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Interview with Shomy Hasan Chowdhury - Awareness 360 - Malaysia

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Ms. Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Ms. Shomy Hasan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi social activist who specializes in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH). Ms. Chowdhury is the Co-Founder of Awareness 360, a nonprofit organization based out of Malaysia that has empowered young citizens of over 25 countries to participate in sustainability-centric service since 2014. Ms. Chowdhury is a 2019 recipient of the Princess Diana Legacy Award, is listed as the Featured Honoree of the Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for her social impact in Asia in 2021, and is a Schwarzman Scholar. Her interview will primarily cover her passions for education, women’s rights, and social and racial/ethnic issues.

Gender Equality Statistics


Gender Development Index: 0.904 deviation

Gender Inequality Index: 0.537

Group Classification: 4, medium to low equality in human development amongst genders


Interview with Ms. Shomy Hasan Chowdhury (Shortened Transcript)

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

What are the most common gender stereotypes in Bangladesh?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Thank you so much for having me here today.

Well, there are many stereotypes about Bangladeshi women and girls. Unfortunately, like in most of the world, patriarchy is deeply embedded in Bangladeshi culture and society. Even though we are progressing, we still have a long way to go. It's not just true for Bangladesh. It's true for the whole world.

When I was growing up, I saw that children face a lot of discrimination even before they are born, especially girl children. For example, there is a notion that a boy child is better than a girl child because many families, especially in the rural areas, still consider the girl child a burden. They would rather have an abortion instead of a girl child, if there is time. There are many incidences where the to-be mom would lie to the husband, saying, Oh it's too late for abortion, just because that mom does not want to give up on her child.

Then, once the child is born, you will see very clear differences between a girl child and a boy child when they are being raised. For example, we see the way the media objectifies girls and women, and this is true for pretty much everywhere. There is the beauty standard of a perfect girl or a perfect woman. These are very superficial things, right? When you buy a birthday gift, you get a Barbie doll for a girl child, whereas you buy a car, robot, or some engineering toy for a boy child. We automatically produce the idea in a girl child’s mind that they need to be shy, stay at home, and not be out of the home late at night. A boy child, though, can go out and be with friends. But the girl child has to be home on time, because we want to protect them.

We need to come out of this protective notion, because we do not have to protect girls and women if we can make the environment safe for them. We should rather focus on the source of the problem instead of limiting their independence and freedom. When they are deciding on their career we impose that, Oh no, you better be a doctor or you better be a teacher. If they want to be an engineer or pilot, however, we usually say, Oh, are you sure you want to do that?

From the very beginning, as the girl child is being raised, we do not insert confidence in her. Even if she has the potential in her, we do not foster a conducive environment for her to unleash that potential and actually get better at what she could do.

I can share a personal example. Because of my work, I get to travel a lot around the world. But when I am going through immigration in many countries and not just in my own country, I get asked Oh, who are you traveling with? Where's either your dad or your husband? I mean, this is ridiculous. They cannot even comprehend that I may be able to travel wherever I want without a husband or without someone to protect me.

When my mom passed away, others insisted I get married because I needed somebody to take care of me, even though my dad is alive and well enough to do so. If I did not come from an open-minded family background- if I were from another average family- maybe I would be married by now. Asking girls and women to get married, then rushing them to have kids at the cost of pursuing their dream career, is not a conducive environment for them to shine. Even when the working women take up a job, there is not a favorable work environment for them to thrive in their own career.

There are different stereotypes, like, Oh, you got a promotion? You must have slept with your boss. If you’re working too much or you’re too career focused, you're not a good mother. Or, if you’re too family focused, you're not a good employee. Then they don't get that promotion or that career progression as fast as their male counterparts do. As you can see, women and girls have been raised and programmed to be in a box. So, lots of stereotypes. Maybe it's not written down somewhere, but it's very much profoundly implanted in society.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

No doubt, this is something that we have to change. This is something that we all together, man and woman, must change, as well as one of the most important problems we have right now here in the states, in Bangladesh, in Spain, in Germany- everywhere, and that is of course, gender violence.

