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Title: Networking for social justice: The role of selfhelp groups of blind people, Bangladesh
Author: Fefoame, G, Miles, S and Mulligan, D
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2012,

Networking for social justice: The role of selfhelp groups of blind people, Bangladesh

Gertrude Fefoame, Susie Miles and Diane Mulligan

A self-help group is formed by people facing a common problem or situation. It usually involves pooling resources and information, offering mutual support, and perhaps a combined voice in advocacy. In Bangladesh, blind people have taken a leading role in challenging social exclusion through their role as self-help group members. Supported by Sightsavers and its partners, the self-help groups developed networking relationships with influential community leaders and organisations. Supporting disabled children and their families to access school is part of their role. While Sightsavers’ mandate is to support people with visual impairments, its approach to social inclusion advocates a broader engagement with exclusion challenges. Here we show how one activist has challenged exclusion and supported education.

Speaking out for disabled people
The mosque plays a major role in village life.s Having a strong religious faith is seen as a valuable community resource. Tareque is the President of the federation of self-help groups and a paid employee of the mosque, leading prayers – a common role for blind men in South Asia.

Friday prayers give him an opportunity to talk about the rights of disabled people, like the right to education. He also has the responsibility of visiting community members, including those with disabilities. He has brought together his dual roles in the self-help group and the mosque to better understand the families’ challenges and encourage them to share experiences. As a person with a visual impairment, Tareque is a positive role model for people with disabilities in the community.

Speaking out for social justice
However, Tareque does not only focus on family members with disabilities. He has taken a stand for social justice in general, from his position as a religious leader. His role in the mosque introduced him to a wider range of community members. This story highlights his role in advocating for rights beyond disability:

Fatima was 14 when her parents wanted to arrange her marriage. They received an offer from a potential husband which did not involve having to pay a dowry – an attraction for a poor family. However, Tareque and two influential community elders decided to stop the marriage. They believed Fatima needed to, and had the right to, continue her studies until she was 18.

Fatima was from a very poor family. Neighbours pressured the family to arrange her marriage, as they considered her to be an appropriate age. Tareque and the community elders went to Fatima’s house to convince the parents to delay the marriage. They succeeded and Fatima was allowed to stay in school. When she reached 18, her marriage was arranged to a different man, and still no dowry payment was demanded.

Although Fatima’s desperately poor parents escaped paying a dowry, they had to support their daughter for four more years in school before she married. Nevertheless, the long-term benefits of preventing early marriage, with its potential to cause further poverty, is clear. The intervention will not just have a long-term impact on Fatima’s own life. Because she is educated, the chances of her own children receiving an education and gaining access to health care increase. Educating Fatima has helped in breaking down the cycle of poverty in her family and community.

As an educated blind person, Tareque is acutely aware of the vicious cycle of poverty (and especially of poverty and disability) in his community. This is why he supports self-help group members to generate income and achieve a reasonable standard of living. He recognises the potential of education to provide an escape from poverty, hence leding the initiative to support Fatima’s continued education.

This article is a short extract from: Miles, S, Fefoame, GO, Mulligan, D and Haque, Z (2012)”Education for diversity: The role of networking in resisting disabled people’s marginalisation in Bangladesh” Compare, Vol 42, No 2, pp283-302