All programme organisers, of which there are over 300, live collectively in sub centres, each with around 10-15 colleagues. They live here away from their families for at least 10 months a year (31 - 46 days annual leave is allowed, depending on distance from family). Family life is thought to interfere with work so people are deliberately posted away from their home areas, and where, as frequently occurs, programme organisers (POs) marry each other, they are posted apart after a period of time.
The collective living provides an opportunity for constant interaction with colleagues, both informally and in a once weekly half day subcentre meeting, as well as other get togethers as required. This fosters development of a common vision of human rights and social justice, and breaks down barriers of gender or cultural background (eg. Hindu or Muslim). However some differences persist, for example while men ride bicycles or motorbikes to their work areas, women usually walk or take rickshaws. Men are allowed to take rickshaws in case of ill-health or disability, and women are given the option of either bicycles or rickshaws. However, they rarely take up the bicycle option.
In some cases, safety is an additional reason for the living arrangments. Due to the radical programme of NK, entrenched local interests may threaten and harass staff. To avoid danger to families, and to put themselves in a better position to ensure their own safety, staff live in centres. For this reason, in 23 out of the total 50 subcentres, only male Programme organisers (POs) work, and subcentres are men only.
An attack on NK staff
In September 2002, Armed gangs attacked and almost killed staff in the gangni area subcentre, khulna division. A fatwa had been issued, and sanctioned by an influential quarter in the village, against the landless, who had resisted with the help of the staff. In response, armed gangs attacked staff. Villagers arrived and the armed gangs fled. And villagers subsequently protested the attack (Annual Report, 2002-2003).
Subcentre staff live in basic conditions, in or close to the areas they work. They mostly sleep two to a room. A cook usually works there, cooking the meals and doing the dishes. Staff clean their own rooms and wash their own clothes. The communal areas are cleaned collectively - more or less equally by women and men, most of the staff I spoke to assured me.
Normally (unless safety is a big issue) children are allowed to live in the centre with parents up to the age of 10, and exceptionally for longer. The parent pays a carer (usually a woman) to look after the child, or a relative may come daily or move into the centre, and space and a bed is provided for children and carer. Children more often stay with mothers than fathers, the general view among staff still being ‘children need their mothers when small’. Less frequently, and for shorter periods, men have taken their children with them, for example where both parents work for NK and there are two children, one may be with the mother, the other with the father. While children miss out on the extended family that would otherwise bring them up, they benefit from the attention of the many ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ they live with, and grow up instilled with the values of the organisation. Three girls, aged eight to twelve, who attended a workshop with their mothers, mimicked the workshop outcome of a drama with their own play on child rights!
This kind of collective living is quite revolutionary in the context, where people usually live with their parents until the inevitable marriage, often in relationships arranged by their parents. Outside marriage, interaction between women and men is limited. Staff say they enjoy living collectively, but also talk of living away from their families as a ‘sacrifice’ both for themselves and their family members back home. However, staff back home and their families? may also benefit from more enlightened attitudes. Male POs talk of sharing housework with wives once they go home, and how their relationships have become more two way, more equal in terms of decision making and mutual restrictions, due to what they have learnt at NK.
Riton Chandra Dey, young male PO, Shaghata subcentre, joined NK in 1998
We need collective living for this kind of work, to give space for sharing and joint thinking… When I first joined NK I felt awkward eating with the women staff and living in the same compound, but after only a couple of weeks I got used to it.
A year ago Riton’s friends back home introduced a woman to him as a prospective bride. She and Riton liked each other, their parents approved the match, and after knowing each other two months they got married. She is a housewife and upon marriage moved to live with her parent in law, but often returns to stay with her own parents. Riton says he doesn’t miss her too much as he’s busy with work, and enjoys much talking, sharing and singing with the other staff, but it’s harder on his wife, who is a housewife and new family member in his parent’s household. Riton has said that ‘of course’ working with NK has changed his relationship with his wife. He shares stories of work with her, does some cleaning and washes his own clothes when he is at home. When Riton joined NK he saw it more as a job than a political commitment, but he has gradually come to see this as a life commitment instead (from interview with Riton).
This living arrangement also provides a vital and rare alternative for staff who don’t want to be trapped in unhappy family situations, and would otherwise not be able to leave them. NK has supported several women staff escaping such situations, providing material, emotional and legal support for women staff who are trying to leave or divorce their husbands.
