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“I am Abir. My thoughts are my force. This is a wonderful feeling, to work for people. That one move keeps me alive.”
Abir is 22 years old and was born and raised outside of Rangpur in Bangladesh. He is a youth advocate, a champion of sexual rights and health and a trainer on sexuality education. Through Right Here, Right Now, a global youth advocacy initiative, he acquired key skills and knowledge to raise awareness and to build cultural understanding around sexuality issues in his rural and typically hard-to-reach community.
In a country where 85% of girls in rural areas are married by the age of 16, where contraception use among adolescents is only 42%, and where conservative values and stigma dominate policies and conversations, Abir’s role and commitment cannot be underestimated. This is a story about a young boy’s spirit, strength and resilence to keep fighting for what he knows to be true.
Abir visits primary schools in his community to orient students to their own sexuality and to share experiences. He felt compelled to write this letter to the local government, revealing the negligence one primary school showed to teaching sexuality education. His request and prayers for a special order mandating the school to pay attention to this were approved by the Local Deputy Commissioner.
Sexual education and religious perspectives
Abir is the Vice President of Begum Rokeya University Debate Club, where he often organises debates on sexuality education. This debate centred on the question: Does sexuality education conflict with religious perspectives?
Still proudly connected to his strong village roots, Abir loves being in nature, being free and being with his friends. This building, a hostel, is Abir’s home now, where he lives and studies at Begum Rokeyea University in Rangpur.
“Before, no one discussed with me regarding this. Sometimes I would discuss it with my mother. I feel very shy. Now, school teaches this topic. Though I feel shy, still, we need to know this.”
Adolescents in Bangladesh are often shy to use words like ‘condom’ and ‘menstruation’, but Abir knows they must be given the opportunity to open up and talk about their bodies. Here, young girls begin sharing their first experiences of menstruation.
Abir also helps young adolescent boys to understand themselves better. Here, he leads a primary school orientation on sexuality education, where they joke and speak openly about their changing bodies and sex.
For 16 Days of Activism, Abir helps organise a community rally with other youth advocates and volunteers. They come together to create awareness about the need for better, more inclusive and comprehensive Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights in Bangladesh.
As part of the rally the advocates go door to door in the community, attempting to motivate others to join in. However, many, particularly village women, are still very shy to talk about sexual health.
This is an appreciation crest that Abir recieved as a youth advocate for his tremendous contribution in sexuality education from BRAC Education, a member of the Right Here, Right Now programme.
Abir’s family and girlfriend are key elements in his life, where he gets the support and love he needs to keep pursuing his dreams and fighting for what he believes in.
‘Uthan Boithok’ is a local housing meeting, where neighbours get together at one house to discuss various issues impacting the community. Abir uses these casual and intimate gatherings to speak about the importance of sexual health and rights, even though many still find it uncomfortable. He also mobilises other youth advocates at these meeting to help further spread the word and build the movement.
“I also go to ‘Uthan Boithok’. Some of my friends attend as well. I go along with my aunty. I don’t understand. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but we need to know.”
The young boy above, a participant at the meeting.
Rural communities and sexuality
It’s typical for many people in this rural community to have rigid and conservative mentalities when it comes to awareness regarding sexuality. These are the views of one young woman Abir spoke with at a local meeting.
“I am Sabina. This topic is really shameful to me. It’s better to avoid discussing this. No one taught me about it. I learned by myself. My kids will know by themselves. It’s not needed to teach them.”
Abir reguarly visits a government hostel for blind boys, where he listens, discusses, and provides information and understanding about sexual health and rights. He knows that this education is equally important for people with special needs.
“I am Abir. My thoughts are my force. This is a wonderful feeling to work for people. That one move keeps me alive.”
Abir’s story is part of Right Here, Right Now, a five-year advocacy programme and global strategic partnership that envisions a world where all young people are able to access quality and youth-friendly health services, and are not afraid to openly express who they are and who they love, free from stigma, violence and discrimination. This work is active in ten countries and the Caribbean sub region and is led by Rutgers, in collaboration with the following partners: ARROW; CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality; Dance4Life; IPPF- Africa Region; Hivos; and, the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN). RHRN Bangladesh works on three areas, including CSE, where the platform advocates for greater access to SRHR information in the national curriculum. You can find more about this programme here.