On the morning of May 16, 2020, when the whole country was under shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a team of five youths arrived at Nazma Boarding, a brothel in the heart of Mymensingh town, with food.
The sex workers of the brothel and their family members had been living in a miserable condition as their income declined due to the pandemic. This ignited the humanity of the five youths who are members of Awareness 360, a voluntary organisation.
And this noble response came to the vulnerable community as a surprise.
During the pandemic, the organisation provided around 450 sex workers' families with one month's food including rice, lentil, edible oil and salt. The organisation gave them soap too.
"They are the most neglected community in our society. No one cares about them. At that time, they were facing hard times. They were very happy to get the food items," said Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, co-founder of Awareness 360.
The organisation is now planning to raise fund to stand by the transgender community in the country. Shomy said that like sex workers, the transgenders are also neglected. They are also facing hardship in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The activities of Awareness 360 are not limited to the national boundary. The organisation's Zimbabwe team is working for SDG-4 quality education.
"Many children in the country are dropping out of school due to poverty. Our members have raised fund to pay for their tuition fees for an entire year. They also provided baby clothing to underprivileged women during their post-natal period," said Shomy.
The team in Georgia mostly works for human rights issues and foster upholding democratic values among young people. The team in France works on ensuring the mental well-being of university students. They also donate warm blankets and hygiene kits to homeless people after snowstorms.
The rise of Awareness 360
Shomy Hasan Chowdhury and his friend Rijve Arefin jointly founded the organisation in October 2014 to raise awareness about social problems. As both of them had experiences of working for separate international organisations, within a few years, their platform Awareness 360 went global.
Shomy's mother died from diarrhoea in April 2014. This sudden shock drove the organisation for its first campaign for water and sanitation. Rijve wanted to work for quality education and mental health.
Based in Malaysia, Awareness 360 has also been working to help young people to implement community service projects focusing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In the last five years, the organisation has received prestigious recognition internationally from reputed platforms including The Diana Award, Global Citizen, Global Changemakers, UNDP, The US State Department and The Commonwealth Students' Association.
The organisation's vision is to prepare young people with tools and resources so that they can contribute to implementing the 2030 global agenda.
Our main objective is to pave the way of change-making for young people who want to do something for their country. Alone, they might not know where to start. It needs guidance and resources
"Our main objective is to pave the way of change-making for young people who want to do something for their country. Alone, they might not know where to start. It needs guidance and resources," said Shomy.
Shomy said young people show a huge response when it comes to community service. They often shy away from taking action due to lack of guidance. What they need most are training on certain skills and an inspiration to pursue their passion.
"A young person cannot usually go to a school and express interest to conduct a project. When it is from an organisation, they get the necessary support," she added.
Currently, more than 1500 youths from 23 countries aged between 16 and 27 are volunteering for Awareness 360.
"We provide our members with the very basic skills to do a community service project so that even a beginner can feel at ease. For example, how to write a project proposal, how to draft an action plan, proper documentation and reporting tips," said Shomy.
Awareness 360 has brought people together from different corners of the world by using the power of social media. It holds regular virtual meetings with country ambassadors and maintains frequent communication with the core members.
"We started off with our friends and existing network from different countries. When we shared that we would be launching a platform and looking for young people to take charge, some people showed interest when they found that their mission and vision matched ours," said Shomy.
The number of members increased fast when big organisations like Global Citizen and Global Changemakers acknowledged Awareness 360 for its contribution to community service, adding more credibility to the organisation.
Shomy believes that the incentives, as well as resources provided by Awareness 360 help the organisation, retain its members.
"We do not charge any money for our membership. We do not take any registration fee. Rather, we have given them money as a conveyance in some projects," she said.
We do not charge any money for our membership. We do not take any registration fee. Rather, we have given them money as a conveyance in some projects
She said that as the organisation has a global network and partnerships, its members often get complimentary tickets to international conferences. It also provides fully-funded foreign trips to its members.
"For this kind of incentives, our members feel engaged and motivated, I think," said Shomy.
Possibilities and challenges
Awareness 360 funds its projects from different grants. They raise money through small-scale community-based crowd-funding.
"When people donate money, they want to know what causes they are giving the money to, this also plays important role in creating awareness among people," said the co-founder.
In Bangladesh, the organisation's focus is SDG-6, which deals with clean water and sanitation.
Our ultimate goal is to empower young people so that they can change their communities by identifying problems and offer solutions
They reach out to the most vulnerable communities in the society like sex workers and sewerage workers to create awareness about handwashing techniques, water filtration, menstrual hygiene. They also create awareness among slum dwellers, homeless people, persons with disabilities, garments workers as well as school children.
"We are making people understand the very basic things that they do not know, such as the importance of washing hands, keeping our nails short," said Shomy.
The main challenge the members face is that people do not understand why they are working for them in the first place.
"When we approach a brothel to conduct a 'WASH Talk' for sex-workers, they do not welcome us and think it will be a waste of their time," she said.
We have only 10 years left to meet the SDG agenda. The potentials of the young generation need to be actualised. We are running out of time
According to her, "Our ultimate goal is to empower young people so that they can change their communities by identifying problems and offer solutions."
"We have only 10 years left to meet the SDG agenda. The potentials of the young generation need to be actualised. We are running out of time," Shomy alerted.