Fatima, woman PO and subcentre leader since 2000, Palashbari subcentre, joined NK in 1986
Fatima always had a keen sense of justice. When Fatima was a secondary school student she used to organise women in her village to protest against wife beating, dowry and harassment. The village leader was not happy with her behaviour and threatened her. One night, while she was asleep in her room with her aunt, people came in and threw acid on her and her aunty. She went to hospital, and the story was reported in the newspaper. Khushi Kabir, the NK coordinator, saw the article and went to find Fatima, offering her support in making the case against the accused who were subsequently condemned to jail for ten years. Fatima’s home was totally unsafe, so she joined NK as a PO. She says the most precious thing NK has given her is security. While local elites and Muslim fundamentalists may threaten and harass staff, some protection is provided by the fact that women and men staff members live together and can help each other, and village group members will also help in case of danger.
When she first came to NK she saw that in contrast to discrimination against women, men and women were living and working together cooperatively. In her family she was not allowed to take part in any decision, but here she had an opportunity to participate. She also felt that there are so many problems for women in this society, that they can’t be solved without working with men, who are both exploiters but many of whom are also exploited themselves. In NK, she found this idea could be applied.
After joining NK, Fatima’s family arranged a marriage for her and called her home. She married the man, who turned out to be a fundamentalist Muslim and tried to stop her returning to work at NK. Fatima insisted, returning to NK when pregnant with her son. While she and her husband have not divorced, they are effectively separated and Fatima never returns to see him. Fatima’s mother has also since died, so her son, now age 14, has exceptionally been allowed to stay with Fatima in the subcentre beyond the age of 10. He is provided a bed in her room, but also has space to share room with the male staff. She says everyone helps her look after her son, and bringing him up in this environment is no problem (from interview with Fatima).
4.2 Child spaces in the central office
The 28 central office staff live in Dhaka with their families, however the need to allow children in the workspace had been recognised in this environment also. Staff are allowed to bring children to work, usually with the carer who looks after the child, and a cot or space is provided in the office area.
Babies in the office
When her baby was only a few weeks old one central office staff member left her husband. NK supported her psychologically, in a legal case against her husband, found space for her to live in NK guesthouse, and allowed her to bring her child and a carer to work. NK found that the baby’s presence did not distract from work, but rather improved the atmosphere and made a good thing to do in work breaks – go play with the baby. Bringing children to work became an established practice. Two other women brought their daughters, and they grew up together in the NK office, stopping by after school for a few hours daily once they started school (from interview with Mina).
In my family I was not allowed to take part in any decision, but here I have an opportunity to participate. - Fatima
Participatory democracy is a core value of the organisation, and is believed to be necessary to motivate staff and for work for this kind of social change to be effective. How can staff ask landless people to organise into a democratic structure if they don’t do the same themselves?
Thus staff elect their own management and leadership. Subcentre heads (called representatives) are chosen by staff in each subcentre. Division and Aanchal Presidents, organisers and trainers and central office team members are elected. The coordinator is appointed by the Board which is elected by the total of the staff.
Work practice includes extensive discussion to reach consensus. Staff are accountable to each other. In meetings staff report on their work, and are grilled by colleagues on divergences from the workplan. Staff receive an incremental wage increase each year, the level of which depends on their performance as evaluated by those they have elected in central office and the subcentre president they have chosen.
At some levels fewer women are represented than men.
Women and men staff at different levels
Central office team
Central Office staff
43 (23 subcentres are men only)
At central level, there are equal numbers of women and men staff. However, at the lower levels of Divisional and Aanchal president, this parity has not been reached. These posts require constant travel and this has deterred many women from standing. Some senior women who might have been elected to these posts have also left for the sake of their children’s education. To counter these effects, NK has reserved seats for women and since 2002 runs an annual 7 day workshop on women’s leadership for women staff.
NK philosophy is that poor women and men share common interests and common exploitation. This analysis provides the basis for NK approach to gender. Women and men group members and staff learn about and discuss this framework in training and meetings. It provides the basis for mobilisation of both women’s and men’s groups against unequal pay, dowry, domestic violence, restrictions on mobility and other violations of women’s rights. Consistent with this analysis, gender is mainstreamed throughout the organisation’s procedures and processes. In contrast to the sex segregation prevalent in much of society, NK promotes women and men working together, both with the collective living arrangements for staff and with mixed sex committees for landless group members at different levels.
At the same time, the need for separate spaces for women is recognised as an absolute necessity. The core of the organisation: landless groups, are single sex. Training at basic level is also single sex, and becomes alternately mixed and single sex at higher levels. While most staff activities include both women and men, after much discussion the need has been recognised for an annual week long training for women on leadership.
In mobilising against women’s and other exploitation, NK faces serious opposition. Local elites and other vested interests have threatened staff and group members, and sometimes carried out these threats, including filing false cases, mobilising Muslim fundamentalist opposition, physical attacks, rape, burning houses, plundering, sending dacoits, poisoning land and stealing livestock. Group members and staff have also met with ostracism both from local leaders and from within the communities they are trying to mobilise. Despite such risks, NK groups continue to gain ground through collective organising, claiming rights and pooling resources.
