Kulsum Begum, a speedboat driver in Char Biswas, made five trips last month – all to transport critically ill patients.
She recounted, "An expectant mother was among them – while three were heart attack patients and another had taken poison. All of them survived and are leading normal lives – which I am happy to hear."
Breaking with tradition, two women from Char Bishwas – Khadija and Kulsum Begum – have chosen to drive speedboats as their profession. The char (river island), a union under Galachipa upazila of Patuakhali district, is detached from Bangladesh's mainland. Waterways provide the only way to access the upazila or district sadar.
In the remote area, the social status of women lags behind that of men – in-and-outside of the family. However, the two women have also taken the helms of their respective families.
"Because of Kulsum and Khadija's speedboats, critically-ill patients can be transported to the Upazila Health Complex, 35 kilometres away from the hospital, within 45 minutes. They not only earn money for their families, they also provide a service for the people of the char," said Abu Sayem Gazi, one of Kulsum Begum's neighbours.
Khadija and Kulsum's life struggles are almost identical and despite their efforts for a better livelihood, their fates have not changed significantly.
Khadija, who lives in the South-West Char Bishwas village in Patuakhali district, married a businessman named Adu Akon when she was 13-years-old. She was widowed 14 years later and had spent her savings on her husband's cancer treatment. However, she did not lose her courage to fight against all odds and take the helm of her five-member family. Khadija, who was compelled to stop her studies after Class V, trained as speedboat driver. Then, she began professionally driving a speedboat to earn money for her four children.
Kulsum Begum, 28, was divorced after a near-three-year dispute with her husband and in-law's family over her dowry. She, along with her only son, returned to her father's home in the middle of Char Bishwas village in 2014. She had to search for a job but could only find one in the male-dominated professions of fishing and agro-based farming.
During the job search, she learned that a non-governmental organization, ActionAid UK, was funding a project called Promoting Rights for Char Dwellers, that trains Char Bishwas and Char Kajol residents to drive speedboats.
ActionAid's South Asian Partnership, in October 2015, trained nine women and eleven men to drive speedboats. Khadija and Kulsum are among the trainees. The Association of Voluntary Actions for Society (AVAS), a rights-based organization, later joined the initiative.
After completing the six-month training program, only two of the nine have been making their living driving speedboats on different rivers – including the Meghna, Tentulia, Agunmukha, Darichira and Buriganga – for the last four years.
Kulsum Begum said, "Among the nine trained female drivers, only two survived in this profession. The remaining women have been compelled to leave the profession as they have been obstructed by influential individuals, and have faced other problems."
Kulsum Begum said when a char resident falls seriously ill, their family members call Khadija or Kulsum to transport the patient. The duo is the only hope for serious patients to be brought to the upazila health complex from the remote area.
Additionally, tourists, government and non-government officials hire her speed boat for their official inspections, Kulsum Begum said.
Khadija and Kulsum both said the profession is not easy for women and they are struggling to survive in it.
They both expressed that initially, they earned more than Tk25,000 a month, but now they hardly earn Tk5000 a month. They blame launch owners, who are involved in local politics, for their present situation.
The two agree that despite having survived tidal waves, and rapid river currents, it has been harder for them to fight against the char's influential individuals. The influential quarters have hatched multiple conspiracies – complicating their livelihoods.
The two alleged that the individuals often prevent them from docking at many ghats (ports) to onboard and offload passengers. Thus, most days of the week, they sit idly.
The women said after arranging multiple village arbitrations, the individuals made slanderous remarks about them and threatened to harass them by filing a case against them.
They ignore when others criticise, laugh at or mock them; but their engines are frequently tampered with and sometimes the speedboats are out of service.
However, they repair the engines and other parts with the knowledge they received during training.
Association of Voluntary Actions for Society project director Md Farid Uddin said the project procured a speedboat in a bid to arrange for employment for the helpless women of Char Bishwas and Char Kajol. In the first two years, the women earned a lot.
Farid explained, "Their earnings were divided into two parts. Half of their income was distributed between them and the rest of the money was deposited in a bank account. Now, the two drivers receive half of their income and the rest of the money goes to the Lok Kendra Somity which formed to provide help for 90 helpless women."
Financed by AVAS, another speedboat was bought for the project. However, Kulsum and Khadija cannot operate the speedboats on most of the river routes as they are obstructed from doing so by influential people.
Project director Md Farid Uddin said they have been trying to attain a route permit for the two speed boats for several years, but have failed to do so.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) Patuakhali port officer Kwaja Sadikur Rahman said, "Twenty-to-25 speedboats may run on the routes in Galachipa and adjacent areas. Of those, 16 to 18 speedboats are permitted to ply those routes. Two female drivers are working on speedboats in the area and it is a shame if anyone obstructs them. We will take legal action if they lodge a complaint."
When asked for an update about the NGO's route permit application for two speedboats, BIWTA head office navel-security and traffic management department director Rafiqul Islam declined to comment, saying he was busy with his official duties.