She’s the leader of a disability self-help group in Bangladesh, in Raipura sub-district, and co-ordinates the other 29 groups across Narsingdi district. As part of her role, she negotiates with local government, police commissioners, philanthropists and mayors.
“My role is to make the rights of people with disabilities available in society and to ensure they live with dignity,” she says. “I am doing well, but that’s not enough; at the same time I want my brothers and sisters with disabilities to do well too.”
Going about her work with grace, charisma and a huge smile, Jahanara is known and admired across the district; when she speaks, people listen.
“I tell the local government: ‘Whenever you call a meeting, please give me a call – there is a law for people with disabilities, and it is mandatory to invite people with disabilities in these meetings.’ I request them to distribute government-allocated rice, and allocate [benefits] cards reserved for people with disabilities.”
But Jahanara hasn’t always been so sure of herself. “To be honest, I have the confidence to be able to go to these people and request to be involved because of training provided by Sightsavers,” she says. “This training boosted me up.”
Sightsavers continued to support the group, and others in the area, offering training on ways to make a living and run small businesses, and encouraging members to engage with local authorities.
While they flourished personally, the members lacked the experience to really make an impact at a district level. But in recent years an extension to the programme focused on giving group members the skills and knowledge they needed to get their voices heard. They underwent training in human rights, leadership, legal aid and women’s rights, and learned about the national policies around inclusion of people with disabilities.
Bangladesh has a national disability rights and protection act that requires local governments to support certain needs of people with disabilities. But this isn’t widely known – or it wasn’t, until Jahanara and other self-help group members started to demand their rights be fulfilled.
Jahanara has had some incredible successes in her role as group president: she’s helped fellow members who have been physically assaulted get their cases taken seriously by the police, resolved long-running property disputes (including one that had lasted nine years before her involvement) and helped a house owner regain possession after their home was illegally taken over. She ensures members can access funding for wheelchairs, assistive devices and housing support.
“In the past when, you go to the sub-district or district offices, they neglected us. They hardly listened to us. But in the last few years this has changed. Now 80 per cent of the time they listen to us. Self-help groups are important because no one alone can do achieve anything, but if everyone comes together and works together then anything is possible – the impossible can be done.”
As well as being a source of professional pride, the self-help groups have also transformed Jahanara’s personal life. “The most important impact on me is that I was introduced to my husband through the self-help group,” she says with a shy grin. “We had a love marriage [as opposed to an arranged marriage, which is very common in Bangladesh] and we’ve been married around seven years .” Jahanara’s husband Jashim is also blind, and was part of a group in a different area.
The couple run their home, raise their two young sons, (Soab, five, and Tuhin, four) and run a small shop, as well as heading grassroots advocacy across a whole district. Jahanara even takes the time to help educate other people in braille. “I am very busy!” she laughs.