“Girls and women with disabilities are leaders now,” with Misti Ashrafun Nahar

Conversation on inclusion in Bangladesh and the relationship between disabled people's organizations and international development partners

Hey Debriefers,

Here's one of the most important conversations I've had so far on this newsletter: with my friend Misti Ashrafun Nahar, a central figure in the disability rights movement in Bangladesh. We discuss inclusion in the COVID-19 response and other areas, working for women and girls with disabilities, and then go deep into the relationship between charities and organisations representing persons with disabilities.

Welcome! I'm Peter, and I make Disability Debrief to keep up with how the world is  changing for persons with disabilities and understand how it's happening. I love when people get in touch - reply on email, or find me on twitter @desibility.

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Misti Ashrafun Nahar is a founder of the Women with Disabilities Development Foundation (WDDF) in Bangladesh. We've been friends and colleagues for years but this conversation let us get into a detail we hadn't before.

Misti talks about recovering from her own experience with COVID-19, and the situation of persons with disabilities in Bangladesh and how they have had to fight to be included in government response to the pandemic. That leads onto reflecting on the overall situation of inclusion — or, exclusion — of persons with disabilities in Bangladesh and government initiatives.

WDDF is a Disabled People's Organization (DPO), that is, run for and by persons with disabilities themselves. Misti describes how and why they started, the work they do with women with disabilities across the country, and how those connections inform their national-level advocacy work.

And then we get into a topic that is hard for our sector to deal with: how do established charities, whether national or international (NGOs and INGOs), relate with organisations where disabled people are representing themselves? As many of you know, there has been an increasing focus on making sure the voice of persons with disabilities is more present in international programmes on disability.

But as we discuss here, that is not an easy relationship. Misti describes the gaps in forethought, funding and, perhaps most tellingly, respect. The concerns Misti raises are shared by many people within the DPO movement in Bangladesh and that's a key reason I wanted to have a conversation that can discuss these challenges openly.

I hope that you get as much from this conversation as I did. I'm sure you will admire and appreciate the work Misti does as much as I do, and see the clarity and experience she brings to it. And for those of you who, like me, are involved in the kind of international initiatives Misti is describing the challenges with, there is much to reflect on and develop in our approaches.

Misti sits in her office, looking towards camera she wears a pink headscarf and a colourful pink top. Her laptop frames the foreground and a filing cabinet with files and plants the background.
Misti Ashrafun Nahar

Conversation with Misti

We spoke on zoom last month, during Ramadan. Here's the conversation edited for clarity. We spoke in English, but some Bangla comments have been translated. “Da” and “Apa” are respectful address.

“That is the way I wake up”

Peter: It's nice to see you look really well because when you were sick with the COVID I was quite worried for you. How are you doing now?

Misti: Yeah, I'm fine now because I almost recovered from COVID and test negative. But it's still, I have very short memory. I get appointment, ten minutes before, I forget now, these type of things. I am very tired actually. But as an activist, I have to do hard work. Today I complete three calls, four meetings in whole day and then I meet with you now.

Peter: You are so passionate to be an activist and support other disabled people, was that on your mind when you were recovering? You tried to come back to work quickly because you are so committed?

Misti: When I was suffering from COVID, that time I received so many telephone calls from poor people. Poorest of the poor, people with disabilities. I think that I had to recover soon, because I need to raise fund, need to re-allocate my project activities to support COVID survivors. That is the way I have to wake up, always. From any difficulty.

Peter: Does that help you? Or does it put too much pressure on you?

Misti: It is a kind of pressure. But I love to work, because I am committed. I love to work.

The COVID crisis: “The government does not understand that persons with disabilities face challenges”

Peter: You are a leader, so you were still getting phone calls when you should be resting. In your experience, were there other disability-related factors in the COVID experience?

Misti: Actually, as an activist I always face challenges. As you know our country is not accessible: not only infrastructural part, but also the informational part. A huge number of persons with disabilities, especially women and girls with disabilities, they do not understand what is happening in the country. I have to — actually not “I” — we have to, all of us activists in our country in the disability movement, we have to support them always.

