Just over two dozen young Bangladeshi women sit in a circle at the end of a three day peace education training. When these Hindu, Muslim and Christian women are asked what they learned, one young woman talks about controlling anger and another says peace is when you are in good relationship with other people.
Each woman who responds stands up to speak and everyone claps when each responder is finished. Another woman talks about discrimination against women and violence in her country, and finally a young woman stands and says, “As women, one day, we will mostly be confined to our homes, but today I have learned I am a person of value.”
We are north of Bogra in the village of Nijpara in the northern region of Bangladesh. MCC is working with the Catholic church in four villages here with an integrated approach that includes attention to food security, health and sanitation and peace building.
Earlier in the day, Father Albert Soren greeted us warmly when we arrived at the church. Most of the indigenous population in this region is Christian and Christians, Muslims and Hindus live side by side, in separate communities. There is no significant religious tension in the region, but neither is there many friendships built up in the communities between people of different faiths.
Father Soren tells us that the indigenous community struggles with alcoholism and access to land issues. Most families own less than an acre of land to sustain their families. He says most families have traditionally relied primarily on rice for their diet, but MCC has helped families learn how to grow vegetables and raise livestock.
In a typical monsoon season, one-third of the country is under a foot of water for at least several months. We are here in April before the monsoon season and the land looks lush and the rice fields are approaching harvest. Water is in ready supply throughout most of Bangladesh, but there is some concern that ground water sources are being depleted.
“We work together well with MCC,” Father Soren tells me as we walk through the community visiting with neighbors. He says that because the Catholic church is working with MCC in the community, people are more ready to believe that the church cares about all of their needs, and is not just trying to convert them. Every month, the church organizes trainings and workshops for the entire community, not just for the Christians.
We visit the head of the local government, a Hindu in a majority Muslim community, who has participated in one of MCC’s conflict resolution workshops and requires his staff to attend as well. He tells us that the workshops are helping government officials respond better to community needs.
Across town, we visit a weekly nutrition class attended by women of all three faith groups. In another nearby location, we visit a peace park built by the Catholic/Mennonite collaborative effort where children can come to play and where youth and adult peace clubs meet regularly.
Back in the closing session of the peace education training, one young woman asks us why it is that MCC foreigners are helping them with peace building work in their community. We talk about MCC’s commitment to peacemaking around the world, but we remind them that the three trainers for their workshop are Bengali, and that peace building will only eventually be successful if young people like themselves also decide that peace is important for their communities.
Watching these women relate to each other and with us, I am grateful for the promise of the days ahead for this community where young women like the ones we met are learning that they are people of value.
Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.