Seeing beyond disabilities

Visually impaired Farzana's portrait
Bangladesh's National Human Rights Commission took up Farzana's case after she was denied a government job because of her visual impairment. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

Farzana Akhtar, 31, accepts the reality that her blindness has caused potential employers to reject every job application she has filed in the past three years.

While her disability couldn’t prevent her from emerging among the top 20 students in her bachelors and masters programmes at Dhaka University, “the rules are different when you enter the job market,” Ms Akhtar, a resident of Dhaka’s Azimpur area, says.

What she asserts as her right, however, is to be allowed to sit for entrance exams for any job in which her stellar academic record meets the requirements.

Highlights

  • Country's first National Human Rights Commission has filed over 250 cases and maintained a constant level of awareness on human rights
  • On a policy level, the NHRC provides recommendations to parliamentary committees to ensure laws are consistent with international human rights standards
  • 40% increase in recipients of legal aid

Having suffered the ignominies of numerous rejections in interview panels, and once having been told that she would have even gotten the job if she was physically disabled instead of visually impaired, Ms Akhtar finally decided to take a stand when a major Dhaka-based bank refused to accept her job application earlier this year.

“The bank refused to give me an admit card for the entrance exams citing ‘various reasons’ that they refused to specify,” says Ms Akhtar. “It was clear to me that the problem was my blindness.” They could reject her after an interview, she reasoned, but they legally had to allow her to take the exam.

When the bank cited an age limit of 30-years as the reason, she came back to them with a government gazette that clearly stated that 32 years was the age limit for recruitment into government service.

After a reputed newspaper reported her case, leading human rights lawyer Sarah Hossain brought it to the notice of the UNDP-supported National Human Rights Commission who promised to stand by her in her fight against discrimination.

Predictably, the case didn’t go to court.

Within days of the NHRC’s queries, the bank’s senior management contacted Ms Akhtar and agreed that she did indeed have the right to take her entrance exam – for which she appeared last month.

“While from the outside isolated incidents of our assistance could be viewed as standalone work, that is in fact far from the truth, says Dr Mizanur Rahman, Chairman of the NHRC. “While it is true that we take on many individual cases, most of time we take on the role of a whistle blower. These individual stories are part of a larger human rights picture in Bangladesh and by helping them we are in turn clearing pathways for others like them,” he says.

Established in 2008 with technical expertise from UNDP and funding from the governments of Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark, the NHRC filed more than 600 cases of human rights violations in 2012 alone.  The commission has carried out high profile visits to highlight human rights abuses in hospitals, schools and prisons.

A major challenge for the NHRC in Bangladesh is to create countrywide awareness that human rights are legally protected and enforceable explains Mona M'Bikay Boin, who heads the BNHRC project which will work with the commission in providing technical expertise until 2015.

“A key step towards realising the NHRC’s long-term goal of a countrywide human rights culture is improved awareness of legal means to claim rights and access justice. If one cannot seek redress for rights violations, then their protection is not real, and if there are no consequences, there is no discouragement against committing rights violations,” says Ms Boin.

She believes landmark cases such as Ms Akhtar’s will have a ripple effect in society, strengthening individuals to assert their rights when they face discrimination.

At her neighbourhood and around the Dhaka University campus, Ms Akhtar is a celebrity amongst those who know her. “If I’m at the university or in my neighbourhood, people will hail down a rickshaw for me as soon as they see me at the end of the road,” she says smiling.

 “I wasn’t blind all my life,” she says. “I lost my eyesight a year after I finished my matriculation exams. You can’t imagine how the disabled struggle in Bangladesh. I can accept that I can’t do many things because of my impairment, but when educated people are insensitive, I struggle with that.”

“Marginalized people are taken advantage of, and the state has a duty to protect them,” says Dr Mizanur Rahman.

Ms Akhtar, though, is content with what her protests have already achieved.

“The results aren’t out yet, so I don’t know if I will get the job, but my achievement is that I have been able to raise my voice for the disabled,” she says.