When COVID started [last year], I circulated information which is important for the girls and women with disabilities. I had to work from early morning to midnight because the government does not understand that persons with disabilities face challenges. Also persons with disabilities do not understand why the government says that they will not get the support which is for the COVID situation.

At that time the government said that, because persons with disabilities get support from social safety net of the government – such as disability allowance or student scholarships – so they are not eligible for the COVID support.

Persons with disabilities told us that they did not get the disability allowance since December 2019. Because government gives the allowance three months or six months after. So again, we talk with our government. Send different letters to prime minister office, social welfare office, and relevant ministries: that the persons with disabilities are suffering a lot because they do not get the disability allowance last few months. That was March 2020.

We have to be always doing this sort of things. Like when government circulate any information, that is not accessible for persons with disabilities, so we have to talk with government. In the beginning, when the COVID information is broadcasting on television, the government did not use the sign language so we have to talk with government to use the sign language for our sign language users.

We actually go through a lot of challenges because of the infrastructural problem and also informational. You know that there is different website from different ministry and department? Which is still not accessible for all people with disabilities.

These days, the Bangladesh government started the vaccination, for COVID for citizens of Bangladesh above 40 years old. For those under 40 years old, only who are the frontline worker or teachers. The ones who are with disabilities under 40 years old, they are not registered. Because it is a digitalized system now, we have to register first then we will get the date and time and we have to go to the vaccination centre and get the vaccination.

A visual impaired person cannot access this website, so it is also the suffering things for people with disabilities and the activists, our responsibility is to guide them how they can do it. But you know that this situation, people are not really willing to support each other because they do not want to go out of home. So, difficulties, many ways in our country: we have challenges but we try to overcome. Always.

Peter: Thank you for such a detailed summary of each stage of challenges.

Misti: And one thing Peter Da which I want to share. After the COVID affected Bangladesh last year, we have very limited access to talk with the government officers. At the beginning of the COVID, they all work from home so they do not use the telephone or mobile which they use in the workplace. And they are not used to the email communication so we do not get email, or get easy way to coordinate.

It's that type of things: we are still slow to do advocacy after the COVID started in Bangladesh because we have lots of activities related to advocacy [in other areas], like the eighth five year plan already approved by our government. We have to do some advocacy work with the government, where is this gap in the eighth five year plan. You know that Bangladesh government naturally planning and allocating budget on the base of this plan. That’s also hampering for us, as activists.

“But what is inclusion? How to do inclusion?”

Peter: Some places we thought we had achieved inclusion and then we discovered we hadn’t. Do these challenges make you think about inclusion differently?

Misti: The Bangladesh government is very willing to make inclusion. It is their valuable statement. But what is inclusion? How to do inclusion? That is maybe difficult for them to understand. When we start our work, then they're saying that, "Why do you do advocacy work?" Or, “You should just give support to the persons with disabilities, because they are poor. You need to provide them money, you need to provide them kinds, you need to provide them materials, woods, like that type of thing.”

This is the indicator that government is not thinking about what inclusion is. And you know that for a long time, Bangladesh is halting on the inclusive education. Inclusion in the educational sector, they take kids in primary school grades. This is the indicator, government is willing. But if I indicate, what is the inclusion gap in the education sector? We still do not know six dot.

Peter: What's six dot?

Misti: Six dot is the braille information, students who know the six dot can understand the braille. Students do not understand, teachers do not understand braille. And also the visually impaired student with disabilities, they have to take education from special education. What is the inclusion?

And the intellectually disabled student, they also take special education. They are not integrated in our mainstream education. If you think of a physically disabled student, there is ramp, absolutely. Only for primary school. And if you see purposefully, the ramp started from the yard, from the mud. There is a gap in between the ramp and the main doors. When the ramp is started from the mud or yard, during the raining season, the physical student who uses a device, they could not reach to the classroom.

