for a year. Neighbours and relatives all ignored me. However, the most difficult thing was the harsh words of family members. They used to say, “You are nothing but a curse. We can’t take responsibility for you anymore. Get out of the house.”

At that time, I felt very insignificant and became frustrated.

I often would ask the Creator:

Why me?

What is the reason to keep the one who has no one by her side, alive?

Ididn’t get any answer. But one day, I realized that instead of waiting for one, I had to move forward with my life and this disability. Bangladesh does have government support, but this is restricted to only urban areas, so I decided that what I needed to do was learn how to assert my rights. After four months of continuous tuition with a private tutor, I was able to pay the varsity admission fee and started studying anew.

I am now 20-years-old. The way I was brought up meant I didn’t feel skilled or confident but proving all the skeptics wrong, I am currently working alongside my studies in a low-income job that will help me boost my confidence. This is my new beginning, which will change my life. I am not dependent on anyone and able to earn a small amount towards the cost of my studies.

Disabled people here and everywhere should be given the opportunity to participate in all spheres of life, we should have the opportunity to find our place – and until we can say that this is a reality, we must collectively work to dismantle the systems which exclude us. Just like non-disabled people, disabled people in Bangladesh and all over the world can contribute to society, their country, and the whole world, through our success.