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Human rights activist innovates to address health and food security for Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples

Posted: 9 December 2020

Bangladesh, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

Australia Global Alumni

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a grave impact around the world, but—as reported by the United Nations—it poses a worse health threat for indigenous peoples than for other groups. Indigenous peoples tend to have poorer access to healthcare, sanitation and essential services, and can encounter discrimination even when they are able to access preventive measures or medical treatment. In Bangladesh, many indigenous communities live in remote areas of the country, where nearby medical facilities (if available) are often under-equipped and under-staffed.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, the public health authorities struggled to provide basic healthcare services. Instituting physical distancing protocols and personal hygiene practices was particularly challenging. The situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT)—home to many indigenous peoples—was even more difficult.

To minimise the risks and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on her community, indigenous rights activist and Australia Awards alumna Rani (Queen) Yan Yan is promoting a simple and low-cost water supply system to encourage handwashing throughout remote indigenous communities in Bangladesh.

Rani Yan Yan is an indigenous woman leader, the traditional queen of the ‘Chakma Circle’ and an adviser to Raja Devasish Roy, the traditional king of the Chakma Circle. She works to empower indigenous women at the local, national and international levels.

Rani Yan Yan completed her Bachelor of Development Studies from the University of Adelaide in 2010 through an Australia Awards Scholarship. The university then invited her to pursue a further honours degree. “I was fortunate that Australia Awards extended my Scholarship for an additional year for me to undertake the honours degree,” she says. “In 2011, I completed my Honours Degree of Bachelor of Development Studies and was awarded a classification of First Class, which would not have been possible without the funding support from Australia Awards.”

“I am forever grateful to Australia Awards for its generosity and commitment to support potential students in achieving academic excellence.”

In 2017, with further support from Australia Awards through an Informal Learning Opportunity, she attended a Diplomacy Training Program on ‘Human Rights, Indigenous Peoples, the Private Sector and Development’ delivered by the University of New South Wales in Sabah, Malaysia. She is also an alumna of the Feminist Legal Theory and Practice training program of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

Australia Awards alumna Rani Yan Yan

Rani Yan Yan’s work before COVID-19 was mainly on women’s empowerment and upholding the rights of indigenous communities, and she quickly identified ways to help address the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The simple water supply system to encourage handwashing was one of them.

Given the importance and effectiveness of proper handwashing practices in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Rani Yan Yan worked with the Chakma Circle’s community members, non-government organisations and volunteer organisations to produce a local documentary about Tippy Tap, a simple device to support hygienic handwashing. This innovative device is relevant for places with limited water supply, and has been promoted by the World Health Organization.

The Tippy Tap requires only a jerry can, rope, wooden sticks and a limited amount of water. Such a system resonated well with the community living in CHT because it is an efficient and low-cost way of saving water and maintaining hygienic practices in these hilly and remote areas where water supply is scarce.

“The video demonstration led to the installation of Tippy Tap units in many community centres (para kendro) managed by the CHT Development Board to raise awareness of handwashing practices. It also encouraged villagers to install units in their homes,” says Rani Yan Yan. “Proper hand hygiene and sanitation is one of the most important measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. I think such a practice is an ideal solution for the people living in hilly terrains and remote areas who do not have access to running water.”

Rani Yan Yan similarly assisted in producing video documentaries in indigenous and Bangla languages about hygiene practices and physical distancing protocols.

To address the issue of food security, she also collaborated with the world’s largest non-government organisation, BRAC (which is based in Bangladesh), to mobilise emergency relief support to 5000 families living in remote villages. For this initiative, she worked with several youth organisations and mobilised them to assist in the implementation of activities, such as developing lists of families in need of assistance and distributing relief packs to these recipients.

“As I worked closely with marginalised people, their hardship and struggles taught me to become a fully sentient human being. As a responsible citizen, I consider it my obligation to work for people in need in any circumstance,” she says.

During the pandemic, Rani Yan Yan has used virtual platforms to connect with friends, colleagues and activists working on similar advocacy initiatives. To encourage positivity during these uncertain times, she promotes stories about collective strength and the resilience of her community. To motivate people to overcome the crises resulting from COVID-19, she shares stories of various initiatives undertaken by civil society and youth groups. She has also actively engaged and mentored such youth groups in relief efforts so that they can be mobilised to build a strong community spirit.

Her Australia Awards experience steered her career path and significantly altered her attitude towards life. The learning experience in South Australia has developed her analytical and research skills and boosted her confidence to venture outside of her comfort zone. Her knowledge of a multicultural society, where diversity is celebrated, has inspired her vision for an equitable society in Bangladesh.

“My education and working experiences have culminated in me choosing an extremely challenging, but fulfilling, life path,” Rani Yan Yan says. “Activism is not a career path, it is a way of life.”