Mehnaz Tasnim '13 fondly recalls her upbringing in Dhaka, the sprawling urban capital of Bangladesh. However, her experience last summer as an intern in the Women's Rights division of Action Aid--an international anti-poverty agency operating in Bangladesh--revealed that a number of her fellow countrywomen are not nearly as lucky.
Tasked with conducting field research on the harassment of schoolgirls in mostly impoverished areas of Dhaka, Tasnim was surprised by the extent of the abuse perpetrated against the young women in these communities.
"It was a very eye-opening experience for me in the sense that although I had spent my entire life in Bangladesh, I knew very little about the incidence of acid violence, eve teasing"—a euphemism for street harassment and sexual bullying—"and sexual harassment that young Bangladeshi women constantly face," she said.
Tasnim honed her research and communication skills by designing surveys and administering them to female students, their parents, and schoolteachers. She collected the testimonies of girls who had been mistreated, and together they explored approaches that might curb the abuse against women in their community. Mehnaz wrote a final report depicting her findings and offering recommendations for how to improve the circumstances surrounding these young women--both inside and outside the classroom.
Tasnim attributes her interest in participating in the internship to her experiences as a first-year student at Mount Holyoke.
"Having spent a year at Mount Holyoke, and having been exposed to the empowering environment that is cultivated on campus, I became more sensitive to the inequalities in Bangladesh and--in particular--the challenges confronting Bangladeshi women," she said.
Despite the regrettable findings of her research, Tasnim has nonetheless found reason for hope in the resilience and strength of the girls whom she came to know well.
"What was surprising was that, although the girls that I spoke to were from exceedingly poor backgrounds and had grown up in the slums, they still had a very vivid idea of their rights," she explained.
Tasnim, an architecture major, admits that while she has never considered herself to be an activist, her internship at Action Aid has inspired her to pursue social and political change in her home country.
"This experience has convinced me that following graduation, I would like to use the knowledge and skills I have acquired through my architectural studies to help build the infrastructure of underserved and underdeveloped communities across Bangladesh," she said.
Tasnim also credits the liberal arts education that she is receiving at Mount Holyoke with allowing her to explore and develop her diverse interests.
"If I was strictly specializing in architecture, I would not have taken the sociology, gender studies, or history classes which were so important in helping me navigate this internship and make the most of my experience."