How it is accessible for a student with disabilities? There is no accessible washroom, there is no accessible drinking water point. And also the teachers still do not understand about sign language. It is very difficult for hard of hearing students with disabilities who need sign language. Math, science, English, they are very important to understand and learn. If persons with disabilities only study in the humanities subjects, then they'll only get the job in the clerk position. More teacher positions, but they do not go to any high professional position. That is the problem.

The government have a policy in TVET Programs, for five percent of students to be persons with disabilities. But most of the TVET Institution is inaccessible. Their manual does not incorporate the way to train to the different type of disabilities. There is also not any technology in the TVET program for use of the student with disabilities. And most of the student with disabilities, who have multiple disability, they do not allow them because of things they say that you have to know.

Bangladesh is very good to adopt policy. We are very good to adopt policy approved by our parliament, but we are very weak to implement our policies. You know that we have a very important and powerful act, with this Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013, and the Neuro-developmental Trust Act 2013, which also have the rules and action plan.

All of the policies we have in hand, but the national budget never does any activities purposefully for the persons with disabilities. Now we are thinking about the employment opportunities, we are targeting lots of people with disabilities will be engaged in the employment sector, in public or private. But how, if there is no accessible infrastructure, if there is no accessible transport? Government is silent there.

“We needed one year to let them know that it is very important to come together.”

Peter: Wow, Apa, you have given such an impressive tour of the challenges and the situation you know so well. Can you tell me a bit more about what your organization, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation is doing?

Misti: Thank you. Just to give a brief background. When we started WDDF, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation, seven educated women with disabilities come together and discover that there is 350 organizations working on disability, but none of them are thinking about issues of girls and women with disabilities. Women and girls with disabilities, also neglected, tortured, and suffering from the society, community, and institutions.

Peter: And this was over 10 years ago?

Misti: It is in 2007. When we started our work we are targeting the women rights movement, and the disability rights movement. Because as we are women, women’s issues should also focus for women with disabilities. When we started our movement, the women rights movement leader said, "You do not need to come here, you can send us the messages and we can think about this."

We needed one year to let them know that it is very important to come together. It is important to come with you in a united way to raise our voice on behalf of girls and women with disability. They now accept us, they now think that, yes, girls and women with disabilities also part of the women movement, and they should participate in every decision making level. Now it is very frequent for WDDF and other women rights organizations to participate in the women's rights movement in Bangladesh. It is an indicator of achievement, I think. Because we love them, they love us.

Peter: Congratulations.

Misti: In the disability rights movement, we also face challenges that they think “why do women and girls with disabilities leader come in this movement? this movement is only for the persons with disabilities and they will lead, boy will lead the boys like this.” I hear that one person with disabilities say that [WDDF] is the new organisation, and they will stop anyway in near future.

But we did not stop. We start our activities, and we actually go slowly. Not in fast way, but we set up our strategies to get some results. We set up our indicator, we want to get some changes like opening up national level policy advocacy. This is our main and core activities. It was from the beginning, and is still now, and it will be in the future.

Second, we are trying to increase our leadership among the girls and women with disabilities. Now, there is different women and girls leaders across the country in different stage. They raise their voice in different forum, they raise their voice in their family.

“Girls and women with disabilities come in front of us with smiling face.”

Peter: Tell me more about how are you connecting with them in practice? What does that look like?

Misti: Every woman with disabilities, and girls with disabilities, in Bangladesh, who know disability issue, they know WDDF. Because WDDF is very active organisation, and some government documents, the Resource Organization mention about WDDF for women and girls.

When they understand WDDF is for them, WDDF is the platform for women and girls with disabilities, they make frequent phone calls with us. They can come our office, they can get membership of WDDF. They can get benefit from WDDF. And if in any case of violence against girls and women with disabilities, WDDF will stand by them. WDDF provides different service from [other organisations].

Also, those who are our members, they get training from WDDF. We conduct leadership training every year for leading in their community, to know about the policy systems and process of Bangladesh government, non-government agencies, and community people. And also, we conduct the online program with them.

We also conduct the training on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), because SRHR also very important issue. You will be happy to know that in Bangladesh, WDDF started work on SRHR in 2012, and at time there was no organisational work for SRHR of girls and women with disabilities. Now, many organisations give training for that challenge each year.

