Twenty-seven-year-old Noorjahan Kabir, an advocate at the Dhaka Judge Court, was excited about her first-time pregnancy. But she was stressed, too, constantly worrying about the baby's development during each trimester. While talking to her mother and mother-in-law was a big help, she craved the support and advice of other women, closer to her age, who were going through the same experience.
“During my pregnancy, I would stay home doing nothing. I remember I used to lean on a family friend who was also expecting for the first time. I called her frequently to check if we had similar symptoms. I used to watch hundreds of videos on YouTube on pregnancy and motherhood as well,” she recalls. “Suddenly it dawned on me—why don't I create an online platform for millennial mothers like me to share their experiences with each other? I formed the Facebook group 'Pregnancy Journey and Motherhood' and started adding my friends and acquaintances—pregnant ones, as well as those who had recently given birth.”
Noorjahan soon found out that women had great interest in this topic and were eager to talk about common problems like how to take care of themselves during pregnancy, what not to eat, how to take care of the babies, what home remedies to use, and so on. Many of them simply posted how they were feeling on a particular day, and others would reassure them or dispel their pregnancy-related fears through their replies.
Today, the group has nearly 47,000 members who provide support and practical assistance to each other. “Our members don't just consist of well-off urban women. We have members who live in remote villages with little education, but they do have a Facebook account, and they stay connected with the group,” says Noorjahan.
Doly Sultana, mother of a four-month-old, says the group gave her courage during her pregnancy. “When I was five months pregnant, the doctor discovered that I had a condition called a low-lying placenta and I was put to bedrest until my last trimester. I was very scared about it, as no one in my family had experienced such a thing. But when I posted it in the group, I found it was not something unusual and everyone gave me good advice,” she says.
Another mother, Sheuly Juthi, informs that groups such as these are also important for creating awareness and eradicating superstitions and misconceptions related to pregnancy and child-rearing. “Since most first-time mothers are extremely sensitive and lack prior knowledge about childcare, they try to follow whatever they hear from people around them. And, by adhering to superstitions, unknowingly, they harm themselves and their children.
In addition to that, there are a good number of gynecologists who regularly monitor whether anyone needs any medication or treatment in emergencies. Case in point, if an expecting mother tells others that her baby is not moving, the doctors as well as the other mothers counsel her to treat it as an emergency and see a doctor. “I remember a mother was lucky enough to avoid the still birth of her baby at the eleventh hour, after the group members suggested she should see her doctor immediately. Since that experience, everyone is more careful than ever about the movement of their child,” says Noorjahan.
This is how the female-only Facebook groups are creating an impact on a large number of women online; beyond problem solving, these groups are a sanctuary for women to support one another in everyday life. One such group is 'Shokti Network'—formed in 2015 after the Pahela Baishakh sexual assault incidents at TSC—to create an area-based friendship network that helps women explore places in a group and protect themselves from harassment.
“Initially, we wanted every girl to be connected with the other girls of her area and become friends,” says Nushrat Farhana, one of the administrators at the Shokti Network. “For example, the men of a specific area can befriend each other easily in an evening tea stall gathering or after Jummah prayers on Fridays. But women don't have that opportunity. They don't even know who is living in their opposite flat,” says Nushrat.
Currently, the group has connected nearly 2,000 members from 13 areas of the city and in each area, they have a group coordinator.
For example, if someone from Dhanmondi area faces any problem in Gulshan area, she can inform her group coordinator, who can then in turn contact the one in Gulshan. The group coordinator in Gulshan will then either have the responsibility to solve the problem by herself or other members under her coordination. “It can be a very small thing like finding a pharmacy!” says Nushrat.
To strengthen the network's impact beyond social media, the members of specific areas occasionally meet offline. Debjani Modak, a content executive at a digital marketing agency, shares her experience about how she befriended other women in her area using the network. “I was very passionate about playing badminton but I couldn't do that as I did not have any female friends in my area. But I saw that the boys used to play badminton in front of my house every day. After joining Shokti Network, I got introduced to some of my 'elakar bon', and now we play badminton whenever we want,” says Debjani. “I've learnt to ride bicycles from the Shokti cyclists, and often go on cycle rides with them. I even met my best travel buddy, a mountaineer, from Shokti. We had several trips to Keokradong, Kaptai and Cox's Bazar,” says Debjani.
Female only Facebook groups are also helping a large number of women psycho-socially, although mental health is a neglected issue in Bangladesh. Women become the worst victims of social stigma when they share their problems in public. Women are also stigmatised within their families for opening up about mental health problems. For such women, a group named 'Women for Each Other' is run by two female doctors who are mental health researchers by profession.
“We tried to create a non-judgmental platform for women, where a mental health patient can open up and nobody will judge or make fun of them. I think we have been able to make that happen,” says Dr Syeda Fatema Alam, co-founder of Women for Each Other.
“If a woman goes through a situation which is harmful for her mental health, she can post about it in the group. At first our trained psycho-social supporters give them primary psycho-social support such as talking to them, listening to what happened and trying to understand what they are going through. If they need any psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist, we refer them and make an appointment with them. The primary care we give is totally free of cost, while the follow-ups with trained mental health professionals are heavily discounted,” she says.
“It happens so many times that we cannot go to the right person with regard to our mental health. For example, one might go to a psychiatrist for a certain problem, but she actually needs a therapist. Or someone might unknowingly go to someone who is not specialised for her needs. As such they lose time and money. Since we belong to this background, we try to refer them to professionalsbased on their needs,” says Dr Fatema.
So far the group, consisting of 8,500 members, has referred nearly a hundred women to psychiatrists. Besides, the group is organising seminars and events on issues of mental health, anger-management and stress-management. If anyone needs legal help along with their mental health issues, this platform can also refer them to their partner organisations for legal support.
Beyond just the mind and the health, these social media groups also help with livelihoods. While larger businesses often have their own social media groups where they reach customers, smaller, or part-time entrepreneurs who only offer products seasonally find it harder to gain visibility. That is where these online female-run marketplaces come in. These groups are also helping women entrepreneurs by giving them solutions for their business-related problems. Along with selling domestic products, the group 'Female Entrepreneurs of Bangladesh' is helping the entrepreneurs by giving them advice on product market research strategy, price determination and ensuring customer's acceptability satisfaction. The group is run by three female entrepreneurs and currently consist of 3,119 members.
Another group 'Female Only Freelancers of Bangladesh' is assisting inexperienced freelancers by giving them ideas and knowledge about online freelancing. Through this group, a large number of experienced freelancers are getting small gigs.
Apart from helping and supporting women in their everyday problems, these women-only Facebook groups are empowering women and connecting them to each other. And this is maybe the reason why first-time mother Sheuly Juthi can fight against traditional misconceptions during her pregnancy or young professionals like Debjani Modak is not hesitating to start her world tour with her best travel buddy.