I was reading the other day about Bangladesh and I’m reading what they write there: two out of three married women in Bangladesh have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. Almost 60% of girls are married before their 18th birthday and their husbands' families may abandon them if they are unable to birth children. How can we explain this gender violence in general and in particular, and these really young marriages?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

For sure. I mean this is really horrendous- all of these statistics. It's really crazy to think that these are statistics from today, you know? This is the twenty-first century. The United States got Kamala Harris after 244 years! It's a great, groundbreaking feat, but it also shows how slow our progress has been! Until now, we haven't seen any Secretary General of the United Nations who is a female. I mean, all of this explains it.

Another thing is, of course it's great to see women in positions of power. If you take Bangladesh as an example, our Prime Minister is a woman. She's a great champion of gender equality, no doubt. We have made a lot of progression because of her leadership. Our Speaker of the Parliament is also a woman. Our main opposition party leader is a woman, but despite these very important positions for decades being taken up by women, the mass is not changing much. What is really happening on the ground?

You were talking about gender-based violence; there are so many different kinds of gender-based violence, right? There's intimate partner violence. There is, in many African countries especially and in some Arab countries, female genital mutilation. For example, my team at Awareness 360 in Cameroon, works to raise awareness against breast ironing. This is a very bizarre concept for me, because I had never heard of it. Then, when I got to know about it, I learned that the mothers themselves, literally iron the breast of the girl children, because they think they're doing what is right and that it protects them. It is a cultural practice. Whereas, this is absolutely dreadful and it's against our health rights and human rights. So there is a lack of awareness there.

Earlier, we were talking about stereotypes. The divorce rate has gone up these days. I think it's a good sign, because it shows that we- girls and women- no longer think that we have to get tortured by our husbands just to hold that good image or to protect the so called honor of the family. I think people are slowly coming out of that idea.

But we also need to think about why a woman doesn't speak up or keep trying to make their marriage work. [It is] because the life of a divorced girl or woman is not easy. Their face in society is definitely not something of dignity. Somehow, [regarding] the reason for that marriage not working, the blame will always come to the woman. It's so difficult for a girl or woman to survive and be financially independent because, the majority of the time, they're dependent on their husband. They have nowhere to go and their family, such as their own parents, usually won't accept them back.

During this pandemic, we have been saying there's another pandemic- the shadow pandemic, which is gender based violence. It's been on the rise. During lockdown, women are literally stuck in their home with their abuser. Consequently, COVID-19 has had a huge toll on our mental health as well.

Girls and women in the household are usually in charge of doing the most household chores, as well as taking care of the baby. There's a lack of power dynamics. The father is generally regarded as the head of the family, and is able to make the decisions for the family. When the father or husband has been mad or frustrated or angry for whatever reason- because COVID-19 has taken a toll on our economy, on our mental health, everything- they will [deflect] that frustration on to the wife. This is why we've seen a sharp increase in domestic violence during this pandemic. This is definitely a huge concern, and it's not just something that happened during the pandemic. It was already bad and it just got exacerbated because of the pandemic. We definitely have a lot to work on when it comes to dismantling gender-based violence.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much for your answer, that was very, very interesting. In fact, you’ve already answered one of the questions I was about to ask you after this question, and that is of course the influence of COVID-19. Like in any other country in the world, that has affected, in a negative way, of course, the situation of women and increasing gender-based violence throughout the world. Not only in Bangladesh, but in the United States or European countries as well.

In general, do you think that we are still dealing with this problem because governments- the Bangladesh government or governments in general- have not dealt with this issue properly? Is that the reason why we still have this huge problem and why we see that in some cases, that the issue is growing and getting even worse than what we had, for example, two years ago?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Yes, one hundred percent. I definitely think that it's a lacking by and a failure of governments and of our leaders worldwide. You know, research has shown that countries who are led by a woman, even during COVID-19, have done better dealing with this problem compared to countries who are led by men. But if you look at the statistics of how many women leaders there are in top positions, like Prime Ministers or Presidents, it's full of white men. This is the reality we can't deny. It is shown by research that women leaders usually think from a multi-dimensional perspective. They think about the wellbeing of their employees. They think about other aspects- not just profit or business! Even in the private sector, it's seen that female CEOs tend to perform better than male CEOs. They are also conscious about the climate, and about the well being of their employees.

