Transforming gender roles, one woman leader at a time

rokeya at work

Rokeya Rahman is from Khulna, Bangladesh. Six years after joining a Community Development Committee (CDC) in 2008, she was elected President and Chair of the CDC Federation – the apex body of 30 CDC clusters in Khulna. Through the CDCs, women gain spaces for their active participation within the community, as members or leaders within the sanitation sector.

Rokeya was a born leader [1]. As a member of her community, she participated in many social causes. But the community was not always open to women playing an active role in public spaces. Whenever she returned late at home, she’d often receive disapproving glances from her neighbours and relatives.

Though there were moments that Rokeya considered leaving work, she knew that she must persevere. Rokeya’s perseverance paid off. In 2008, she became a CDC cashier in Khulna. In 2014 she became the federation’s President and Chair-elect [2].

In addition to her federation [3] responsibilities, Rokeya also manages a vacutug emptying service. Her services cover a third of all wards in Khulna, with a combined population of 300,000 people.

Rokeya Rahman: President and Chair of the CDC federation in Khulna Bangladesh

Rokeya Rahman: President and Chair of the CDC federation in Khulna Bangladesh

Managing the cluster’s emptying services was not without challenges for Rokeya. Some community members could not accept that a woman was running the service. Rokeya was derogatorily called a ‘sweeper-leader.’ On occasion, when Rokeya picked up the phone to respond to service requests, some prospective clients hung up on her. Managing the men in her business was also challenging, especially during night shifts when she was unable to monitor the quality of their services. As a result, evening services were terminated.

Although far from being a favourable working environment, Rokeya persisted. For Rokeya,

‘Success is not solely dependent on the growth of a business. A successful business must keep in mind the needs of the poor and marginalised in the community. I believe I can take this further with the help of organisations like SNV and local government.'

Today, CDC emptying services is gaining traction. There is also greater recognition of the leadership role that women can play in the quality delivery of services. Lastly, more and more women customers are finding comfort in articulating their service requests to a woman leader and service provider [3].

Written by Anjani Abella, Masud Rana and Marc Perez Casas

[1] Rokeya's story is one of the five personal stories featured in the SNV in Bangladesh publication, 'Reframing the urban sanitation narrative: stories of leadership and change in Bangladesh.' With support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, SNV has been collaborating with government officials, NGOs, CBOs and private sector in Khulna city since 2014 to improve citywide sanitation services. As a result of this partnership, citywide contributions include the production of  a national guideline on faecal sludge management (FSM), professionalisation of sanitation services, improvements in the working conditions of sanitation workers (as well as mobilising sanitation workers for annual FSM emptier conventions to make them part of the solution), and the construction of Khulna's Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant on what used to be a solid waste dump. Visit the CWISE project page to learn more about this collaboration.
[2] Rokeya is among Khulna’s sanitation leaders who have benefited from SNV workshops and training. 
[3] In total, the federation has a membership of 278 CDCs, organised in clusters for each ward. The federation oversees CDC activities, such as savings and credit group arrangements. It enables members’ voices and participation in demanding for and monitoring Local Government Institutions (LGIs) delivery and implementation of pro-poor, quality programmes. Federation members receive training and assistance in establishing partnerships with LGIs and other agencies.