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Dr. Elora Chowdhury Speaks About Her Experiences in the Acid Violence Movement and Her Current Research on NGO Politics and Women’s Activism

by Sabrin

Dr. Elora Halim Chowdhury is an Assitant Professer of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachussets.  Her teaching and research interests include critical development studies, third world/transnational feminisms, globalization and women’s organizing in Bangladesh.  She has worked with various philanthropic/development organizations in Bangladesh and the U.S.  The title of her current book project is Transnationalism Reversed: Engaging Development, NGO Politics and Women’s Organizing in Bangladesh.

 

OAA: You were heavily involved in the Bangladeshi women’s movement against men’s acid throwing in the 1990s. How did you get involved in this cause and how did your involvement with Naripokkho, a women’s advocacy group in Bangladesh, work towards combating this problem? 

EC: In 1996, after completing my B.A. and M.A. in Women’s Studies in the U.S., I returned to Bangladesh and took a job as a “feature writer of gender issues” with a national English language newspaper. In Dhaka, the national women’s movement in Bangladesh has a highly visible and active presence that kept me very busy. I could barely keep up with all of the workshops, seminars, and initiatives I was receiving invitations to cover. One such invitation came from Naripokkho (pro-women) a national women’s advocacy organization who, at the time, was beginning to mobilize a campaign against acid attacks on adolescent girls. It was while researching for a series of articles, I became acquainted with the activists in Naripokkho and a group of young women survivors of acid attacks. Together these women were starting to chart the direction of a campaign that emphasized the importance of empowering those who had endured acid attacks to be the leaders of the campaign. 

Although acid attacks were reported in newspapers at least since the early to mid 1980s, no systematic study of the phenomenon nor organized response to it was available at the time. One activity Naripokkho organized was a three-day workshop with a group of young women survivors and their families that generated some insight in to the experiences and needs specific to this group in medical, legal, and social arenas. The information generated at the workshop became the groundwork that enabled Naripokkho to target key actors at local, national and transnational levels to organize a collective response to acid violence in Bangladesh. Another important outcome of the workshop was the emergence of a nationwide solidarity network of survivors.  

As the campaign grew, Naripokkho activists were successful in convincing UNICEF and CIDA to jointly establish the Acid Survivors Foundation in 1998, an umbrella organization, that would provide comprehensive services – medical, legal, and rehabilitation – to women victims of acid attacks. Throughout this period I worked with Naripokkho, UNICEF and CIDA first as a journalist and later as a research consultant gathering information on existing resources and identifying gaps in services for victims of violence. I would like to stress however that mine was a small supporting role in this work. It was the activists of Naripokkho and the survivors of acid attacks that played the critical role. Because I learned so much from women activists in Bangladesh, and gained a critical understanding of the complexities of grassroots, national and transnational organizing I was moved to focus on this topic later in my PhD dissertation. I hoped then, and still do, that I would have a small part in contributing to feminist scholarship and activism on the dynamics of local and transnational feminisms. Of particular importance to me was being accountable and helpful to communities that informed my research. 

OAA: A lot of your research is focused on the dynamics of NGO politics, women’s activism, and state policies. What are some of the major conclusions you have found in your research regarding NGO politics and how it affects the effectiveness of activism in South Asian countries? 

EC: At present, in Bangladesh, the success of the acid campaign can be measured by the creation of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), as a result of women activists’ negotiations with the state and international donor community. Financed by international aid agencies, ASF provides consolidated and coordinated services to the survivors of acid violence. The success of the acid campaign can also be measured by the passing of new and more stringent legislation by the government criminalizing the sale of acid without a permit and the creation of the National Acid Council with branches at the district levels. Further, the level of engagement and interest from international media and organizations reflect the present day grander scale and scope of the campaign. These successes however are ambiguous. The creation of the Acid Survivors Foundation, the proliferation of services for acid survivors, the diversification of actors who became involved with the campaign in the mid to late 1990s, and the passing of new legislation reflect the culmination of Naripokkho’s networking and advocacy on a national and global scale that enabled transnational coalitions of nongovernmental, governmental and intergovernmental actors to exert pressures on one another and other influential political bodies to invoke desired policy changes on the ground in Bangladesh.

