Sonajan Akter is not familiar with the razzle-dazzle of an award show. She looked a little surprised when she came across glittering lights, colourful decorations and loud sound at the city's Krishibid Institution Bangladesh last night.
The 68-year old midwife from Manikganj, who has selflessly been providing care to newborns and pregnant women in her locality for the last 50 years, also did not expect any reward for her work.
“I don't look for anything in return. I rush to those in need because I just can't say no to anyone,” said Sonajan, who also volunteers to wash the bodies of deceased women before burial.
Unsung heroes like her, who work tirelessly for the wellbeing of others, however, do not always go unrewarded.
IPDC Finance Limited in association with The Daily Star presented the first “Unsung Women Nation Builders Awards” to Sonajan and six other women at a packed auditorium of the Krishibid institution near Farmgate, acknowledging their unique contributions to the socio-economic development of the country.
Sonajan was awarded for her contribution to healthcare. The other awardees are: child rights activist Shahida Akhter Shorna (courageous act); Bhagya Rani Banik, director general of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (agriculture); Fatema Begum, additional inspector general of police (courageous act); Rokeya Begum, assistant teacher of Tambulkhana Government Primary School (education); Maftahul Jannat Likhon (entrepreneurship); and senior nurse Irani Baroi (health).
An independent jury panel consisting of writer and the Daily Prothom Alo Associate Editor Anisul Hoque, Mohammadi Group Managing Director Rubana Huq, and ActionAid Bangladesh Country Director Farah Kabir selected the winners.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu and Parveen Mahmud FCA, chairperson of the Micro Industries Development Assistance and Services (MIDAS), handed over the awards -- a crest and a cheque of Tk 2 lakh -- to each of the awardees.
Addressing the ceremony as chief guest, Inu thanked The Daily Star and IPDC Finance Ltd for the initiative to find out and recognise the women who have been working silently, braving all odds, to establish social justice and empower women.
Those who play an important role in building the nation should be recognised to inspire others to follow their path, he said.
“The nation that does not recognise heroes cannot create new heroes,” Inu said and added that he would “advise the state to organise such award ceremonies as well”.
He said women still today face a lot of harassments and discrimination at their workplaces and even in families. Despite that, women were making significant contributions to the society, he added.
Inu said there were inherent practices of discriminating women over property-related issues and suggested that such discriminations should end.
“We won't be able to achieve sustainable development goals unless we eliminate gender inequality.”
Mominul Islam, managing director and CEO, IPDC Finance Limited, said, “Many are working tirelessly for the development of this country. Of them, however, women's contribution is more than the men's because they have to overcome many hurdles.”
He said he was humbled by the greatness of the awardees and added that the recognition would boost their confidence to do even better.
MIDAS Chairperson Parveen Mahmud said those who work in silence, behind the scene, should get more recognition.
The Daily Star Editor and Publisher Mahfuz Anam said the idea behind the award was to recognise the women who are silently serving their communities at the grassroots but remain unnoticed.
“Their examples in serving the community and helping fellow human beings make them superior to many of us. I hope this recognition inspires others to serve humanity in the same way,” he said.
Anam said the basic human qualities that everybody has in them should not wither in the busy urban life.
On receiving her award, Irani Baroi said she worked for the people, not for any reward. “I never had imagined such recognition. I am so happy…I cannot express my feelings in words.”
Shahida Akhter Shorna said she started to work for women empowerment after noticing discrimination between men and women in her childhood.
“I want all women to be educated and protest any discrimination,” she told this correspondent.
Bhagya Rani Banik said she had been committed to agricultural research, and that the award would inspire others to work more for the public interest. She also thanked the government for its women-friendly policies in various sectors.
Fatema Begum said women's contributions to the society largely remained ignored and the initiative to award the seven women would pave the way for others to do something good for the society.
Rokeya Begum said the award meant a lot of inspiration for her to go forward with her goal to promote female education.
Maftahul Jannat Likhon said she was feeling encouraged to work more for the poor children who are deprived of education. “I studied up to class six. I don't want others to be like me. I want them to have education and earn dignity,” she said.
Rokia Afzal Rahman, chairperson of Mediaworld Limited; Geeti Ara Safia Choudhury, adviser to a former caretaker government; Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation; Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque; magician Jewel Aich and representatives from several foreign missions in Dhaka, among others, were present at the ceremony.
The programme, moderated by singer and journalist Elita Karim, also featured short screening of documentaries on each of the awardees and a cultural show.
Woman of green
When she became the director general of BRRI in June 2016, Bhagya Rani Banik was the first woman to hold that post.
She graduated from Sher-e- Bangla Agricultural University and joined Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) in 1983. Ms Banik earned her PhD from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Agriculture University in 2003. She has significant contribution in food sufficiency and climate change research.
Under her leadership BRRI has achieved international success. She has contributed in developing better breed of corn. She has 37 research articles published in national and international scientific journals.
