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Changing the way we think

  • Published at 04:01 am March 8th, 2020

How Umama Zillur tackled gender violence

Today, let’s ignore the parameters that traditionally define gender. Instead, let us focus on the good work that has been done and the positive changes that have been made. The road so far has been long and exhausting, paved by the struggle and sacrifice of the changemakers before us. We have made great strides in certain aspects, shattered many ceilings. However, work still has to be done. 

“Sit like a girl.” 

“Man up.”

These are few examples of many such statements that reverberate around classrooms, homes, workspaces -- that are exhausted in their usage, time and again, and add onto prejudices, stereotypes and double standards already stacked against women.

Statements like these are more than just demeaning and reductive: they perpetuate and encourage mentalities that discredit the very fight we are trying to wage against oppression. The statistics for gender violence in this country are proof of just how damaging these ingrained patriarchal mindsets can be. When one is spoon-fed these regressive beliefs from a young age, it becomes integral to their attitudes and their approach to life.

Tackling the root of this problem, one hopeful individual, Umama Zillur, came up with Kotha, a youth focused and youth led primary intervention programme designed for classrooms -- and beyond -- that tackles gender-based violence. It attempts to bring about positive solutions through innovative education, policy and research, interactive dialogue, as well as art and theatre.

Throughout the interview with Avenue T, there is one word that is constantly used: ‘hopeful’. Umama quotes Angela Davis: “You have to act like it is possible to radically transform the world and you have to act like that all the time.” It was this philosophy that she applied to Kotha; to her, “Kotha is a product that helps to navigate the root of the problem in the society.”

According to Umama, a core component of Kotha’s mission is the realization that gender based violence is the outcome of a broad spectrum of problems that exist in Bangladesh’s society. These include lack of understanding of consent, harmful gender norms, stigma around menstruation, denial of bodily autonomy amongst many others. 

To address these issues in a holistic manner, Kotha developed its flagship programme, Kotha At School, the first of its kind in Bangladesh. In a nutshell, KAS is a school based programme that introduces the topics discussed above into highschool and middle school curriculums. The Kotha at School pilot program has gone through three phases and is expanding everyday. Till date, Kotha at School has reached 500 students. 

Seizing the opportunity

It will probably come as a shock to any “self-aware” man when he realizes just how much he takes for granted, or if he were to know the extent to which women have to take precautions, just to feel safe in their daily lifestyle. From a young age, Umama knew about the hair-raising stories and unpleasant situations that happened to women who were just trying to go about their daily lives, and, as a woman, she experienced quite a few of them too. This happened indiscriminately: both here at home, and abroad, where she went to study. She realized early on that she had two choices: either to enter a spiral of negativity and hopelessness, or to channel her righteous anger into doing something productive.

During her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke College, Umama applied for a global conference on social impact initiatives called the Clinton Global Initiative, and pitched her idea of a programme that would target gender-based violence. Umama wanted her project to contribute in finding solutions towards the prevention of gender based violence rather than dealing with the issue after the fact. Naturally, Umama decided to work to shape young minds of the country through relevant education. Umama felt that the education sector in Bangladesh had a huge gap and could play a real role in the fight against gender based violence. Her project won the Mount Holyoke College Social Innovation award in 2016 with which Umama brought her vision to life.

During her summer break that year, she came back to Bangladesh and began to lay the groundwork for her pilot project. Umama consequently took on a multitude of tasks: flying back and forth between Dhaka and USA, implementing the project, juggling her studies, and finally graduating in 2018. With a pilot project already under her belt, she began her plans for expansion. 

Getting schools to participate was a challenge on its own, involving many negotiations. However, Umama persevered. “When I pitched the idea, I pitched it as a solution to gender based violence. The Kotha team wanted to frame it under that lens which helps people to accept it,” said Umama.

Kotha at School was successfully launched, first at Sunbeams School, where students from grade 10 to 12 were introduced to topics like sexual health, consent, healthy and abusive relationships for the first time. Kotha at School managed to make for a fun learning experience that also touched on serious topics.  

"You have to act like it is possible to radically transform the world and you have to act like that all the time"

Interacting and learning 

Gender still remains a sensitive, controversial topic to discuss. There is an unspoken taboo surrounding open, honest discussions about most of Kotha’s topics. This can lead to many misconceptions, especially for younger people. Talking about these preconceived notions, Umama added: “There is a popular misconception about students not wanting to talk about these things or being shy about it. They are [actually] very keen to learn and ask questions for clarification.” Umama feels that the students' enthusiasm is a result of Kotha’s ability to provide a much needed channel for these students to have such discussions. 

Kotha, as a youth-led program for the youth, brings in Peer Educators who are as young as high school-graduates or university students to conduct classroom sessions for their Kotha at School programme. Peer Educators help to keep session materials relatable and make a comfortable, safe classroom environment for students to engage with the topics. Kotha at School classes employ a myriad of techniques to engage students such as video screening, film screening, role play, interactive group activities, and team presentations to help students enjoy the learning process. 

“We want them to walk out of every class having very concrete knowledge on the topics. With the knowledge and skills they acquire from class, they are capable of understanding how to deal with certain situations,” she said.

Classroom takeaway

In the classrooms, Kotha really focuses on topics that are relatable to the students. While issues of masculinity and femininity may seem trivial to adults, they can have serious negative impacts on the minds of young students. 

In one of the classes on gender stereotypes, students designed an activity addressing the gender stereotyping associated with hairstyles leading to a spirited discussion about self expression and appearance. Students discussed how society only considers long hair to feminine, and short hair to be masculine. Umama always encourages Peer Educators to share personal experiences in the classroom and shares her own when possible. In class, she spoke to students about her own journey with short hair giving the students confidence to express themselves on their own terms. 

Filling the gap

Something that we found interesting was Kotha’s choice to target English medium schools. On her choice to approach only English medium schools, Umama says: “It was a strategic decision. If you look through the NCTB books, you’ll find subjects related to health education and health science”. Even the international funding that comes through INGOs and NGOs are being funneled towards schools Bangla medium schools or schools from low income communities. In comparison, she points out how these subjects haven’t been introduced to English medium schools yet. “We wanted to begin by filling the gap, not by adding what’s already there. This is where the Kotha classes come in.” 

Umama: Portrait of a woman

1. What is your favourite colour?


2. Do you love fashion? 

Yes. Fashion is very dear to me. As a child I loved drawing and doodling. I went to summer school at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) and then I interned at Aarong while I was a high school student. I kept a journal with all my art. Once, my supervisor at Aarong saw it and asked me ‘Why don't you design something?’ Three designs were chosen from my book and incorporated into that year’s Eid collection. 

3. Are you into sports?

I have been into sports my whole life. I was a member of the first Bangladesh Women’s national Basketball team. I still play regularly. 

4. How would you describe your personality?

I am an ambivert. I am an extreme extrovert when I am with my friends, but when I am  with people whom I am not familiar with, it takes time for me to be free or open up.  

5. Are you a feminist?


6. Any other interests?

I love to cook. If I am at home, I am always finding an excuse to prepare my own meals.

7. Tell us about how you schedule your life and organize your time.

I am not an organized person and neither do I have a planner. This interview, though, is making me really consider this option. But since I don’t, I just get everything done instantly. 

8. What is your day job?

From 9am to 5pm I am a Research Associate at Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). I work in urban economics and poverty and a lot of it reflects on female perspective and gender lens. Other than that, I am the founder and active member of Kotha. 

9. In future where do you see Kotha?

In future I see Kotha to grow into a self-sustained organization and for Kotha at School to become a regular programme at high schools in Bangladesh. 

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