WDDF tries to develop the skills of women and girls with disabilities for their economic improvement. We do self-help groups at the grassroots level, and through the self-help group they are trying to build their small businesses. Like this year, last month, we provide support to 20 girls and women with disabilities to develop their small farm for the country hens.

Do you understand? Not poultry farm.

Peter: free range?

Misti: Yes. They started to get the benefit within months, and they get eggs, they are try to marketing it. This type of thing, this is our happiness. Girls and women with disabilities come in front of us with smiling face. With us, one year or two years before, a crying face.

“Girls and women with disabilities are leaders now,”

Peter: Are there issues that you heard from peoples experience, and that made you realize you should raise them at the national level?

Misti: Before we started our organization, I worked in another organization of DPOs, and I conducted three days national level program for national level seminar for girls and women with disabilities, to identify their problems. From this seminar, we got lots of information from the grassroot levels.

Most of the girls and women with disabilities situation is overall similar. Even if you go to the Nepal or India, it’s also similar. Because in the region, culturally, habitually and the family aspect are almost similar.

Then we started to work with different districts. We already work in almost 20 districts where girls and women with disabilities benefit from WDDF activities and increase their knowledge and capacities. Now, more than 3000 girls and women with disabilities are directly connected with WDDF. That is, I think, huge. This 3000 girls and women with disabilities are capable to support other girls and women with disabilities and their families. Girls and women with disabilities are capable even men with disabilities, also.

Girls and women with disabilities are leaders now, not only working for disability issue, but also mainstream issues like human rights. If any women face violence, they are capable to give them information how they could get support from government or non-government agencies. That is our capacity now.

Another thing is the government recognizes that WDDF’s voice is very strong, that we are capable to come with the information and we really want to change. Two weeks before, I have a conversation with the additional secretary of the communication division. And they said, "You are the intelligent women with disabilities in our country, why not come here to meet and to take your issues?" I said that I will come soon, because that is the way you are love us, and we want to get some information, some changes in Bangladesh. Especially in the transportation sector, for women and girls.

Peter: Mishti Apa, we have known each other for a long time. But maybe this is the first time I'm hearing in such detail about your work, and I'm really happy to get that opportunity.

“When the development partner fund DPOs, they fund very small things”

Peter: When I came back to Bangladesh in 2019, I was pleased to see DPO leaders are getting to consultations more than before, and people are listening to their voice. But then I saw, it's also a bad thing because you are getting invited to a consultation every day. How do you see the cooperation and challenges between DPOs and the rest of the disability sector?

Misti: This is good sign that NGOs, development partners, international NGOs, government, all agencies, they understand that DPOs are the key to make any kind of integration or inclusion in society, in the community. Because without DPOs, there is no mechanism to reach to the people with disabilities who can be productive, can be contributor of the community. This is the good indicator.

But when the NGOs, INGOs, national NGOs, or development partners invite us as a consultation participant, they do not understand that the person who come here needs some special assistance. If you invite me, as a woman, there are no accessible vehicles in our country. Absolutely I have to take an assistance from my mom or my office to participate in the particular consultation. They only provide very small allowance, this is not covering the transportation. There is no opportunities to cover the caregiver or volunteer service. That is one thing.

Another is they do not think about the accessible media. They do not understand that our type of things should be accessible for persons with disabilities. When WDDF want to organize any program the funding issues means we do not have fund to make the particular materials in braille or sometimes to hire any sign language interpreter.

When the development partner fund DPOs, they fund very small things like they only give 1000 money for accountant, 1500 money for the executive director. These type of things, for positions.

Peter: 1500 taka? [18 USD]

Misti: Yeah, taka. Not dollar. After we come to a consultation, they want more work from the DPOs. But there is not any fees, there is not any support, financial support for DPOs. That is one thing. After the consultation, many, most of the time, they do not acknowledge who was consulted in this events or in this issues. Like there is consultation with a number of DPOs on employment opportunities but they don’t mention the name of the DPOs.

