As a child, Mohammed Jahidul Islam Al Azad never felt like he fit in. When everyone around him was going through the changes that come with adolescence, he discovered that he had more feminine interests such as wanting to play with dolls or dressing up.
This divide only deepened when he turned 13 and he was heavily bullied as a result. It was only later that he realised that he was transgender.
"I was bullied to the point that I wanted to commit suicide. It was only a lot later that I realised there are more like me out there. Before that I used to feel extremely lonely and disoriented," said Azad, who now goes by the name Manisha Meem Nipun.
"Since my family was conservative, they made things more difficult for me by restricting me," said Manisha.
At college, she was targeted for sexual abuse by some seniors. "At that point, I couldn't even seek any support even if I wanted to. Who would listen to me?" she exclaimed.
Feeling unincluded due to her gender identity, she eventually dropped out. At the time, she had also been cast out from her family. This moment came to be her turning point. She joined a transgender group, popularly called hijras, where she was given the new name by the leader of the group who Manisha refers to as 'guru ma'.
At this point, she had no choice but to look after herself to the best of her ability just to make ends meet.
Along the way, in 2015, she had the opportunity to work in a local organisation to educate and create awareness among the trans communities. Her salary used to be only Tk2,000 a month.
Through this job, she was able to take part in different focus group discussions (FGDs) and seminars of various donor organisations for the gender and sexual minority community.
In 2018, while attending an FGD, she met Abdullah al Hasan, a social justice advocate for the marginalised communities in Bangladesh. As they gradually became acquaintances, Hasan encouraged her to join him in a new endeavour.
Formation of the Pathchola Foundation
Manisha and Hasan founded Pathchola Foundation in 2019, to address the lack of employability skills, education and human rights issues of the minority populace.
This community-led organisation is solely run by the gender and sexual minority, who work at the grassroots level for community development. Manisha is the founding member and executive director of Pathchola. They have 10 core team members and 70 volunteers.
Even though initially their goal was to provide emotional support, empathy and advocacy, gradually they realised the only way to truly sustain their empowerment was through financial stability. And so, they added employability to their core value. Abdullah, at the time rescued 10 transgender sex workers who dreamt of leading a better life.
When Abdullah received a Millennium Fellowship powered by United Nations Academic Impact, the organisation began to be structured formally. But it was Manisha who took the lead to work for the particularly vulnerable community during the initial days of Covid-19.
"During Covid-19, people in my community were very vulnerable. When regular people were struggling with aid or food, it was impossible for my people to get help," she said.
Manisha started with a Facebook post seeking help that went viral overnight, accompanied by thousands of shares and comments.
With the help of 25 donor organisations, they provided aid in the form of food and cash to 1,112 people for nine months in Chattogram, Khulna, Mymensingh, Rangpur and Dhaka.
The next year, Manisha received the Sheikh Hasina Youth Volunteering Award 2020 in the 'Service Excellence' category for her bravery amidst the pandemic.
In 2021, Pathchola Foundation secured a position among the Top 31 organisations in the 'Joy Bangla Youth Award (JBYA) 2021 in the 'Social Inclusion' category for outstanding services and dedicated efforts toward ensuring Equality and Rights of the minority population in Bangladesh.
In 2021, Pathchola received the "Hero Award 2021" in the Best Organisation category from Aarvi Foundation, Dhaka.
Manisha has also recently received the Diana award 2022 for her tireless efforts on gender equality and social inclusion. The Diana Award is the most prestigious accolade a young person aged 9-25 years can receive for their social action or humanitarian work.
The fight to be included and empowered
Although the term 'hijra' has been added to the sixth national census as a means of identifying oneself, there is still a lot of scope for inclusion. There are still a lot of areas where these terms are not included.
Abdullah said, "Currently, we still have to confine ourselves either in the male or female box in a form. When I had to go through this myself I realised that I am not counted in society."
When Manisha chose to return to studies, she wanted to apply at Bangladesh Open University but this was one of the obstacles she faced.
Pathchola Founded then launched a year-long negotiation and advocacy with the Bangladesh Open University authority and afterwards, they included intersex, non-binary and a wide spectrum of the transgender community in their admission form. The form also includes the category 'other' for the people who do not label themselves as male or female.
In the end, Manisha, along with 10 other fellow members of her community got admitted into Bangladesh Open University.
Abdullah added, "So from now on, anyone who is going to get admission in Open University from a minority can be themselves."
Moving forward with her foundation
'Boichitro' is another platform run by Pathchola Bangladesh for the entrepreneurial development of the transgender community. The idea is to provide the marginalised community with entrepreneurship opportunities.
Boichitro has trained 110 people so far in technical training like block boutique, beauty and sewing based on their own passions and interests.
"Even though we are helping to provide them jobs, they are not able to be sustainable because of people's insensitivity towards the community. Because even though they are skilled, they struggle to find an outlet to express themselves," explained Manisha.
Through donations from other organisations and individual funding, Pathchola bought 15 sewing machines and provided them to the best performers so that they do not have to be dependent on others. They also provided seed funding to 10 trainees so they could work for online-based parlours.
Pathchola has also conducted training on soft skills such as emotional well-being, communication, civic education, leadership, etc. They have trained a total of 506 people through this programme.
Boichitro entered a collaboration with Anandamela, a service run by UNDP that trains women on their entrepreneurial skills. Those under Boichitro were also trained by the UNDP.
"The 'Transtrepenuers' at Boichitro were trained by UNDP entrepreneurship development on how to run an online business and excel in it," informed Abdullah. UNDP also provided them with cash aid and mobile phones.
Alongside this, in a collaboration with Foodpanda, the organisation registered five transgender people with the company. Through their tremendous effort, they became the top employees of Foodpanda in all of Chattogram.
Abdullah expressed Pathchola's gratitude towards their partners by adding, "We work in a very transparent way; we try to provide help to the ones who are in need of it the most and our partners have great trust in us. One of our partners BYLC is one of our biggest supporters and has helped provide the marginalised community with essential training without any fees."