When she was just 13, now 17-year-old Tahua Tura of Bangladesh started expanding her theater troupe to include street children, including Dalit children living in closed-off communities once referred to as “untouchable”. Her early experiences accompanying her aunt, Ashoka Fellow Safura Begum, to poor communities and interacting with the children had helped her see that, like her, they enjoyed creative arts but simply didn’t have access to them. She also saw that without such access, many were more vulnerable to violence and drug use on the streets. By age 14, Tura had set up an organization to build self-esteem and mitigate risk among marginalized children in Bangladesh that made national headlines. Last month, after being recognized as a Youth Venturer by Ashoka, Tura sat down with Ashoka staff to share what factors contributed most to her early changemaking experience.
Ashoka: Tura, you used to go around with your aunt to visit communities she was working in and started spending time with the kids there. Can you tell us more about that?
Tura: My aunt runs an NGO. Because of her work I once visited the Harijan community in Bangladesh. [Note: Harijan is a term popularized by Mahatma Gandhi for referring to Dalits.] I was ten years old at the time. I used to notice that the children there are extremely shy in nature. According to family traditions, their understanding and experience of life was limited to just three things; work, food and drugs. Most of their parents were sweepers or taking part in various odd jobs. This is when my interest to work with children was sparked.
Ashoka: How did that early experience help you think through the theater program you began a few years later involving street kids?
Tura:I was involved with the theatre from my early childhood. When I came across underprivileged children I thought that they may have a lot of undiscovered talent. Some were good with singing, some at dancing and others at poetry recitation. But they were not aware of this. So I realized the only way to make use of the treasure chest of talents was through theatre; the platform where these qualities can be demonstrated. Theatre is an amalgamation of all arts, an avenue for the individual to express themselves and for their talents to be realized.
Ashoka: How has that work evolved today?
Tura: Currently, in the Narsingdi district I have organized about forty children and incorporated them in my theater group. My friends and I are practicing theater with these underprivileged children during our time between studies. We are informing them about their rights through this art form and educating them about responsible citizenship, character, and morals. Besides these, we are trying to ensure that they don’t abuse drugs, become victims of sexual assault or get derailed in any way. Now I am 17 years old. I want to emphasize the fact that there are many street children in Bangladesh. If we can integrate them in our society through theater, and give them a chance, each one of these kids will be a shining star in the future.
Ashoka: Besides bringing you with her, did your aunt provide other support to you as you started your initiative?
Tura: Yes, my aunt supported me a lot, especially providing mental strength that is required to accomplish something like this that I struggled with at the time. She provided me with courage and inspiration, which took me further down my trajectory and closer to my dreams.
Ashoka: You said your parents resisted you working with street kids. Why was that?
Tura: Initially, my family did not want me to associate with any such work. They used to believe that this involvement would deter me from my studies and my grades would slip, and that my future would be doomed. Besides, the residents of my own neighborhood frowned upon my work. This is why I could not work out in the open. Even when my family has accepted my work, my community hasn’t really changed its’ mind. Despite these challenges I was not unmotivated and did not stray from my vision. I continued my work and plan to do so for long into the future.
Ashoka: What advice would you give to parents, aunts and uncles of young children today? What advice would you give to kids themselves?
Tura: I want to tell all the families in Bangladesh to give sufficient importance to the opinions of their children. I urge them to help children realize their dreams in as many ways as possible. I want them to give street children a chance (too,) to provide a little support and kindness with which we can create an enabling environment for them. They will surely make promising changes in the future and solve all kinds of social problems in the status quo. To the kids, I would say, refine your own talents as much as you can. You will achieve wonders!
Zefroon Asfray, Abdullah Chaudary and Claire Fallender contributed to this piece.