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A Mother’s Quest for Conquering Limitations

Sounds of children clapping and reciting grew louder as I stepped closer. Once I entered, I was greeted with smiles and startles of women and children alike. The room – unconventional in ways more than one – screamed creativity and optimism. The walls were painted in fiery-red and mustard-yellow. Books, musical instruments, and toys co-existed in one room. When a woman asked the children to form three words with a Bangla letter, one swiftly answered, demonstrating an inclination towards learning. These children had a common denominator: special needs.

I knew nothing about her, and yet, I was there at the footsteps of her organization, waiting anxiously for the face that would embody the humble yet assertive voice I heard over the phone. While I sat leaning against the pink low tables, slightly bending and perspiring, Rizwana Islam emerged with a smile that brightened up her eyes with contagious positivity. I felt completely at ease as she led me to a quieter classroom and settled for the interview.

With academic and professional backgrounds in Architecture, what led her to establish Alternative Learning Centre (alcforchildren.com), a school for children with special needs? Rizwana was elated when she was blessed with a baby daughter. She soon observed strange characteristics in the baby. Amongst other things, the baby would not look when her name was called out and would not feed naturally like other babies due to lack of lip control. Local doctors prescribed medical tests and medications, which further weakened the baby’s immune system. Eight months passed before doctors abroad broke out the news: her daughter suffers from mitochondrial development disorder. Consultation with various doctors at home and abroad pointed towards one reality: there could be little improvement, if any, in the baby’s development. Rizwana was devastated, but a mother’s love remained undefeated. Indeed, her resilience reflected as she recounted the story without any measure of despair and with unmatched tranquility.

In Bangladesh, social stigma is attached to autism. Working mothers are accused of inviting autism by not paying attention to children. Worse still, mothers are blamed for giving birth to “God-given curse.” Rizwana herself was faced with pitiful looks, questioning why her third child did not “turn out normal” and linking the situation with displeasure of divine powers.

Globally, since autism mostly affects men, autistic females remain largely ignored. National Autistic Society in UK reveals that many girls are never referred for diagnosis even if their symptoms are severe and are deliberately excluded from research studies. According to Autistic Children’s Welfare Foundation in Bangladesh, 1 in every 150 girls is affected by autism. Experts estimate that about 3-6 children out of every 1,000 will develop autism. Due to lack of formal research, it is assumed that about 300,000 children in Bangladesh are affected.

Little attention is paid to the influence that gender plays on autism. Girls have needs and interests different from boys, which are usually not taken into account during diagnosis. In most cases in Bangladesh, it has been found that girls are more vulnerable than boys as they are sexually harassed. Clearly, autism and women’s rights to health and education are emerging and integral yet neglected facets of worldwide women’s empowerment movement.

Despite the challenges, Rizwana never viewed the disorder as a barrier for her daughter towards attaining a fuller life. With a progressive mind, she approached reputable mainstream schools for her daughter’s admission. To her utter dismay, most of these schools, which claim to be of international standards, did not provide the environment where females with autism and special needs could thrive. They did not offer customized education. They did not dedicate private space to females for feeding. It was evident to Rizwana that they were not prepared mentally to include such facilities. With a heavy heart, she shifted her target on special education schools. Dimly-lit, claustrophobic, and musty, these sub-par schools employed baby-sitters instead of teachers. “I want physiotherapy to be done by experts not by low-skilled women,” asserts Rizwana, her tranquility suddenly broken with her soft slap on the desk.

Rizwana noticed an unfulfilled need. In 2011, with emotional support from her husband and advice from her sister, Dr. Farzana, a pediatrician who treats autistic children, Rizwana established a non-profit school on the ground floors of her residence. She employed experienced doctors and teachers. She created an inclusive, stimulating environment required for mental health. Open space is a key feature in the classrooms. Hygiene education is incorporated in the school curriculum. She speaks of “toilet training,” a technique involving repeated words and activities, which enabled her daughter and other females to discontinue the overuse of diapers. Rizwana aims to overcome the social segregation and integrate children with special needs into the mainstream society by opening the doors of her school to children with and without special needs where they could all interact and learn from each other just for an hour.

Rizwana’s most pioneering step is the training and motivating of mothers, female educators, and caregivers to nurture autistic children. Currently, in Bangladesh, there are no training institutions for this purpose. Furthermore, she has distributed autism-friendly calendars and stationery items to 50 different schools in the country with the aim of promoting awareness on the issue. Despite low response, her spirit is undeterred. She fills the communication void through social media, particularly Facebook and e-mail. While resources were initially devoted to school development, she has decided to scale up expansion efforts. She plans to recruit committed youth volunteers and link up with corporations and INGOs. She is adamant in accommodating 8 more children alongside the existing 14 in the school.

“Many say autistic girls do not need education. They only need discipline. I oppose. Education is a basic right. If her eyes are fine, that’s the medium and outlet through which we will reach her and she will express herself,” Rizwana stresses, baring her unwavering passion for autistic girls’ rights to education. I realized: when a resolute mother sets out to correct things, she is almost always successful.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Dear Monica,
Bravo on your first assignment. Your words touch my heart.

I can feel the dedication and persistence of this determined woman and her mission to do something to help her daughter and the daughters of other families.

Warmly, Virginia

Virginia Williams, MBA, PCC | Executive Coach and Learning Facilitator

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Virginia,

Thank you so much for your encouragement!

I agree. Ms. Rizwana's positive determination is contagious and self-revelatory. Inspires all of us to take that little step towards building a more women-friendly world.

Warm regards,
Monica

Greengirl's picture

Great Piece!

