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Journalists, Recruited from Provinces, Train in Bangladesh

March 15, 2007

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="144" caption="Shireen Parvin, 26, (left) and Sajeda Haque, 29, graduated from the Salma Sobhan Fellowship in 2006. Both worked until recently at Desh Bangla, a Bengali language daily that closed down in February. "][/caption] By Indrani Sen When Pushpita Alam began interviewing candidates for a fellowship program in Bangladesh teaching working-class women to be journalists, she looked for personal strength and the determination to excel in a dangerous and male-dominated profession. Even so, Alam said, she was a little taken aback by the fierceness of some of the would-be journalists. “One woman walked in and we asked her, ‘Can you handle a challenge? Can you handle pressure?’” recalled Alam, who manages the program. “She was like, ‘Well, my husband committed suicide two days ago and here I am. I’m pretty good under pressure.’” Another woman was inspired to become a journalist and shed light on injustice after seeing a neighbor—the abused wife of a philandering rickshaw puller—set herself on fire. One candidate mentioned in passing that a criminal gang had recently kidnapped her and held her for two weeks. “She didn’t say anything about what happened to her, and we didn’t ask,” Alam said. “But she felt the whole shell of protective conservative attitudes about her was broken, and that people who were going to think badly of her already thought badly of her. She said, ‘This is why I don’t feel any shame or fear about coming into a profession like journalism.’” In this mostly Muslim country of 147 million, journalism is a profession that has traditionally been considered too dangerous and adventurous for women. Statistics are hard to come by, but the only women you’re likely to see in Bangladeshi newsrooms are aproned, serving cups of tea to men slouched before computers. The few female bylines in Bangladeshi newspapers are mostly in the culture pages or weekend inserts. And those writers tend to be members of Bangladesh’s elite—upper-class ladies writing about spa treatments or fundraisers for worthy causes. To address this imbalance, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), one of the country’s largest micro-credit and development organizations, is training working-class women from all over the country to become journalists. The Salma Sobhan Fellowship for Women in Journalism, started in 2005, aims to graduate 500 women in its first few years. Initially, BRAC was going to start a small scholarship program at an existing journalism school. “But then we thought we should just train large numbers of women in the countryside,” said BRAC’s founder and chair Fazle Hasan Abed. “At least the provincial correspondents of the newspapers would be women, and telling stories from a women’s perspective.” The one-year program, named for the late human rights lawyer Salma Sobhan, is offered to literate women from all of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, in partnership with several media organizations that provide outlets for the students’ work. Well-known journalists train the women, who receive a modest stipend and reimbursement for expenses. They file stories regularly: over the course of a year, each must have at least 24 pieces published or broadcast. The first class of 32 graduates has surpassed even the most optimistic hopes of the program’s organizers. They’ve undertaken hard-hitting investigations, bringing to light the exploitation of day laborers and a controversial government program that sent women from rural Bangladesh to be maids in Saudi Arabia. Some stories were heartbreaking—an elderly man abandoned by the side of a road by his family. Others presented the struggles of those whose voices are rarely heard—prostitutes and fistula sufferers and illegal street hawkers. Almost the entire first class has landed jobs at Bengali language newspapers, including nine hired by Prothom Alo, the country’s largest newspaper. Organizers say there was a scramble to hire the women, who require little on-the-job training since they are much better prepared than most first-time hires. The current class, which graduates this month, is being trained for the electronic media, using mini-DVD cameras to file TV and web stories. Journalism is often a dangerous and high-pressure field, and hardly anywhere more so than in Bangladesh. It was named one of the world’s five “most murderous” countries for the profession by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2005. For Bangladeshi women journalists, the hazards and challenges aren’t only on the job. One Salma Sobhan fellow was cast out from her family and cut off financially after joining the program. Others have faced intimidation from political leaders and local heavies. Most disappointingly, some male reporters from media organizations that partnered with the fellowship have added to the problems. “Journalists, especially in rural areas, are highly influential people,” said Alam. “They’re mostly male, and they don’t like competition.” Correspondents who were supposed to act as mentors to the fellows have in some cases shunned them and started rumors to discredit them. Other men “have become so close it’s almost harassment,” Alam said, inventorying their behavior: “Insisting the girls go everywhere with them and come to their houses, suggestive comments, trying to set up dates and marriages.” Sajeda Haque, a 29-year-old graduate of the program who got a job at the Bengali newspaper Desh Bangla, described her newsroom colleagues’ attitude as condescending. “Men don’t outright say women can’t be in this profession,” Haque said through a translator. “In fact, they say ‘welcome! We need more women in the profession!’ But in that there’s taunting. There’s a kind of sarcasm.” Digging in and following a story through are worth such challenges.  Selina Sheuly, 33, a member of the current graduating class, told of reporting from the remote and desperately impoverished settlements in the “chars,” or dry river beds. Despite a close shave—she was almost attacked by a mob of people unused to outside visitors—she’s determined to go back and write more about the plight of the community. “There’s still a lot to work on in this topic,” she explained. Sheuly’s freelance reporting for an Indian news channel and several Bangladeshi dailies has earned her a new respect. “I feel proud, because now people know me by my name, not my husband’s name,” she said. “People know me as a journalist.”