Actually, I have very detailed experience that in a big organisation who are working for persons with disabilities, training persons with disabilities, and they are very renowned. They think that the persons with disabilities is very lower cost [junior] staff, so they do not need any hygienic materials, they do not need any hygienic housing or accommodation facilities during the training. They do not need air-conditioning. If there is very hot time, they even think that as we do not use Air cooler in our home, so we do not need air-conditioning during training period. That is the attitude of NGOs.

DPOs absolutely try to give job opportunities for persons with disabilities who are educated, who can develop their skills and official manners in the offices of DPOs. They get very minimum salaries, and when they skill up, when they have a skill, after three years or three and a half years or four years, then the INGO or NGO hires staff from the DPOs.

Today, I feel very... upset. I'd say that WDDF is the factory to develop employee with disabilities. There are different organisations that do the same thing. They recruit very suddenly, even starting work while under contract with WDDF. Our staff have some responsibilities, we have to know he did, what his responsibility, he have to submit all the assets to WDDF then he can join another organisation. We follow every mechanism, like we provide circular and interview board. When they work with us, they want to know which policy we follow. I do not know what is the policy they follow.

“They do not actually respect the DPOs”

Peter: There are two issues. One is that they're paying your staff more money, and the other is the way it’s happening. There is a lack of respect basically.

Misti: They do not actually respect the DPOs. They think that in DPOs, they do not do anything so they'll just do their skill level up by the year close, this type of things. They think people’s skill develops out of nothing, that they don’t have any responsibility, that they can join another NGO at any time. This is the painful thing.

Peter: Larger organisations think they are doing the person a favour by hiring them.

Misti: When they give us funding, they do not give the high salary. They think that the disability employer or employees, they do not need high salary. This is very painful.

Peter: There’s a respect issue, and there is a resourcing issue that your activities are not being resourced. Not just the accommodation issue or the transport issues, but also that you are being consulted as experts. You are not getting money for this huge job of representing disabled people that is full-time. Even when you're sick with COVID, you are doing it.

Misti: They think that our time is very much free, because we don't have any serious job. We have job only to discuss with others, to consult with others. Basically that is what we understand from their expectation. As you know that they do not respect us, so why we do consultations? We do consultation because we want to see some changes in our community, in our country. That's why we sacrifice ourselves.

Peter: I called you for a consultation once and I saw this happening. I saw that maybe DPOs have to come because maybe there is an opportunity: if you come to the consultation then you will be involved in the program.

Misti: That is also one thing, but as WDDF engages with different platforms, it is not so important to go every program to connect us or to be disconnected from any issue. Because WDDF is capable to do any work by themselves, plan themselves, and by design themselves. They can gather other organisation to do same things as NGO or INGO done.

Peter Da, one things I want to mention here, if you measure how much fund used by INGO and NGO, and how much fund used by DPOs in Bangladesh, what is the outcome? Outcome of DPOs is very strong, and many times than the INGO and NGOs. I very loudly say that how many will come out from the government or other agencies to change the situation? DPOs is the main actors to make the changes, and DPOs do more than NGOs and INGOs.

“If you do not give us funding, how we will be familiar with using the fund?”

Peter: One of the responses that people come back to is the DPOs don't have very good capacity. This can mean a range of things, but includes the capacity to take a big grant and use that. How do you respond, when people say that?

Misti: Actually, that is not true. Because, first, if you do not give us funding, how we will be familiar with using the fund? And second, new NGOs and INGOs recruit high professionals when you implement the projects because you can give them high salary. DPOs also are able to recruit high professionals, if they have fund. Because DPOs members, board members, will not implement the project. Project implementer will be the staff, and the members will be involved with the staff, monitoring and seeing the real way the project is implemented or not.

If WDDF or other DPOs can get a high fund, they get high professionals, why they cannot implement the fund? Now, we have fund from [a UN agency] it is a very big project I think. We can successfully implement the project. Why is there a problem? Problem is that donor who with some NGOs and INGOs. That is the problem. Because they cannot see out the box, because they're-

Peter: You mean, they have a very close relationship?