 

Yet, at the same time, these same transnational coalitions co-opted the local women’s issues and agenda and led to its deradicalization. Naripokkho’s approach was survivor-centered, emphasizing the empowering of survivors of violence to avail services, make informed and meaningful decisions about their own lives, and shape the campaign against acid violence. At ASF, the survivor-centered campaign that Naripokkho initiated has taken on a neoliberal agenda, which does not always resonate with the lived experiences of the women who have endured acid attacks. Survivors are increasingly being treated as “clients” who are channeled into various productive schemes designed by the rehabilitation program of ASF. In the absence of real choices, women are actively incorporated into service positions that do very little to disrupt global, national and local systems of hierarchies based on gender, class, race and nationality. Nonetheless, it would be misleading to see current developments in the movement simply as a reinscription of power inequalities because it has facilitated the emergence of a national network of services for acid survivors. It is in this paradoxical space where women’s agency and activism is often negotiated.

 OAA: What do you believe to be some of the most significant barriers or obstacles that NGOs in South Asian countries must deal with, in terms of competing against each other to get sufficient foreign aid? 

EC: There are varying kinds of NGOs: some that are more powerful through the legitimacy of the state or international aid agencies, and others that are more strongly tied to local populations. Naripokkho was a well-positioned one because of its leadership who are influential, urban, educated, professional members of society well situated within the national women’s movement as well as connected to influential networks. At the same time though there is considerable competition among NGOs for limited resources, which hinder collaboration among them. Women’s groups are often vying for the same pool of money and forced to shape their agenda to match the donors’ which may not be all that suited to realities on the ground. The inter-NGO dynamics of competition enhance the dependence of NGOs on external interventions and compromise their agenda, autonomy and possibilities of meaningful collaborations.

 OAA: What was some of the research you conducted at the Ford Foundation and your notable experiences while at the foundation? 

EC: I worked at Ford Foundation – NY for three years. I was first employed as a Program Associate in the Education, Knowledge and Religion unit in the area of higher education. Specifically, this worked involved supporting higher education initiatives in gender and religion, women’s studies, and area studies. I also spent a year as a research consultant on a project titled “Replenishing Democracy” that identified and supported progressing student organizations nationally.  As a researcher, I am interested in the global politics of “aid”, therefore working at the Ford Foundation – NY was an opportunity to observe and participate in the complex processes of and relationships between funders and grantees across the U.S. and globally. Growing up in post-independence Bangladesh I was very aware of the presence of prominent funding agencies such as the Ford Foundation in the region, and was steeped in post-colonial critiques of such agencies. Working in the “head quarters” therefore, was a shift in perspective and location for me. I remember, when I accepted the position of Program Associate in Ford’s Higher Education Unit back in 2000, my PhD supervisor said half-jokingly that I may lose my “soul” in the process! She also encouraged me to “be a little irreverent”of  Ford’s stature as a powerful global institution.  

My experience there was complex, and I will not go in to it in detail in this interview. But, I will say, more than ever before, I learned not to view funding agencies as monolithic structures. In the academy I find many people have very limited understanding of what foundations do. For instance, that Ford has such a long history of supporting and shaping the direction of oppositional disciplines like African American Studies and Women’s Studies is often unknown to my peers and colleagues. I worked with a lot of academics at Ford – those who had been recruited because they were the top in their fields – and of course in the research initiatives that we supported nationally and globally. I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation’s offices in Brazil, South Africa, Russia and Mexico and to learn a bit about the challenges and successes in each context. I met some very radical thinkers during my time there who had years and years of experience in grassroots social change and were trying to nudge the Foundation in immensely innovative directions. In the U.S., where the academy has the potential to be an “ivory tower” – and scholars face chilly and isolated working climate I was surprised by how dynamic a place the Foundation can be! Don’t get me wrong, I am not singing the praises of Ford uncritically. I know all too well the power of such organizations. Yet, during my time there, I learned a great deal about social change and how there are broad patterns of it that needs to be understood over time, and  small ones that happen because of  unexpected alliances, and creative use of power and resources.  

 OAA:  What is some of your current research centered around and what implications does it have for the women’s rights arena? 

EC: I am currently completing a book project entitled, “Transnationalism Reversed: Engaging Development, NGO Politics and Women’s Activism in Bangladesh.” It aims to make visible the complicated transactions and uneasy alliances in which activists in Bangladesh must engage with international aid organizations, NGOs, and the state in the process of developing improved services for victims of gender violence, and transforming structures of gender discrimination that enable and sanction violence against women. While I detail the complex processes of transnational movement building and highlight local women’s agency, I also make visible intra-movement dynamics and tensions of unequal power relations among differentially located women. In other words, the “intra-cultural differences” in transnational women’s networks.

  

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