Fellow Since 1999
This description of Afsan Chowdhury's work was prepared when Afsan Chowdhury was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Afsan Chowdhury is working to create a system through which sex education, covering topics from the prevention of sexual abuse to greater awareness of human sexuality, can be taught effectively to Bangladeshi youth. He is drawing on family and other social support networks to both inform and help disseminate educational materials and messages that will help change Bangladeshi society's reluctance to address this sensitive issue.
The New Idea
Afsan Chowdhury is taking a new approach to sex education in Bangladesh by involving those who are traditionally viewed as hostile to addressing such issues - parents and social and religious leaders. He employs them as the vehicles through which to reach the country's youth, the population that will benefit most from such knowledge in the long run. By drawing on a various segments of Bangladeshi society, and not merely focusing on groups that are at high-risk for sexually related problems, he is taking the initial steps toward creating a more conducive environment for sex education.Chowdhury begins with the premise that the family and society are the primary sources of information and values for children, and without their participation, initiatives to educate maturing youths are doomed to have little impact or fail. Moreover, he believes that family elders and social and religious leaders will actually become proponents of sex education for youth once they understand both its benefits and the consequences of its absence. Their support will remove the taboo on discussing sexuality, reduce the conflicts between sex education and traditional values and indeed, make it a part of family values. A critical component of Chowdhury's work is the development of culturally sensitive and reliable communication materials for sex education and the use of modern communication tools and practitioner networks to disseminate the information. The production of materials that can reach such a large audience will be an important factor in making a sustainable impact in the field. Afsan also works to create awareness among key government agencies of the need for sex education. He aims to build the capacity of Bangladesh's large community of nongovernmental organizations to incorporate sex education materials into their educational programs.
Although Bangladesh has accepted many changes in the name of development and is one of the few developing countries with a relatively high rate of contraceptive use, the level of sex education there is very low. Experts see this as an important reason behind the high rates of reproductive tract infections, gender-related violence, and a contributing factor in the increasing cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS.In Bangladesh there is a strong social prohibition against dealing with these problems. This affects how the government, families, and individuals perceive their roles in sexually related issues. For example, the government reports only eighty cases of AIDS/HIV infection in the country, whereas the World Health Organization estimates that there are twenty to thirty thousand cases. Therefore, the government does not see that there is a problem for it to rectify. There is also the common phenomenon of having a significant gap between perceived social norms and actual behavior which maintains societal images and constructs. The larger the gap, the less the sense of need and urgency for individuals to assume personal responsibility.Finally, thus far in Bangladesh, previous attempts at sex education have been geared toward target groups which are at a high risk for contracting STDs, such as prostitutes and drug users. In part, this is because so many projects are funded by foreign donors as part of more general reproductive health programs, which usually include other services such as sex education and contraception. In order to encourage these high-risk groups to understand and act quickly, these programs distribute information that is explicit but not necessarily culturally sensitive. The result is that the general population sees sexual problems as being a concern only those who engage in inappropriate behavior.Chowdhury believes that this alienation of the larger society is one of the root causes for the failure of previous initiatives to institute sex education in the country. Moreover, he is convinced that older generations and society's leaders are not, in fact, opposed to sex education; they will willingly participate if only they see sex education treated in a culturally sensitive manner, as part of family and values education.
