26th March is the Independence Day of Bangladesh. It marks the proclamation of an independent Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, a proclamation that triggered a nine month War of Liberation during which more than 3 million people were killed, 10 million fled the country and a further 30 million people were displaced.
Independence Day is a source of incredible pride and patriotism amongst Bengali people; alongside International Mother Language Day, Independence Day is perhaps one of the most important national holidays in the country. In the capital, Dhaka, the day begins with a thirty-one gun salute and is marked by parades, fairs and an outpouring of Bengali nationalism. In our own community, the Bangladeshi national flag was all over the place as everyone celebrated the national holiday.
Our celebrations followed in the traditional vein with a cultural show of dances, songs and poetry, and a games competition including cock-fighting, pillow-throwing and, my favourite, torturing small children by tying lollipops to a piece of string which they are only allowed to take with their mouths then moving the string! Oh and not to forget, the speeches, a time-honoured Bangladeshi tradition. At least this time, my team gave me some warning that I would be speaking, which meant I actually had time to prepare and deliver a speech in Bangla. The crowd were are little less impressed than I had expected but it turns out that everyone knows I speak Bangla so expected it! It was a great day, although it turns out that wearing a sari is incredibly hot and hard work!
There is, however, something of a dark side to Bangladesh’s forty-four year old democracy. Political strikes and blockades have been a near-permanent feature of our time here; there have only been six days without a hartal (strike) since my arrival three months ago, crippling Bangladesh’s economy and preventing over 1.5 million students from sitting crucial exams. Estimates vary but at least 100 people have died in political-related violence, mostly from burns sustained in petrol bombings. There is little sign of the political parties relenting; both sides, the government and the opposition, blame each other and refuse to sit down to talks. All the while, it is the people of Bangladesh who are suffering. Farmers have been unable to take their produce to market, businesses have lost contracts, and ordinary people have had their lives disrupted. There is a strange sense of normalcy developing now; after three months, people are ignoring the strikes and trying to go about their business.
I think it is the young people of Bangladesh who are perhaps suffering the most. Public exams have already been delayed by several weeks; soon, a significant backlog will start to develop as more exams are scheduled for next month. But the students get virtually no notice that their exam will be rescheduled; the strikes are usually called about 12 hours in advance. Even though the strikes are nearly inevitable students still have to prepare, just in case, resulting in incredible pressure to revise. This could have serious long-term repercussions for these students; if they can’t sit these exams, they can’t progress from school to college, or from college to university. University schedules are in tatters, as many of the universities, like in the UK, are hotbeds of political activism.
Young people are the future of Bangladesh. More than one third of Bangladesh’s 152 million strong population (Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populated country and one of the most densely populated) is aged under thirty; this is forecast to rise to more than 40 per cent by 2025. This youth bulge represents both and opportunity and a threat to Bangladesh, which is trying to become a middle-income country by 2020. Disenfranchised and unemployed youth, particularly young men, are vulnerable to radicalisation. Sectaranism, which has blighted Bangladesh in the past, is not currently a problem but could rear its ugly head if these young men are not engaged in both the economy and politics.
But the entrepreneurial spirit is strong here, from what I have seen. We have met numerous business people during the course of our project, including women who have overcome the social barriers that surround them to become successful entrepreneurs.
There is also a strong sense of hope. Young people across Bangladesh mobilised during the War of Liberation and young people today are incredibly proud of that legacy. They now see their own fight, not one against oppression but as one against poverty. The young people in our community are determined to improve their own lives and the lives of their families, community and country. And that is the power of volunteering with a programme like International Citizen Service (ICS). By bringing young people together across the world, we can help give them a voice and support them in their endeavours. It is only a small step but it is a vital one. The fight against poverty could well be won or lost by this generation.