To a lesser degree, internal factors also provide obstacles to gender equality. Collective living and democratic structures provide both challenges and potential for gender change. In terms of attitude change, the philosophy and sharing of practical experiences within the organisation have had an impact. Every group and staff member I spoke to expressed total willingness to recognise and combat discrimination against women. This does not mean there is no resistance, for example NK has noted that men’s groups are less active on women’s rights issues than are women’s groups, and fewer women are elected to group committees, and to middle level management in the staff structure. However within the NK environment a new norm has been created that it is not acceptable to voice support for exploitation of women. Furthermore, records of successful mobilising around women’s interests, and concrete examples of more egalitarian gender relations in the lives and families of staff and group member suggests that real change is happening.
The strength and effectiveness of the organisation seems to lie in their framework of analysis which enables landless peasants to gain conviction that they too deserve human rights, and which inspires staff to make a huge commitment to their work. The consistency of values in programme activities and staff practices is essential to this process.
While most Christian Aid and partner staff won’t wish to move in with each other and emulate collective living arrangements, there are important lessons to learn from NK. Mainstreaming of gender, and separate spaces for women are both needed. Cultures must be changed, and decades of time invested. Values of human rights and equality, and a clear analysis of what these mean, need to be applied consistently throughout both programme and internal practices. Connections must be made between exploitation at local, national, and global levels, including the exploitation staff suffer from and perpetuate in their own lives and working arrangements, and those faced by the people they are trying to help. Even then, some challenges and inequalities will remain. At the same time, these strategies will open possibilities for amazing and tangible progress towards equality.
Annex: Methodology and schedule
Meet with NK head office staff
Shaghata village, NK subcentre, Gaibandha district
Travel to Shaghata, discussion with subcentre POs, attend men’s group meeting
Attend two women’s group meetings, visit village, attend men’s group meeting
Attend Thana committee meeting, interview group members: cultural team leader (man), women Thana committee members (women)
Interview Thana committee president (man), interview his wife Union Parishad member and women’s group president, attend staff meeting, interview PO (woman)
Participate in May day demonstration, watch May day drama, visit Kachmoti’s village and grave, meet with combined men and women’s group members, interview male PO, discussion with subcentre POs
Palashbari, and Bogra
Return Dhaka, on the way interview head of NK subcenter in Palashbari, group discussion with women who had fought campaign for higher wages for domestic workers in Palashbari, visit NK training centre in Bogra, interview male trainer/PO
Dhaka, write up and final consultations with NK head office, Christian Aid Bangladesh, and DFID Bangladesh
Revision of draft after feedback from NK, and subsequent revision after feedback from Christian Aid.
Bogra training centre trainer (M)
Participation and observation
Living with and casual discussion with POs, Anchal president Mamonur Rashid (M) and Mina Sarkar, Assistant central organiser and interpreter for 5 days
Taking part in May day demonstration and watching drama
Visiting Kachmoti’s village, grave, and hearing story from combined women and men group members
1 The target group is those who are dependant on physical labour as their main source of livelihood, such as wage labourers, sharecroppers, small and marginal farmers, and other vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities, fisher folk, weavers, blacksmiths, barbers, cobblers, potters, small traders etc. Some of these may have a little land for the homestead or agriculture, but that amount of land does not satisfy their basic needs. Usually NK defines people of this economic level as ‘landless’.
2 Trainees are selected by the group from among the group members through discussion among themselves in group meeting. They select participants considering the criteria of: participants’ level of consciousness, commitment to the group, gender sensitivity, leadership and learning capacity. Only in case of Higher Training participants are selected by the Central Training Cell in consultation with the Divisional Trainers. Usually there is no drop out from training. However, due to unavoidable reasons such as migration for employment, river erosion, pressure from vested interests, false cases etc. some group members selected for the training may not be able to take part.
3 Duration of core trainings is as follows: Basic level 3 days, Advanced level 4 days, Higher Selection level 4 days and Higher level 10 days. After training both women and men participants bear the following responsibilities: apply the lessons learned from the training in personal and social life; discuss learning of the training with other fellow group members; organise other landless people; identify local issues and organise movements around these; conduct cultural activities and increase intra-group cooperation; form a Training Forum with other participants of NK trainings who sit on a monthly basis to plan above activities; organise refresher trainings in their own village.
4 21 February Language Day, 26 March Independence Day, 16 December Victory Day, 7 November Korunamoyee Martyr Day, 9 December Begum Rokeya Day