I think there are two things. First is definitely a failure of the governments and of our leaders worldwide. Despite knowing all of these facts and all of these statistics, they are not doing enough.

The second thing- and this one will take a long time to change, for sure- is general, public awareness. It has become a cultural thing. For example, we cannot easily call people out. When I'm in a conversation with my family and someone makes a bad remark- maybe she/he made it with a good intention, but it is a very stereotypical comment or a very misogynistic comment- do I have the courage to actually say out loud, Why did you make that comment? That's very wrong. Would you like it if somebody else made that same comment about me or you? Getting that courage will take a little bit of time. We do have good laws and policies, but are they being implemented? That's where we are lacking, I think.

Look at family friendly workplaces. Just earlier today, I was reading a post by a Bangladeshi woman that had gone viral on Facebook where the mother was saying that it’s really hard for her to go to work when her baby cries every morning for her. It's a very emotional post. If there was a better workplace environment where the mom could take the baby and spend time with the baby, then the mom could actually concentrate better.

I think what we are failing to realize is that gender equality is not just a movement for women or for girls. It's good for everybody, right? It's good for even businesses. Why don't companies want to invest in women? I think they're not seeing the long-term benefit of investing in them. It's not just the right thing to do, but it's also good for the things they care about: mainly profit. They can earn more money if there is gender equality in their workplace. I think it's because we refuse to change and are reluctant to accept that our way of doing something may be wrong. But I think it's no longer an excuse, with all the research, statistics, facts and figures right in front of us.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much for that, that was super interesting again. Well, listening to you and how you explain that failure and the lack of participation of women in the political system, I was thinking… There's a big difference between Europe and the United States in dealing with this problem, above all in the participation of women in the political system. Europe is implementing what we know as quotas. Do you believe in quotas?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

This is a difficult question for me, because my knowledge is very limited when it comes to politics. Growing up, I was never encouraged to look into politics in a good way. It's not just for girls and women. In general, young people lack participation in politics too. It's often linked to the corruption that's there. The ugly environment that's there.

Families usually would be like, Oh, stay away from politics, it’s dirty. Politics is not supposed to be dirty. It's supposed to be a good thing. It's what we humans made it to be. Our politicians or ex-politicians made it dirty.

Anyway, I find it a bit difficult to answer, but I think a quota system is good in a sense, because we are lagging behind. My perception may be wrong, but just from my limited knowledge, I think we need to understand the difference between equality and equity. We have already fallen behind, that if we talk about equality now, then how are we going to make up for all these centuries of when we were not given the rights that we deserved? So I think a quota system is a good way to start. Obviously, in the long run, we can't rely on it all the time. But for now, to establish equity, maybe a quota system is a reasonable option.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much. That was super, super interesting. You were making a reference to mass media and the way mass media is portraying women in Bangladesh as well. I understood it as a problem. Can you develop this idea? Because we have the same problem in the United States, we have the same problem in Europe, we have the same problem everywhere. How can we solve this?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Definitely. We need to talk more about this, so that the people in the media realize that it's a problem. We need to call them out on it. We need to boycott them if needed.

For example, there is a skin whitening cream- a fairness cream they call it- that I have seen since I was a kid. It's called Fair and Lovely, the more fair you get, the better looking you are. Those advertisements would always get me. I would always wonder, Why do they portray girls and women like this? You only have to be fair and beautiful and lovely to get a job? Those things don't make sense.