Rizwana's resilience and drive to build an inclusive environment for autistic children is compelling! I love her idea and decision to "overcome the social segregation and integrate children with special needs into the mainstream society by opening the doors of her school to children with and without special needs where they could all interact and learn from each other just for an hour".

The piece is informing, educating and illuminating. Certainly, Rizwana will be proud to see her portrait and work so well painted in words, by you. Great piece of writing!

Greengirl

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

I agree. It takes so little to break down illogical invisible divisions between human beings. Change starts with- just an hour!

Ms. Rizwana was mostly happy with the work.

Thank you for your comment! You are always encouraging and lively!

Regards,
Monica

pelamutunzi's picture

moving

this is a truly moving story of how women change the world and how a mother's love conquers all. hats off to rizwana for giving hope to many mothers with children suffering from autism. it surely took courage and her caring and kind heartedness to fight a system that discriminates on human life.
well done monica for bringing this story out. its touching and inspirational

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.
regards
pela

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Pela,

Thank you for your comment! I am glad you were moved by Ms. Rizwana's story. Mothers must be empowered because they have this innate ability to empower many others.

In friendship,
Monica

Iryna's picture

Progressive mind

Rizwana is a brave woman with a progressive mind, as you said, Monica. It's always a big challenge for parents to take the right decision when they understand their baby is special. Unfortunately, goverments of our countries prefer to ignore this problem, despite even that the amount of autistic children grows every year. I noticed that almost all schools for autistic children were initiated by parents. I respect these people because they not only fight with misunderstanding around them but also help other families to live normal lives.

My big respect to Rizwana and greetings to you, Monica, because you wrote a beautiful story about a beautiful woman who really deserves it.
Iryna

Monica09's picture

Government's role

Dear Iryna,

Greetings! Thank you for your kind words!

I totally agree with you. Government in Bangladesh reserves 1% quota for autistic people in all first and second class jobs, but only through specialized education and early intervention programs will autistic individuals be able to perform on the job and reap the benefits of such quotas. Government needs to take a holistic approach, starting from the roots of the problem. Maybe ordinary people need to fill up the gaps left by incomplete policies.

In friendship,
Monica

Mukut's picture

Kudos !

Brilliant piece ! Moving and inspiring. You managed to tell Rizwana 's story so well.

You inspire me in so many ways and your stories add further glory to your ever increasing efforts of making women count.

Well done, my dear.

Love,

Mukut Ray

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Mukut,

Thank you so much! Your appreciation means a lot.

Much love,
Monica

Y's picture

I beautiful story of

I beautiful story of responsible, committed compassion! I pray for the day that every child is cherished as is the daughter of this mother.
Blessings on you.
Yvette

Yvette

Monica09's picture

Cherishing children

I join you in praying for the welfare of children, irrespective of gender.

Warmly,
Monica

libudsuroy's picture

A many-faceted gem

Dear Monica,
As early as your first draft that you shared as a group post, I could already tell you had found a gem of many facets: first, your choice of subject; second, the unique endeavor of your subject,and third, your own unique storytelling.
I learned something quite new to me that your article has pointed out: the gender dimensions of autism. How autistic girls are doubly burdened. Presenting facts and statistics buttressed your story.
Rizwana's school for children of/with special needs and challenges was established with the welfare of her own child in mind and then she widened her coverage to embrace other people's children and much later moved towards to advocacy and awareness about/for the mentally-challenged to a larger audience.
Like most of us who are VOF correspondents, you have been blessed with an outstanding and caring mentor who also cared about your story. But it looks like the blessing is mutual -- you have the innate storytelling talent and enthusiasm, all you need is a little more nurturing of your craft.
You will go a long way, Monica. I am proud of you..Hats off to you. :)

Blessings,
libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Lina,

Thank you for your heartfelt comment! I am thrilled by all the nice things that you have said about me and about Ms. Rizwana.

I couldn't agree more- my mentor is just too awesome, and I realize it more with each passing day as she continues to develop me as a journalist. She did a wonderful work with just 2 rounds of editing. I am blessed to have her as my mentor.

Thank you once again!

In friendship,
Monica

JaniceW's picture

Great interview

You had me from the first sentence. You have great writing and storytelling talents. I loved your words:

"Rizwana was devastated, but a mother’s love remained undefeated. Indeed, her resilience reflected as she recounted the story without any measure of despair and with unmatched tranquility."

You also provided insightful and compelling background information into the issues surrounding autism in Bangladesh and distilled the information down beautifully for an easy read. Well done.

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Janice,

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! I am glad you found it easy and informative.

Regards,
Monica

Aminah's picture

Enjoyed reading about Rizwana again.

You have done a wonderful job in bringing her quest to us.

Keep up the great work.

Salaam
Aminah

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Aminah,

Thank you so much for your appreciation!

Peace,
Monica

Maura Bogue's picture

Great Job!

Really good job on this! Your lead is fantastic! I love the picture you paint at the beginning.

Next time, try and dive right into your subject. You include a lot of great background information at the beginning, but try placing it toward the middle or end in order to develop a compelling narrative lead.

Best,
Maura

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Maura,

Thank you so much for your encouragement!

I shall incorporate your advice in my next assignments.

Regards,
Monica

Lisa Anderson's picture

Bravo!

Monica,

What a beautiful and poignant story! You've piqued my interest in this topic and spurred me to learn more. A profile very well done!

Cheers,
Lisa

Lisa Kislingbury Anderson
Storyteller | Passionate community member
LKAnderson6@gmail.com

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Lisa,

Thank you for your kind words! I am glad I was able to encourage you into learning more about autism and how it affects women.

Warm regards,
Monica

Y's picture

Your article is an education

Your article is an education in itself. The power of educated, compassionate community and sisterhood, paired with parenting is unstoppable.
Blessings to you, Monica

Yvette

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