When Differences Become Our Strength

2009 Americans for UNFPA Student Award Winner, Nicole Paprocki

It was a smoldering day in Bangladesh: the temperature rose above ninety and the humidity did a number on my hair. Nevertheless, I'm going to bed tonight feeling refreshed and renewed in the beauty this country and its culture has to offer.

As a reminder, I am traveling for one week in Dhaka with Americans for UNFPA and Deni Robey, Vice President of Public Affairs. I will meet the 2009 Americans for UNFPA International Honoree for the Health and Dignity of Women Monira Rahman who founded the Acid Survivors Foundation.

As Deni and I took a tour of the Dhaka this afternoon, I realized I was just that: a tourist. There is no denying that Bangladesh is a world away from my home in Chicago. If I had even attempted to fit in on the crowded city streets, in the national museum, or markets flooded with goods, I would have failed. Aside from looking and dressing completely different and barely remembering the only Bengali word I knew, ("Dhannyabad", meaning "thank you"), I was a woman.

I left my tour of Dhaka with many questions: namely, where are all the independent women? The majority of the markets had male sellers, and the deluge of colorful rickshaws that inched passengers along the jam-packed roads were pulled by men.

However, I soon found the essence of what it means to be a strong Bangladeshi woman when I met Monira Rahman, whose program for women we will tour tomorrow. In our brief encounter, I was absolutely inspired!

What most struck me about Monira was her emphasis on female empowerment in her efforts to stop violence against women and gender inequality. So often, I think women come together in the name of victimhood: "Inequality is unfair". But, Monira's voice speaks just the opposite.

While she does not try to diminish the horror that many of her clients have experienced, she affirms the power of women to live their lives and to push through the barriers that society has created for them. I was wowed at her openness and outspokenness.

I ended my night with a beautiful Bangladeshi dinner. My conversation with a distinguished school director was more flavorful and delicious than our meal. Incredibly intelligent, candid, and hospitable, she shared her opinions on the rights of women and world educational systems, and –yes!—her admiration for our new President Obama.

It is only day one, and I have already learned so much from this different culture: a lesson in strength and empowerment. I know tomorrow will be filled with many more life lessons as I see the Acid Survivors Foundation's medical ward and group art therapy session. In all honesty, I have some anxiety about what exactly I will see: scars and burns on human flesh. But I go to sleep tonight empowered and in awe of the strength of so many women.

Show your support for Nicole and the women UNFPA supports in Bangladesh. Declare yourself an American for UNFPA www.americansforunfpa.org/iam.