Maya apa knows it all

Photo: Darshan Chakma

The Maya App is perhaps one of the biggest initiatives undertaken to create a virtual safe space for people from all walks of life in Bangladesh. The platform has offered a unique and crucial opportunity for many to seek information and foster discussions on a range of topics society had for too long deemed taboo. The brain child of and BRAC, the Maya App builds on the popularity of the open question and answer platform of called Maya Apa Ki Bolen (Ask Sister Maya). The app has been a blessing for many, especially women who often had questions and problems that no one else was willing to discuss in a conservative society.

The idea behind the app is a simple one, or appears so, on the surface; users sign in, create an anonymous profile and then post a question. The question is answered within 48 hours. Legal, medical and numerous other professional experts address the questions pertaining to their field and find solutions or offer sound advice to the faceless individuals behind the usernames. The community takes part too and thus constructive discussions take place on matters people generally shy away from discussing, not only in their living rooms but also their bedrooms.

"Maya has been working to empower women through technology and access to information on women's health and anything of relevance to a woman's life on a daily basis for the last three years," explained Sheepa Hafiza, Director Gender Justice and Diversity, BRAC Migration Programme.

"We hope that the information generated through this app will promote advocacy for the formulation of new policies or the revision of existing policies in favour of women's and girls' rights," said Sheepa Hafiza. "The Maya app is a unique output of BRAC and Maya's partnership. Together, we intend to reach out to more women and girls in the quickest possible time and with an effective mode of interaction for sharing, learning and empowering," she added. 

For Shamima Parvin (not her real name), the Maya app provided a much needed platform to talk about domestic violence and seek legal advice on how to get a divorce and retain custody of her child. "No one in my family was willing to help me – they didn't want me to leave my abusive husband. They kept on telling me: What would people say about a divorced daughter! Learn to adjust," shares Shamima. "The walls were closing in on me. What was I to do? My husband threatened that if I left I would never see my child. At last, I heard about this app and posed my question, not really expecting much. But then I was surprised at the support I received. In addition to providing me a step-by-step answer, Mapa Apa also connected me to a legal aid organisation which helped me through the process."

Given that Maya App receives hundreds of anonymous messages every day, it is no easy task to ensure that each user receives the best possible service, free of judgment. In order to do so, each query is first screened and then passed on to a relevant expert. In addition, a team of individuals is constantly screening every question, response and discussion taking place. This is done to safeguard that the Maya app leads to a portal which fits the description of a 'safe space'. Special attention is paid so that no hateful speech is generated during discussions and that a feeling of community is fostered.

The Maya App is the first ever help service app for women in Bangladesh which has also been designed, developed, and implemented by female engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. Shubramy Moutushy was the lead Software Engineer of the project, aided by Syeda Prima Rasnim, another software engineer and Achia Khaleda Mila, the Product Manager.

The Maya App has led to the amassing of very important data that can be used to formulate better policies and strengthen the women's movement for equality. It has also highlighted the harm that the creation of taboos can cause, many times resulting in women or men refusing to seek help that they may urgently need. The app can also be used as an important tool for patient management, with the entire history of the user stored which may be critical to a doctor providing the effective treatment.

The Maya App was conceived as a harbinger of social change. If the statistics and discussions are anything to go by, it seems a lot of real change has indeed taken place over the years. Maya apa is showing us how to initiate so-called controversial dialogues without fear of societal reprisal and enabling us to challenge our own backdated beliefs. 


Osama Rahman is a journalist of The Daily Star.


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