If you think of the portrayal in movies, such as in Bengali or Indian movies, we usually see the dialogues are such that the girl is always seeking to be rescued by the hero. There will be an attempt to rape, and then suddenly the hero will come and save the girl or woman. These things are very stereotypical. Mass people are not going to watch this conversation that you and I are having right now. It's the movie that a random man in the village of Bangladesh or wherever would be watching. So, what we talked about here is definitely important, but I think what's even more important are movies and how the dialogue is broadcasted in those movies. I think the media has a very important role to break those stereotypes, bust those myths, and represent girls and women in positions of power.

If you notice now, Barbie dolls for example, are no longer princessy Barbie dolls. They come in various careers like a doctor or a space woman. This is progress. This is great because then, when a girl child is playing with that astronaut Barbie doll, she will think Oh, I can be that as well, instead of just always being princesses. If you look at Disney movies, the majority of the movies are waiting for a prince to save [a girl or woman] from something. But, things are gradually changing. We see movies like Moana. We see movies where it doesn't always have to be a happy ending. I think advertisements are as important as movies and drama series, because their accessibility and acceptance to the public is huge. Our perceptions are developed based on what we see and what we hear in the media.

We were talking about domestic violence during COVID-19. If you look at the news reports and how they are presented, you will see that we usually have a tendency to blame the victim. What was the girl wearing? What time was the girl outside? Then we say that XYZ was raped, instead of saying ABC raped XYZ. We're focusing more on the victim, but the narrative should be the other way around when we write articles and interview girls and women.

For example, a few months back, there was news that someone committed a criminal offense- a lady. Everybody started talking about what she was wearing, how many husbands she had, how many marriages have worked and not worked. Why are we talking about all these? If that same criminal was a man, we would only focus on the crime and not what dress she was wearing, how much makeup she put on, or who she hung out with. Why are we focusing on so many other aspects of the woman? The media has a crucial influence in shaping our attitudes toward girls and women.

You know, my expertise is more in the WASH sector: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. Part of my work leads me to dealing a lot with menstrual hygiene and the stigma behind menstruation. You'll be surprised to know that in the majority of the advertisements for sanitary napkins, the blood drop is usually shown in blue or purple color. Why not red? Why don't we portray things as they are? We don't drip blue or purple blood- it's red. There's nothing shameful about it. Why can't you just portray that as normally as you would portray a cut in a movie? In an action scene, they don't show purple blood dripping out of your arm. When it comes to sanitary napkin ads- why purple? Why blue? Why not red? These are things that breed the stigma and this wrong perception, so the media definitely has a huge role to play in advancing gender equality.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you, that was super interesting and very clear.

We were talking about the government, and the need to have a government dealing properly with these problems. We have talked about the media and the need to change the media’s portrayal of women. And, of course, in my opinion, education is essential as well.

But let me tell you, talking with other amazing social activists like you- some who don't even have good education in their country- I've been taught that, although governments are trying to introduce good classes and initiative activities to promote this idea of gender equality, the problem they have found is after the class. When the child goes back to his or her family and they tell their parents what they have learned in the classroom today, their parents reject that. Is there anything similar in Bangladesh? Is the government trying to promote programs, classes, and activities that eventually families are rejecting?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

I'm not very sure about this. I haven't heard about any statistics or research on this.

The thing is, girls don’t even get to go to school. Coming back from school and saying, This is what I learned, is far off. We still have a long way to go when it comes to providing access to education for girls. Globally, I think 10 million more girls than boys do not attend school. Especially during COVID-19, I think this has further increased.

As I was saying in the very beginning, girls are considered a burden, so many families don't even think it's important for girls to get access to education. The Bangladesh government has done some excellent work though. For example, providing scholarships and external stipends for girls to go to school up to grade 12. I mean, the government is trying, but still, because of that whole norm [it’s an issue]. Even during COVID-19, a lot of girls and women have been married off and they couldn't finish school, even though they wanted to.

