Ever since Sayda Yesmin was in school, she had the will to bring about a change in society. And the only way she knew possible was to give women financial independence.
Her biggest inspiration was her mother Zahanara Begum who had dedicated her life to social work targeted towards bettering the lives of women.
Sayda saw her mother raise eight children and still play an active role in the Kurigram Mohila Shamity that was established in 1965. She was the third among her seven siblings.
Upon joining college, Sayda followed in her mother's footsteps and became a member of Girls Guide and Red Crescent Society. That was the start of her long, inspiring career in social development.
After getting an MA in Management from Dhaka University in 1988, she gained insight into women's issues by working as an Assistant Development Officer in a project of Bangladesh Rural Development Board from 1993 till 1998.
She gained experience working with other NGOs including Easho Kaj Kari (in Kurigram) supported by Oxfam, Gano Kalyan Sabolambi Sangastha (in Gaibandha), and Food Security Vulnerable Development Programme under European Commission (in Lalmonirhat).
The 51-year-old has made her mark by being at the helm of Association for Alternative Development (AFAD) in the northern district of Kurigram that has become a synonym for change and shelter.
Coming into existence in 1999 as a voluntary organisation, seven women swore to empower destitute and neglected women and to ensure equal rights and opportunities. It was one founding member, Rubina Yeasmin, who donated 20 decimals of land to form its first office in the Khalilganj area of Kurigram town.
The office has been developed over the years and now it is a tin roofed building that has five large rooms.
She took charge of AFAD that is registered by the Directorate of Women Affairs in 1999. Keeping in true to AFAD's vision of shaping a society that is habitable for both men and women, it is run by a 10 member staff – 6 women and 4 men.
Currently, AFAD's focus is divided threefold – the ongoing development of handicapped persons and training women between the ages of 18 and 35 years under the South Asian Young Women's Leadership Initiative and its humanities and gender equality programme that will begin work soon.
AFAD accomplishes its goals through three branch offices – at Buraburi and Thetroy union in Ulipur upazila and Punchgachhi union in Kurigram Sadar Upazila, she said.
Between 2007 and 2011, AFAD trained 750 teenagers, both girls and boys, on adolescence issues through its branch at Buraburi. The trainings were conducted by a supervisor and 15 facilitators, all of whom were women. The Adolescence Resource Centre still runs in that union to continue its efforts, said the executive director.
At Thetroy, AFAD ran a course from 2012 to 2015, where two female trainers coached 47 women on midwifery. These women now meet weekly and continue their works to develop the wellbeing of women during gestation and beyond, she added.
AFAD's Punchgachhi office is currently running a programme since 2007 that focuses on curbing early marriage, eve teasing, and dowry, and gives support for victims of rape and divorce. Till now, it has trained 370 girls, while there is a current enrolment of 283 girls. The girls are educated in groups by one female facilitator.
From 2013 till 2017, AFAD also ran a carpet (shatranji) making course at its head office for 75 women; 25 women are currently employed in the profession.
All the beneficiaries of AFAD have become Sayda's army of vigilantes who keep an eye out on any injustice in society and early marriage detection. She has directly halted 15 teen marriages at four unions in the district through her network.
“My own mobile number acts like a helpline to get tip offs in these cases.”
Sayda's stories of heartfelt support and dedication spread far and wide. She has been giving legal support since 2006, bringing justice in 40 cases so far involving 60 women, including children.
“I am able to work as a member of different committees of upazila and district administration that allows me to have an impact.”
For upholding women's rights, Sayda was awarded by RDRS Bangladesh in 2012, and received an Honour Crest as Women Promoter by For The Women By The Women and Women Collective in 2014, Top Joyeeta Award in Rangpur division by the Department of Women Affairs in 2015 and Manobadhikar Santee Padok (peace award on human rights) by United Movement Human Rights in 2016.
“I have overcome setbacks both professionally and in my personal life in the past 25 years. Professionally, I had to give evidence of my abilities as normally, no one accepts female leadership. And personally, I have to hear negative comments on my work as I am a single woman, never married,” said Sayda.
Research findings have made AFAD believe that establishing women rights and empowerment can only be achieved through social revolution.
“I have learnt that women face harassment and suffer as they are economically weak. I am working to progress women to be self-reliant. I am committed to bringing them to mainstream economic development.”