Tea and taboo in Bangladesh

Malnicherra is the oldest of Bangladesh’s 165 tea gardens. Here youth groups meet twice a month after school or at the weekend, with 25 members in each group. They talk about things that are usually taboo like sex, HIV prevention, and violence. Sima, 18, lives on the Malnicherra estate, and is a peer leader for three girls’ groups.

“I’m happy that I’m letting people know about these issues ... At first I was a bit shy in the sessions but now the young people are eager and come forward to talk to me about sensitive issues, so it feels good; they encourage me to talk.”

Sima is one of 300 young people trained as peer leaders on topics important to them including HIV prevention, sexual and reproductive rights, safe motherhood and addressing gender-based violence. HASAB, the Alliance Linking Organisation in Bangladesh, provided the training because young people are the most vulnerable to HIV. The risks are even higher for young people from highly stigmatised groups, such as sex workers, people who inject drugs, and men who have sex with men. Social and cultural taboos cause a pervasive silence around sexual and reproductive health and rights, but things are changing.

"I know how I can go on with my life in safety, how to be independent. I now know my rights."

— Sima

Reaching rural areas

The project has been particularly ground breaking in Sylhet, in north-eastern Bangladesh, where our implementing partner Reliant Women Development Organisation has established youth groups in local tea gardens. It is the only sexual and reproductive health project in the district. At the start of the project, gatekeeper meetings with parents, religious leaders, community leaders and teachers proved essential in ensuring support for the youth groups. “People went to the gatekeeper meetings out of curiosity initially. People would say: all those girls in one room together, what are they doing?” says Sima. “Now they know they are enthusiastic.”

Shilla’s Story

Shilla† joined one of the youth groups a year ago. As a sex worker Shilla is stigmatised by her neighbours and even her clients. Neighbours have driven her out of her home numerous times, and she is left with no recourse if a client is abusive or refuses to pay. Recently she arranged the funeral for one of her friends, also a sex worker, who died from a HIV-related illness. Shilla says the emotional and practical support she receives through the youth group means, “I know how I can go on with my life in safety, how to be independent. I now know my rights”.

As well as feeling better able to protect herself, Shilla finds herself sharing information, or asserting herself, with clients. “Previously I didn’t know about condoms. Now I talk with my clients. I say to them, you came for momentary satisfaction but you have no idea. I explain how HIV is spread.”

†not her real name