Mahbuba Leena

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1992
UTSHA Bangladesh
This description of Mahbuba Leena's work was prepared when Mahbuba Leena was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .


A human rights and women's rights activist, Mahbooba Akhter "Leena" Mahmood is focusing on the critical needs of working single mothers and their children in the urban slums and brothels of Bangladesh.

The New Idea

Leena's efforts are aimed at the problems of single mothers who bear the double burden of working and raising a family. Leena is helping to encourage and ensure women's self-reliance by providing basic residential and educational facilities for their children. While a few hostels exist for economically disadvantaged children, none offer their services to the children of single working mothers or reach out to the most marginalized sections of the community. Leena's program is attempting to reach these women, especially those who are prostitutes. Through Leena's program, mothers can ensure that their children will have appropriate, full-time care. However, it provides much more than care. It provides a formal and informal education. It teaches the children, by example, to respect women. Especially criticial, it helps the children to respect themselves and others, and to come to terms with their own identity as the children of single mothers or prostitutes.In addition, Leena is working to help society to focus on the problems of single working mothers and their children. She encourages the children's financial sponsors, usually affluent members of the community, to spend time with the children and learn firsthand of their difficulties. In this way, Leena is molding a constituency that she hopes will eventually help press for the establishment of far-reaching legal and social supports for these women and their children.

The Problem

In Bangladesh today, millions of women live below the poverty line and are far more likely to be poor than men. While forced to work and support themselves, these women are pushed to the margins of the workforce--as prostitutes, garment factory workers, domestic helpers. For women who have children, the long and erratic hours required by these jobs are incompatible with providing adequate care for their children. Recent studies reveal that there is an increasing number of single working mothers in Bangladesh. Lacking family support, these women have no access to safe day care and education for their young children. The few day care centers that do exist cater to upper-class families. As a result, these children are left to fend for themselves and lack access to education. Often the atmosphere in which they are cared for, such as the brothel, provides less than ideal formative experiences. Here they witness constant abuse of women and a mixture of illegal and violent activity. Fatherless, they are considered outcasts by other sections of society in a country where paternity is equivalent to identity.

The Strategy

Leena has started work with several groups of prostitutes from the capital, Dhaka. She is dedicated to involving them deeply in the process of pioneering the country's first full-time care home and is now working with them to determine what their needs are and what sort of learning and living situation they want for their children. Women may enroll their children for full-time care at the center for a very modest monthly fee of 300 taka ($8). She has recruited volunteers to teach daytime educational classes and has hired several others to live full time with the children and conduct their informal education, including gender consciousness training. These tutors and teachers will serve to train others as Leena spreads her program to other areas.To ensure the long-term viability of the project, Leena has sought individual student financial sponsorships from community members, and she encourages them to interact with the children: helping with homework, for example, or bringing the children home for vacations and holidays.

The Person

Leena comes from a family with a long tradition of social commitment. Her father donated his land and house to establish a high school for boys and girls in his remote village in Netrakona District. As Leena grew up, she worked at his side helping him run the school. She has worked with various organizations focusing on the economic empowerment of low-income women from the urban slums. She is a member of Nari Pokkho (For Women), a women's voluntary organization committed to discussion, analysis, and definition of women's issues, and also Shakti (Foundation for Disadvantaged Women). She also initiated a community-based children's library called Monir Mela, which serves the children of her own neighborhood.