There was not a single person in the audience who would disagree that the award-giving ceremony, "Unsung Women: Nation Builders Awards 2020" organised jointly by The Daily Star and IPDC Finance yesterday, was difficult to watch dry-eyed.
Thakurgaon's Tepri Rani was a young bride, only 14 years old, when she was kidnapped by the Pakistani army. She was kept at a camp for six months and tortured. She managed to come back after the Liberation War, only to find her husband would not accept her.
Her parents tried to marry her off elsewhere, but she was already pregnant with a war baby. She then decided to hold her ground and started living alone with her child. It was only in 2017 that the Bangladesh government recognised her as a Muktijoddha.
"I endured so much pain, so much sadness. Nobody has gone through the pain I did," Tepri said while being honoured as an unsung woman at the event yesterday. She broke down in tears and wailed over and over, "I have nobody, I have nobody."
Similarly, Bibha Rani was separated from her family while they were trying to escape from their home in Barishal. She was captured by Razakars and tortured. She has never been officially recognised as a Birangana even though she applied a few times.
"I am not capable of saying anything. The war was in 1971. It is now 2020. It has been so many years. I am tired of fighting. I am happy today, because of our sacrifice, so many are now free," said Bibha, while receiving her award.
She dedicated a song she crafted in the mournful, wistful Bhatiali style, to the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, describing him as the oarsman to her boat.
"Please forgive us, mother," said the programme's moderator Sharmin Nahar Lucky, "but good news is that IPDC Finance has taken the financial responsibility of these two women".
Chief guest Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen handed crests while IPDC CEO and Managing Director Mominul Islam gave the two awardees cheques of Tk 2 lakh each.
The momentous event was graciously hosted by Radisson Blu Dhaka Water Garden, which was also a hospitality partner.
The evening began with a heart-rending poetry recital by Panchakanya, a repertoire consisting of Sharmin Lucky, Tamanna Tithi, Kazi Bushra, Naznin Naz, Habiba Sultana and Sharmin Mrittika.
"'Man is not a standard of any sort, why would we want to be their equal? I have become a successful 'human' instead," they recited -- powerful lines written by poets Rita Nahar, Shashwati Biplob, Dil Afroze, and Jinat Islam.
In his address, IPDC's Mominul Islam said, "Fifty women were nominated and nine selected for the honour.
"Their contribution is not an isolated event -- the change that has come to Bangladesh is a story crafted by its women. It is the story of the 35 lakh women workers of our ready-made garment industry, the story of every household in our villages which are production powerhouses," he said.
The jury included Anisul Hoque, associate editor of Prothom Alo; Rokia Afzal Rahman, chairperson of Mediaworld Ltd; Dr Maleka Banu, general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad; and Anna Minj, director, Community Empowerment, Gender Justice Diversity and Integrated Development Programmes at Brac.
The jurors who made the extremely difficult decision of choosing who to honour, handed crests to the awardees, except Tepri and Bibha.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), handed a crest and a cheque of Tk 2 lakh to Laily Begum. Laily is the first licensed hilsa fisherwoman of the country.
A primary schoolteacher, Kamrunnahar Munni was awarded next for forming a football team of girls in her hometown of Tangail. She was awarded by Maleka Banu.
Sonu Rani Das was awarded by Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation. Sonu is the first female graduate from the Dalit community.
Kohinur Begum was awarded by Anisul Hoque. Kohinur had created a successful foodbank for women at risk of climate change induced calamities, in her community in a remote village of Sirajganj.
Mamtaz Mahal Baby was awarded by Rokia Afzal Rahman. Baby established a successful library in her home at a former enclave of Kurigram.
The next awardee was Jaya Chakma, the first female Fifa referee of Bangladesh. She was awarded by Farah Kabir, executive director, ActionAid.
Joya Chakma put her feelings aptly, "When I was a child, I used to think that I will do something one day that will make people recognise me. I thought I will have to stay with courageous people for that. Today I am with courageous women."
Unfortunately, the next awardee could not receive the award last night -- Marzia Rabbani Shashi, the country's first blind female lawyer is going through life-threatening conditions. Her mother Afroza Rabbani accepted the award on her behalf from Parveen Mahmud, chairperson of UCEP, Bangladesh.
Afroza Rabbani brought everyone back from the throes of euphoria by stating her current reality -- her daughter, the awardee, is fighting for her life because neither of her kidneys was functioning. They have a donor, but are not being able to carry out the organ transplant because law forbids kidney donation from other than immediate family members, she said.
"The light of the eyes is nothing; the light of the mind is everything. But now the light of her life is going out. Save my little girl, my beautiful girl,"
In December last year, the High Court ruled that voluntary donors beyond near relatives could donate kidneys to patients with renal failure.
At present, the law allows only parents, children, brothers and sisters, spouse, grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, maternal and paternal uncles and aunts to donate their kidneys to patients. The HC also ordered the government to amend the act within six months.
In his address, the foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, said, "I am grateful to witness these stars. I also feel small seeing them. Their contribution, their will to impact change is an inspiration for us. What we are doing is not enough, there is more to do.
"Confidence and sheer will—that is why nothing could stop them," he said.
Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, said, "When I see these women, I feel very small. What is my patriotism? My humanity? Compared to theirs, my contribution is nothing.
"It may appear that we are trying to honour these extraordinary women, but what we are trying to do is to show those who are far better off than us what real social change is all about, what real courage is all about."