Believe survivors. Act now. Romela’s story*, Bangladesh

Nearly 1 in 3 women have experienced violence, globally. In times of crises, the numbers may be even higher. Gender-based violence is the most pervasive violation of human rights, but it is neither natural, nor inevitable. It can and must be prevented. Stopping this violence starts with believing survivors and taking action, every day. Through this special editorial series for the 16 Days of Activism, UN Women showcases the voices of survivors and programmes that are transforming lives and communities.

Date: Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trigger warning: The following includes descriptions of gender-based violence.

Illustration: UN Women/Erica Jacobson
Illustration: UN Women/Erica Jacobson

“Since I was a child, I loved the idea of driving, but I didn’t dare to dream about it,” says Romela Islam*. “I got married after I finished high school. My husband was a cruel man and tortured me. When I was pregnant, he punched me so hard I ended up losing my baby. On most nights, I cried myself to sleep. I wanted to end my life.”

Romela Islam escaped her abusive marriage when her brother took her to Tarango (meaning, waves), a women’s shelter in Bangladesh in December 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping the country and violence against women and girls was on the rise. Despite the spike in demand, many shelters and essential services had shut down. However, Tarango, in partnership with UN Women and with funding from the Government of Japan, was able to expand its integrated shelter programme that provides safe temporary accommodations, legal and medical services, as well as vocational training to survivors of violence who were looking for a fresh start.

Romela Islam practices driving around the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer
Romela Islam practices driving around the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: UN Women/Fahad Kaizer

Islam was relieved to find a place where she could live safely with her 4-year-old daughter and eat three meals a day. But learning to drive was a breakthrough moment for her.

“The first female driver I had ever seen in my life was my driving instructor. She fascinates me and inspires me,” shares Islam. “When I first held the steering wheel of a car, I felt as if I finally had control of my life. After passing my driving test, I hope to get a licence and become a professional driver. There are very few professional female drivers in Bangladesh, but I want to earn a living doing what I love.”

Living in an abusive relationship often erodes women’s choices, self-esteem and potential. Islam has turned a new chapter in her life. “Other people always told me how to dress, where to go, and how to live my life. Now, I know these choices rest in my hands,” she says.

“You would not recognize me if you knew me from the past. I feel confident, my life is more enjoyable, and I’m excited about what lies ahead.”

What works to end gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls is preventable. Decades of evidence and practice show that comprehensive strategies that tackle root causes, change social norms and empower women and girls, alongside the enforcement of laws and the provision of essential services, work to prevent and reduce violence against women. Equally important is the presence of a strong, independent women’s rights movement that can engage local communities and hold authorities accountable.

How you can take action

  • Listen to survivors, refer them to appropriate support services, and amplify their stories using #OrangeTheWorld
  • Fund women’s rights organizations. Start by taking the #Give25forUNTF25 challenge
  • Speak up. Challenge your peers to reflect on their own behaviours, call out sexist comments and behaviours, and speak up when someone crosses the line

The programme run by Tarango is a case in point. It houses 30–35 survivors at any given time and delivers 24/7 services that help them recover from trauma, regain their dignity, and learn new skills. After completing their vocational training and learning financial literacy, women get job placement and a two-month cash grant to build their economic resilience.

The organization also supports women and girls at risk, such as single mothers, women with disabilities, LGBTQI+ people and migrant workers.

“Our job is to make women feel safe and empowered, and to treat them with the utmost respect and empathy,” says Nazlee Nipa, Programme Coordinator at Tarango.

Bithi Akter, born with a movement impairment, lived in extreme poverty after her family lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Growing up, people told me that I couldn’t do things that others could. At the shelter, the staff told me that I could do a job like anyone else. They believed in me, and that gave me the drive I needed at the time,” she explains. Akter has learned tailoring and enjoys making dresses. She is on her way to becoming economically self-reliant.

To build community awareness, Tarango partners with a Girls’ Club in Dhaka, the capital city. The Club members share information with their communities about available services for survivors, menstrual hygiene and COVID-19 prevention. Young advocates lead discussions about violence against women and act as watchdogs to monitor and report any signs of abuse. Recently, they identified an incident of rape and referred the survivor swiftly and safely to medical and legal services.


* Name changed to protect the survivor’s identity

If you have experienced abuse, feel threatened, unsafe or need assistance, help is available. Find helplines here. Learn about some common signs of abuse and how to help here.