Another thing is, after they're done with school and when they get back home, I’m not even sure how many people ask them what they learned at school. In the masses, I doubt people ask or that parents have any interest to know if the girl has learned something in school. Usually, when it comes to the dinner table, you'll see the opinions of the son taken more into account compared to the opinion of the girl child. For example, if a house has a daughter and the daughter may be older than the son, there are incidences where if the sister has to go somewhere, the younger brother would tag along with the idea that the brother will protect the older sister. It should have been the other way around. Usually we see that the boy gets more attention. That’s why when they become a parent, they think, They have a better voice than their counterpart.

So, I’m not sure about what that implies in terms of girls coming back from school and then parents rejecting the idea, but I don't think there is much interest to even find out what they learned in school.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much, that was super interesting too. In these last minutes, I'm going to explore your initiative and what you've been doing lately with your project, but before that, I'm going to read for you, one of the questions that my students wanted to ask you. That is, is there anyone in your life who has inspired you in your work and lifestyle?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

There are many, actually. I think that we can seek inspiration from pretty much everyone we meet. There is something to learn from everyone’s story. There are many incidences where I have felt inspired. Those people motivated me to continue my work, so it's difficult to pick one or two people, but my initial inspiration definitely came from my father. I learned my passion for community service, and for empathy and giving back to society from my father even before I understood those terms. My father is a Rotarian, so I grew up seeing him doing different kinds of events, and I used to accompany him. From there, the idea that I should give back to my society as well, came to me.

In the WASH field, Mr. Jack Sim, who is better known as the toilet man, is the founder of the World Toilet Organization. He is someone I feel deeply inspired by because when he started his work of raising awareness, he brought a lot of traction to the cause of toilets and water, sanitation and hygiene. It is very inspiring because he left his very successful career to start the entrepreneur life. He left all of that when he was the age of 40. He built a worldwide organization and established World Toilet Day, which is coming up on the 19th of November. The kind of advocacy he does uses comedy, so coming up with funny and cool ways to [spread awareness].

Last World Toilet Day, I was fortunate and privileged to interview him. He came to Awareness 360, and I learned about his story and how he built his organization. Then we played this music video that talks about shit; it's a very cool way to rap music about something like that, but it's also a great way to raise awareness about something as basic as, you know, poop. I really find his way of advocacy very interesting and timely.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much, that was super interesting and a very good example. Speaking of… can you explain what Awareness 360 is?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

For sure. Awareness 360 is a global nonprofit organization. We mainly empower young people through our teams across 25+ countries. Young people can join us as a fellow or as an intern. We give them transferable skills, resources, tools, mentorship, inspiration, and a sense of community they need in order to identify social challenges in their communities, and find solutions to those by utilizing the skills and knowledge they gain.

We follow the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ framework, so our members are free to work on any of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of our focus areas is definitely water, sanitation and hygiene in the vulnerable communities we identify- communities that people usually don't think about, the most forgotten, left behind kind of communities that are hard to reach. For example, the sex workers, the sewage workers, the slum dwellers, homeless people, refugees, and other kinds of difficult to-reach and vulnerable communities. Then, we raise awareness about different aspects of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene among them.

For example, we raise awareness about the importance of drinking clean water, how they can filter water, and how to wash their hands properly. These are some things we have been seeing a lot of during COVID-19. This is what we have been doing, because handwashing is not just important during the COVID pandemic, but also all year round.

We work on gender equality, climate action, and other SDGs as well.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

What is precisely your role in Awareness 360?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

I serve in the position of co-chair, and I'm one of the co-founders. My role is basically to oversee pretty much everything, as we have different teams and departments within the organization like the media team, the events team, and operations. I oversee that the operations are going smoothly. I keep my eyes on everything to see whether things are up to the mark, if we are following the organizational policies, and are on track with our timeline and roadmap.

Another thing, which I think is the most important part of my role, is strategizing policies and making decisions for the organization. What will be good? What will be bad? What should we focus on? Setting priorities.