Chowdhury is developing culturally appropriate and test-marketed materials to help parents, teachers, older family members, and community leaders become effective allies in his work. Instead of confrontation, his objective is to convince adults and seniors of the need for sex education. In order to collect research inputs for the test materials, Chowdhury originally set up a listening post/drop-in center in the Mirpur area of Dhaka, where discussions were held with parents and community members about different problems, needs, and other issues related to their children's sexuality. It took six months to convince the community of the importance of such a center, which is now visited by four hundred mothers per week. Chowdhury regularly debriefs and trains the center's counselors and now works with two other centers in Bangladesh, which provide similar services in local communities.Chowdhury is working to improve communications between generations so that issues related to human sexuality can be discussed without embarrassment. Before providing education, he wants to create a conducive environment for sex education, which will be achieved by creating and distributing test materials to focus groups and the mass media. While working closely with major service providers within the nongovernmental community and developing effective outreach with the mass media, he is also engineering policy shifts with the central government, pushing it to recognize the importance of issues relating to human sexuality in their national plans and programs. Chowdhury pioneered a landmark study on child sexual abuse for Breaking the Silence, a group of twelve nongovernmental organizations committed to working in the field of sex education. The study, which he led and authored, has resulted in increasing governmental and public awareness of the unreported problem of child sexual abuse. In the last year, newspapers, nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies have begun to focus on incidents of sexual abuse. With increasing awareness brought to the issue of the sexual abuse of children, Chowdhury is focusing more of his efforts on broader issues of sex education. Through this network and his drop-in centers, he tests different materials and methods and conducts additional research. Parents and children are equally engaged in the educational process, which is a shift from his earlier strategy, in which he tested some of the materials in schools. He stopped this practice when parents objected. Subsequently, the listening posts/drop-in centers uncovered the fact that teachers themselves were among the most frequent sex offenders. For these reasons as well as the fact that children are most comfortable with parents, the focus of the program was shifted to educating parents. Chowdhury is developing four different levels of materials. The first involves sexual safety education for children under ten years old; the second is on puberty management for ten- to fourteen-year-olds; and the third focuses on relationships for teenagers fourteen and older. Finally, there will be materials for parents on how to communicate with children and deal with sex education in the home. In coordination with Breaking the Silence, Chowdhury has been working primarily with underprivileged children. These children have fewer barriers and can communicate more easily about the problems they face. For the past two years, sex education classes have been held in different slums. Six facilitators, working with ten counselors trained in dealing with sexually abused children, meet with twenty-five children per week. These services reach approximately two thousand children. Afsan Chowdhury continues to work with the mass media. The BBC radio documentary on sex education, which he produced, continues to be broadcast yearly to tremendous response. This year he has also discussed and received a commitment to produce several sex education television programs for the private television channel, Ekushey, which aired in December of 1999. These programs focus on instructional programs and discussions between parents, teachers, and young people about issues regarding sex education. In addition, Chowdhury has started introducing some of the issues, concepts, and materials in mainstream print media. He has identified two dozen media professionals to act as allies in this effort. The other avenue that Chowdhury is pursuing is the use holy books for positive input on this issue. There are religious arguments against sexual violence and for sexual knowledge, and he has identified corresponding sections of the Koran and Hadis. He plans to meet with Islamic experts to discuss sexuality and create a religious platform for sex education. His ultimate ambition is to revise the Maksudul Momenin, the book generally presented to couples on their marriage day, especially in rural areas. At the policy level, Chowdhury has incorporated the issue of sex education into the government's National Plan of Action for Children. He was one of five individuals invited to help draft the plan, which has integrated awareness of the need for education in areas of human sexuality at the national level. He also persuaded a woman member of parlaiment to support this matter. In addition, Chowdhury has developed the sex education component of Action Aid's urban adolescent program and was the adviser to CIDA's (Canadian International Development Agency) sex education communication materials targeted for schools. Chowdhury also wrote the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh's entire sex education section that is part of its reproductive health program. Compared to a few years ago, the environment for sex education in Bangladesh has improved. There are, however, some disturbing trends. First, with the availability of funds in this sector, many nongovernmental organizations without adequate experience are getting involved. These organizations are being driven by project rather than program objectives. Second, the focus is still very much on reproductive health and not on life skills. Third, the organizations focus on their specific clients rather than the general public. And finally, their access to the media is still limited. Chowdhury plans to establish a center that will act as a resource base for sex educators. He hopes that through this center he can monitor the quality of sex education programs using the guidelines he plans to develop by the end of 2000. Eventually, Chowdhury wants to include sex education in the school curriculum with strong involvement of parents.
Afsan Chowdhury was born in 1954. He has had a parallel career in development work and the media. He has been active in multi-disciplinary research, media relations, journalism, and program development for two decades, and is one of the editors of an authoritative work on Bangladesh's War of Independence. He held a high position in UNICEF, but left to become a freelancer and social activist. He was also the BBC's correspondent in Bangladesh but left to concentrate on development-related work. These two resignations are indicative of his personality. Both were extremely prestigious jobs, but he gave them up to pursue social activism. In 1994, he established, HASAB, a funding nonprofit for organizations working in the area of HIV, STDs, and AIDS. Chowdhury has had remarkable success in designing communications materials that appeal to both the youth and elders alike. In 1995 he developed a fifteen-part sex education series for the BBC entitled "Sexwise," which aired in 1995-96. The first broadcasting of such a program in Asia, the series reached ten million listeners and became the most successful radio series in Bangladesh. The companion book to the series completely sold out of stores. His reputation as a media professional and development worker is firmly established. Chowdhury says that he cherishes freedom most and that is why he has dropped out of the conventional career tracks to do work that he finds directly relevant to his and other people's lives.