Misti: Yes. And they only hear or see the NGOs who are partnered with them.

“They grab the opportunities”

Peter: What happens when you and others have raised this with NGOs and international organisations, and said, "Look, DPOs, we're trying to represent people with disabilities. We can do so much with such few resources. These are the results we're getting, we need to be included in these meetings in these ways."?

Misti: I have experience to say it to some internationally organisations. To tell them, if you want to work with disability issues in Bangladesh, you have to work with DPOs. Then they say that DPOs don't have the capacity, they have less capacity to use the fund from us because we follow many of the policies. Then we say that we can follow the policies, if we can build the policies in our DPOs. You can make the consortium among the DPOs, and give the fund. Then see what happened with DPOs.

Actually, when DPOs meet with donors or development partners, after that the development partner project meets with the NGOs and INGOS. And the NGO and INGOs actually said that DPOs has less capacity. "Let's give us fund, we can manage the DPOs by this project." And now, this type of things is happening and WDDF also engage with projects like this.

Peter: But, if the NGO manages the fund well, that can be good thing. Why not?

Misti: No. Actually that is not good thing. For example in one project we’re involved with, they give us only 5000 taka [60 USD] budget for the staff salaries. There is huge work. How will we follow all the rules and regulations and successfully complete the project? Is it possible? They say "We have to manage this project within this fund, we cannot increase the fund, the fund, 70% fund for us and 30% fund for you. Or, 5% fund for you and blah, blah, blah." They grab the opportunities.

“But why are DPOs being compared with other DPOs?”

Peter: There are very established national and international organisations that have these connections. So if you’re bringing in money [as a donor], you can just give them the thing. They will implement, it is all very familiar.

Misti: There is some fault, of course, from the DPOs in past, when weren’t established or we established for one year or two year. We hear that some DPOs do fault, and they are counting the fault even 12 years after. One organisation can do fault, NGO also can do fault sometimes.

But why are DPOs being compared with other DPOs? Because every DPOs have a specialty. Like WDDF is all for women and girls with disabilities, they have to be transparent to all. They have some morality. Some DPOs, they also establish by their own needs and they're also transparent and moral on their commitment.

Peter: another issue is whether DPOs are united in a network.

Misti:  Why do need different network in Bangladesh? If DPOs try to do good things, better things, if there is way to understand how much capacity they have, then donors can fund to DPOs. Donors can engage to DPOs, with proper way.

But you know, it is very important now in Bangladesh. It started with webinar on the budget discussion, the Minister of Finance said that you have to come to government within the platform, under a platform. You are not under a platform, you are divided yourself in different groups.

Peter: How do you respond when someone says that?

Misti Actually, I did not have a scope to respond, but if I have a scope to respond I can say that you know, minister, there are so many political parties in Bangladesh. If there are so many political parties, why not there is different group by persons with disabilities? There could be, because all people do not have same views. They have different view.

“There are very few organisations where women with disabilities lead.”

Peter: You mentioned some gender-related aspects to do with accessibility and the accommodation and participation in meetings. Are there other gender-related issues in the way the disability sector is interacting with a women-led organisation?

Misti: I already mentioned that WDDF has a close relation with the women's rights movement. But in Bangladesh, there are very few organisations where women with disabilities lead the organisation. Why this is happening?

Some projects create some women's rights organisations in some districts. There is a networking organisation of women with disabilities, that also created by a project. WDDF also create in its own names. There are very few. WDDF, women with disabilities, they still not feel that they are human being. They have rights. They have citizens’ rights as equal as other citizens. There was not very much scope to establish more women with disabilities rights organisation. That was the things. If the project do not establish the women with disabilities right organisation, then there was only one women with disabilities led organisation in Bangladesh, what is very much trusted.

Peter: It is a resourcing question.

Misti: I have a network with women with disabilities rights organisation. They do not get fund from the donors, and they cannot get support from government either. Government has responsibility to support the DPOs, but they support to the NGOs. If they supported the DPOs, they can disaggregate that some percentage of women with disabilities led organisation get support from the government. But none of them get support here.

