Kotha tackles the culture of gender-based violence through primary interventions. The organisation targets students of middle and high school and through long term partnerships with education institutions, teaches topics such gender norms, consent, sexual and reproductive health consent, healthy and unhealthy relationships, bystander intervention and cyber bullying, among others
The incident took place six years ago. Yet the day Fairooz experienced sexual harassment on a public transport for the first time in her life is still vivid in her mind.
She boarded a bus to return home from her university.
Not seeing any vacant seats, Fairooz sat on the haphazard, makeshift seat behind the bus driver.
To her annoyance, she observed a man in his 50s occupying one of the seats reserved for female passengers.
As there was the usual Dhaka traffic, the bus was pacing along slowly and around 20 minutes passed when she felt a hand on her right thigh from under her kameez.
What was Fairooz supposed to do? Should she have screamed? Would anyone have come to help her if she did so?
Confusion engulfed her mind and she felt light-headed.
She got off at the next stop and walked the rest of the way home.
This is the story of a thousand women - young and old - in Bangladesh and around the world.
In 2016, an innovative and interactive education venture named "Kotha" decided to come forward to address such incidents of sexual and other gender based violence at its core.
Kotha's founder, Umama Zillur, developed the project under the Clinton Global Initiative and it was awarded with "Social Innovation Fund" by Mount Holyoke College.
Umama started Kotha back when she was a sophomore student at Mount Holyoke College. "I don't think I had a choice but to be confronted with various forms of gender based violence from a young age. It was always either an active thought or lingering at the back of my mind regardless of whether I was in Bangladesh or elsewhere."
Initially, she planned Kotha to be a small awareness programme to bring to light the prevalence of gender based violence, specifically sexual violence, in our country.
Umama added, "But I very quickly realized that awareness was not enough. It had to be education. Education that directly worked to break down the culture that allows these things to be a normal part of our society.."
At Kotha At School we are trying to prevent incidents of violence from occurring in the first place, instead of dealing with them after the fact
After working on developing the project for about a year, Umama came back to Dhaka to launch Kotha's pilot project during her summer vacation with 30 students of Grade 12.
Two of Kotha's Peer Educators, Mayabee Arannya and Shariqa Tasnim Shaila, also spoke about the organisation's work.
"At Kotha At School we are trying to prevent incidents of violence from occurring in the first place, instead of dealing with them after the fact," said Mayabee.
The Kotha At School pilot programme was held in Sunbeams School two years ago.
The programme targets students of middle and high school, aged between 11-19, and through long term partnerships with education institutions teaches them their six core topics such gender norms, consent, sexual and reproductive health, healthy and unhealthy relationships, bystander intervention and cyber bullying, among others.
Kotha at School uses a Peer Education model. Peer Education is a community driven education model that relies on 'peers' to deliver knowledge.
"We use interactive classroom tools to initiate conversations surrounding our core topics ," Mayabee continued. She added, "Traditional teachers in schools are older and there is a big language barrier. Openly sharing issues and thoughts on these topics within a classroom setting can be uncomfortable for them (students). Our Peer Education model helps combat this. The Peer Educators are closer to the age of the students and hence are more relatable, so they are able to create a safe environment where students can open up to them as elder brothers and sisters."
We are trying to equip our students with the right tools to fight the culture of violence. We want them to be aware of their own rights, be able to identify unhealthy behaviour and always make sure to hold each other accountable.
A 2019 survey by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad found that incidents of sexual violence against women almost doubled in the last decade. The number of rapes almost doubled from 940 in 2010 to 1,855 in 2019.
Educational and social awareness campaigns, however, have shown dramatically improved results globally in changing social mindsets.
"People do not simply wake up one day and choose to commit an act of violence. People are emboldened to commit such crimes because we, as a society, nurture a culture where it is okay to do so. We work to educate students about the consequences of their actions, and how small things add up to bigger problems in society," Shariqa said.
Teachings about gender-based issues of violence can not only ensure better human beings, but can also help to prevent crimes.
"We are trying to equip our students with the right tools to fight the culture of violence. We want them to be aware of their own rights, be able to identify unhealthy behaviour and always make sure to hold each other accountable," Mayabee said.
Speaking about Kotha's goals, Umama said, "Our goal from the beginning has been to establish systematic change. Instead of focusing on hosting large numbers of ad hoc workshops, which ultimately create little to no long term change, we are working to change how schools, students, teachers, and parents perceive a program like Kotha at School."
Umama added that the Kotha at School programme focuses on blending these teachings with the school's traditional curriculum.
Our goal is to institutionalize this type of education so that it's mandatory for students to learn about topics such as gender, consent and sexual health alongside math, english and science. We believe this is a crucial tool in fighting gender based violence in our country.
"In the next couple of years, we want to expand the Kotha at School program across Bangladesh. Our goal is to institutionalize this type of education so that it's mandatory for students to learn about topics such as gender, consent and sexual health alongside math, english and science. We believe this is a crucial tool in fighting gender based violence in our country. "
As of now, Kotha has only ventured into English medium schools as none of the existing programs, either government or NGO programs, work with this group.
Emphasising on the need to learn and unlearn, Shariqa said that victim blaming, gender norms and stereotypes are ingrained in our society.
Mayabee said, "These topics are still considered taboo in Bangladesh, so young people sometimes have a hard time grasping the importance and seriousness of them. It is up to us as peer educators to make them understand from the get-go that these are not issues that can be made fun of or taken lightly."
The team is currently working on multiple projects including a book to help other initiatives incorporate the Kotha At School Peer Education model, an online resource series on the culture of violence and their podcast, Not Here For.