Exam registration fees inflicted quite a financial burden on the family of Jhumur Rine when she sat for Secondary School Certificate exams in 2015. Her father, a barber, had to pay Tk 5,700 more than what the government charges -- TK 2,300. During a training on the Right to Information Act two years later, she realised that she could ask the school authority why she had to pay exorbitant fees.
Her initial requests went unanswered but her third attempt to get information -- filing an appeal to the information commission -- coerced the head teacher to reach out to her to give an answer. And Jhumur noticed that the school has since reduced the exam fees.
Her ability to hold her school accountable is what brought about the change and the training was part of a three-year project implemented by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) with help from US-based NGO, The Carter Center.
Jhumur shared her success story yesterday at a programme organised in a city hotel to disseminate what had been learnt and accomplished during the project titled “Advancing women’s right of access to information in Bangladesh”.
Three other organisations -- Trinomul Unnayan Sangstha (TUS), Institute of Development Affairs (IDEA) and Management and Resource Development Initiatives (MRDI) -- worked at the field-level to raise awareness among women, spread knowledge on access to information and how it can help improve lives and services.
According to the endline survey, 22 percent of respondents in the project areas -- Sylhet, Khagrachhari and Dhaka -- placed formal requests for information following their participation in different activities under the project. Of them, 65 percent shared that information with family members and others in their communities.
The Carter Center sought to demonstrate that “women are not able to exercise the right to information with the same frequency, ease and rate of success as men”, according to a report on the project funded by USAID.
Apart from raising awareness and mobilising women, it also worked with the Cabinet Division, Information Commission, local government and civil society partners to encourage a gender-equal environment and more proactive disclosure of information.
“Information is power,” said Gowher Rizvi, advisor to the prime minister on international affairs, at the programme, adding that women can use the tool to fight patriarchy, fight for their rights, against deprivation and discrimination. He was present at the event as chief guest.
“The main obstacles to accessing information for women are traditional norms and customs,” said Shaheen Anam, executive director of MJF. The challenges can be overcome through education, awareness, confidence building and empowerment, she added.
Laura Neuman, programme director, rule of law programme of The Carter Centre, said, “Families remain unsupportive of women’s right to information even when the community has increased its support.”
Perceived gender roles, attitudes should be changed to get women into action, she added.
In Bangladesh, when women make requests for information, they are threatened by people in power, she said, and if they continue to be threatened, they will no longer exercise their right to information.