“Only thinking for project outcome”

Peter. Thank you, Apa. I'm so grateful for this conversation. Do you have any closing reflections, or perhaps questions to me. I have been involved in all the type of things you are saying.

Misti: There's one thing I realized that when the disability issues run by the projects, that is only thinking for project outcome, only the result. But projects don’t think that there is a vast way to integrate people with disabilities in different sectors. They can find out the brilliant student with disabilities when they implement the project. They can make the leader from the educated people with disabilities. They can lead the DPOs in future. But the project with maybe the self-help group, with the illiterate or more middle level educated persons who were involved in different trade or business, after the completion of the project the leadership was down. That is one fault, I think.

Another is when development partner and NGOs and INGOs are thinking about disability issues, the beneficiaries, especially those in the working place, people with disabilities are not consulted. If I want to start work in Rangpur, I have to go Rangpur first, before the project design, and to understand that what is their need? What is the challenges in the Rangpur? What is the opportunities is there? And then I should decide the project. But we don't do that. That is another one.

Actually, I have a message to all those who are working in disability issues in Bangladesh. That is, we have different views, we have different ideology. We have different religious feelings. We have different political views. But we have to talk in one voice. If we talk in one voice, there must be chance. If there is one voice before the budget campaign, it must heard by the government.

And then next year, we can set up our views. We can set up our needs. I am confused, because we do not respect each other. But it is very much bright thing to me that some organisations, some small DPOs, we come together to try to make unity ourselves, and we are trying to raise our voice in same way. That will benefit people with disabilities in near future, I think. I hope so.

“Volunteers from developed countries can come”

Peter: A lot of the audience of this newsletter are people that work in international organisations on disability. Some of them might see what you're saying and then be like, what should I do better? What can people working in international organisations do differently to help resolve the issues we've talked about?

Misti: Sometimes our first challenge is to make so much documentation. As I already mentioned our budget is very limited. We do not make very purposeful documents for Bangladesh. If we want some documents resource, documents from the international organisational who are for people with disabilities, they can help us that way. There are lots of small grant announcement. Organisations working in different countries can disseminate that to DPOs working in Bangladesh.

Another thing is, sometimes volunteers from developed countries can come. Like you, came to Bangladesh, and you serve Bangladeshi people many years and we, actually we benefited.

Peter: That's so kind of you to say that. I volunteered briefly but mostly I was getting paid too much.

Misti: Okay, but there is opportunities that some volunteers come Bangladesh and they provide support to basically NGOs, not DPOs. Volunteers come to bigger organisations, or international organisations.

Peter: I think what you have shared today shows how much someone would benefit from coming to volunteer with you. People can volunteer online as well, right?

Misti: Yes.

“I feel lighter. I feel that I can share the pain with others.”

Peter: It’s a real pleasure to see how your work has grown over the years. I’m proud to be able to share it with other people. How do you feel, after sharing all of this?

Misti: I feel lighter. I feel that I can share the pain with others. You know? We have to feel lots of pain every day. Today I feel three, four, pains, from different way. But I have to enjoy my life, I have to go through with a smiling face. When I share with others, that is make me relief from some bitter experience.

Peter: You mean, you share the frustrations of the work and the barriers to the work?

Misti: Right. I feel sometimes that if I can share with Peter Da, with others like the friends from international level or national level, leader with disabilities, that we feel support.

Related Reading

For more about Misti Apa see, for example, her profile on Her Abilities, an award she received in 2018. WDDF work can be seen on their website and their facebook page.

If you're interested in the subject of organisations of persons with disabilities in international cooperation, see the 2020 report from the International Disability Alliance, Increasingly Consulted, but not yet Participating. They are running a further Global Survey to continue to monitor the extent of participation.

See also my interview with another Her Abilities award winner, Bernice Oyeleke.


With many thanks to Misti for the readiness to talk, even in the middle of recovery from illness, and to say in open conversation what many of us are saying behind the scenes.

And thanks to you for reading, sharing, etc! Am wondering who to interview next, so do send suggestions for guests.