WOMAN OF GREEN http://bit.ly/2pFpirB
An indomitable soul
Even though her legs became paralysed, Irani Baroi did not give up her mission of helping the sick. Irani is a senior nurse today at the 100-bed general hospital in Madaripur.
She earned her diploma in Nursing from Dhaka Medical College and Hospital in 1986 and started her career in Madaripur General Hospital. She came down with fever in 1996 and her hands and legs became paralysed. Therapy brought back the use of her hands but her legs did not improve.
Despite being paralyzed, she is by no means inferior to any other nurse in her hospital, her patients, superiors, and coworkers testify. She believes as long as she can use her hands, she can continue to help her patients in every way possible.
NIGHTINGALE OF NARAYANGANJ http://bit.ly/2pFnAqd
First female police officer
First woman police officer and additional inspector general of police
Fatema Begum is one of the first two women who chose to join the police service after their Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) exam in 1984.
The other quitted soon but she continues to serve in the police and became the first woman to become an additional inspector general of police.
“Firm in their belief that the police force was no place for women, they tried to make us leave from the very first day -- beginning with barring our entry at the orientation for new officers,” says Fatema. She was forced by her bosses to write to the home ministry asking it to give her a posting in some other cadre service.
After the training was over, the male officers were ordered to pack and go to the Police Academy. But there was no instruction for Fatema. She waited and waited, but no orders came. A couple of days later, she wrote to the Police Headquarters saying she would not give up her job and that she would rather wait further. She was allowed to go to the academy after she persisted.
FATEMA PERSISTED DESPITE CONSTANT TAUNTS http://bit.ly/2qpwBEI
Blindness no bar to teaching
Rokeya Begum, who became blind at the age of 3, is an assistant teacher of Tambulkhana govt primary school. Her indomitable spirit has brought her to this position. She teaches like any regular teacher. Moreover, she is a popular teacher.
She had to struggle to be here today. Her father Sheikh Mujibor Rahaman died leaving five daughters and one son. Three of the sisters are also blind. When her mother also died after a few years, their elder sister Sahanaj Begum took them in.
Now Rokeya's two blind sisters are in University. Shekha Begum, 29, is a student of MA in the Department of Social Science at Eden Mohila College Dhaka. Ashia Akter, 22, is a student of BA in the Department of History at Dhaka University.
“She is a really good teacher and also a good person,” said Kakoli Saha Head master of Tambulkhana Government Primary School. “She is meritorious and she has an indomitable spirit.”
WHERE THERE IS A WILL… http://bit.ly/2p5M7BG
Sonajan Akter of Chowbaria at Manikganj has been serving as a midwife for the entire village as well as at least 15 other villages for the past 50 years. The sixty-eight-year-old does not accept any payment for her services despite her family being extremely poor.
She takes care of the mothers, and later, their babies, for up to 10 days after birth. Relatives and acquaintances testify she looks after the mothers and children just as a grandmother would-- with utmost care and affection.
SAVIOUR OF EXPECTING MOTHERS http://bit.ly/2p2Eb3q
The light of Joypurhat
Because Maftahul Jannat Likhon decided to install solar panels free of charge in three villages two years back, students from the poorest families can now study at night in these villages of Joypurhat's Panchbibi upazila.
When many people would leave empty handed from her solar power sales center because of the high price, she started to feel the problems children faced in those families. She felt children from the poorest of families should have a fair chance to go to school and having bright lights to study at night could boost their morale.
Nowadays, the three villages are collectively called “Solargram” and 148 families have solar lights because Likhan felt that she had to do something to help.
But bright lights are not enough. One also needs books. In March this year, Likhan visited her Solargram with bundles of children's books to be distributed for free. From solar lights to light of knowledge, Likhan has them all.
THE LIGHT OF JOYPURHAT http://bit.ly/2pFb1v2
Malala of Bangla
For her work against child marriage, Shahida Akhter Shorna was dubbed the 'Malala of Bangla' by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg at an international conference of Plan International, an organisation that works for children's rights worldwide.
Shorna endured pressure for early marriage like all the other girls in her village. Her elder sisters, all four of them, had given in without a protest when their time came. But Shorna did not. She was adamant that completing her education was her first priority.
It was her wholehearted campaign for girls' education in her village that put her on par with Malala Yousafzai. Although there were no gun-toting Taliban insurgents patrolling her village, hers was no less challenging a task than Malala's.
President of Gazipur's Mawna Union Shishu Forum of Plan Bangladesh, where she joined in 2006, Shorna is now a marriage-buster in her community and also an icon. She has stopped six child marriages in her union so far.
Shorna always took it upon herself to organise students for different events. She showed her leadership quality during those programmes. Shorna, who once wanted to be a doctor, now wants to serve the society by becoming a university or college teacher.
'MALALA OF BANGLA' BLAZES THE TRAIL http://bit.ly/2p2DtmM