Angela Gomes

Agent of Change

Dedicated to helping women in Bang-ladesh, Angela Gomes has learned to be resourceful. A Christian among Hindus and Muslims, she has at times used assumed names to gain acceptance in these communities. Gomes, 48, single and childless in patriarchal Bangladesh, has used her independence to help ease the plight of poor rural women trapped by the rigid social strictures of obedience and submission.

She is the founder and executive director of the Jessore-based nongovernmental organization, Banchte Shekha [Bangla for “learning to survive”], which she launched 20 years ago. In 1999, her work earned her the prestigious  Magsaysay Award for community development and development leadership (given by the Philippines-based Ramón Magsaysay Foundation).

“The mission of [Banchte Shekha] is to empower women through social development work,” writes Kavita Charanji in New Delhi’s Indian Express. The group grants loans, as well as providing legal assistance, education, mediation, family aid services, and income-generating activities. “Banchte Shekha has given women a greater voice and enabled them to speak out against injustices such as torture, abuse, and humiliation,” writes Charanji.

Gomes was born in Malla, Gazipur, in Bangladesh, the seventh of nine children. Determined to get an education, she took it upon herself to contact numerous boarding schools. “At the age of 13, I clearly saw the inequality between the sexes, especially among the poor,” she tells Charanji. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and geography and set out on her path to help the powerless. It’s been a difficult journey. Her detractors have accused her of being anti-Islam, a missionary spinster who strives to overthrow old values and customs. But now that the value of her work has gained national and international recognition, she can turn all her energies to the work at hand—like planting mulberry trees in rural areas to enable poor women to earn their livelihood.