I also act as a spokesperson for the organization quite a bit. I manage media interviews, partnerships, external relations as well. It's definitely a collective effort. I'm not the only one. My co-founder and my whole team are also there, so we all sort of divide responsibilities together.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much, super clear and very interesting. I have a question that Natalie, another student, wanted to ask you. This is about the challenges you have to deal with in playing your role in the organization and the challenges that the organization is dealing with right now. Can you tell us a little bit about these challenges?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Challenges are many and they are evolving. The challenges we faced in 2014 when we started out versus now are a lot different. We have learned from these challenges and strategized. things are much better now as we have made changes in our system and our policies.

Some common challenges we continue to face are definitely lack of funding and lack of resources. These struggles are not my own, but are something that youth organizations face a lot. Again, there's a lot of bureaucracy issues, and there's a lot of other issues that I'm not going to go into detail about, but the lack of funding and other resources is a big challenge because that restricts us primarily from making more impact and doing more projects.

Secondly, the kind of communities we work with pose challenges. As I mentioned earlier, the sex workers, the sewage workers, these are very, very stigmatized and hard to access communities. If today you decide to go to a brothel, you can’t get access tomorrow. It's not easy, and there's a lot of risks associated with it. The reason why I think they are not very accessible, the reason why not many organizations are working for them, is because of the barriers to entry. Getting permission, managing police and security, convening volunteers. Going above and beyond that whole embarrassment of, Oh you're going to work with the sex workers community? That's shameful. Coming out of that stereotype is very difficult.

Once we are there, then comes the next challenge. These communities, because they live in extreme poverty, don't think the things that we raise awareness about are significant. These are communities where they have to decide whether they can afford their next meal or they can buy clean water or soap to wash their hands, as we are asking them to do. Sometimes they find it a waste of time to listen to us. It's difficult for us to make them understand the long term impact and the economic impact of investing in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH).

WASH is not just something that helps you become healthy, less sick, or not die early. It's way more than that. It's proven by research that if somebody invests $1 in sanitation and hygiene, the return is four-fold. It's $4 in economic return, because the nation will be more productive. They can earn more, they'll be less sick so reduced healthcare costs, they can go to a job, and do tasks properly. But, to make them realize that- because for them, the future is only the next meal, for them, the future is surviving tomorrow, not more than that- it's very difficult to actually make them trust that what we're saying is good for them. That’s the second challenge.

About the third challenge - because we are a global organization, and we are working with young people from different countries, cross-cultural communication sometimes creates setbacks. As I said earlier, everyone is suffering from burnout and mental health problems. Working remotely is very challenging. We try our best to make it a very safe environment where everyone respects each other, and I think that's the beauty of Awareness 360.

The last challenge that I would like to mention is societal pressure. When I do interviews, many people want to see me as this inspiring figure, which for many young leaders like myself, is a pressure. Sometimes this labeling becomes a bit stressful, so I think it's important to be open and vulnerable about the challenges we are facing. Just because I am a leader of an organization doesn't mean that I will always be on the top of my game or I'll always be super happy. I can also feel down. I think dealing with other people's expectations and having that “strong girl” image is a bit difficult to deal with sometimes. These are some of the challenges that we face.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

I have only one more question that I usually ask all the guests we have in class. Imagine that tonight you go to bed, you sleep very well, and tomorrow morning you notice that people are beginning to address you as Prime Minister. Suddenly, you are the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. What is the first thing that you do being in that position?

Shomy Hasan Chowdhury

Oh wow, that's very difficult. I think the first thing would be to onboard myself with that role, because, obviously, I'm not ready to become the Prime Minister today. I don't have that level of knowledge or experience yet. I'm not ready for it, so if tomorrow I suddenly become the Prime Minister, I will need to understand what's going on first in order to take that first step of action. I wouldn't just go ahead and say, Oh, I want this and that, just because I had the power. I think that's something that many world leaders usually do, which I don't like. Making decisions without understanding the full context, without understanding the long term impact of that decision, is wrong, so I will take my time to really understand what has been done before, what is going on, what is the need of the hour, and then I will make the right decision in a calm and composed mind.


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