It was a rainy day in July 2018. As the evening fell, someone called Farida Yesmin, upazila nirbahi officer of Netrakona’s Barhatta, over her phone and informed her that a child marriage was about to take place in Kawrashi, a remote village in the upazila near the Bangladesh-India border.
Farida immediately called the police and left for the village in the dark of the night amid rain and thunderstorms.
The road was so bad that at one point, the UNO and her team had to leave their vehicles. They walked about two kilometres to find the girl’s home.
“As we reached the spot, a local leader tried to stop us. But despite all these hurdles, we were able to prevent the marriage,” Farida said while recalling how she and her team stopped a staggering 59 child marriages after she joined as the Barhatta UNO on May 9, 2017.
She also provided financial help to a number of poor girls so that they could continue their studies.
Besides, Farida set up a fund and bought cycles for some 70 girls, who take part in various campaigns against child marriage by riding cycles in Barhatta, which was declared an upazila free of child marriage early this year.
Farida worked in collaboration with local NGOs, schools and journalists to create awareness on the social menace. She also instructed the UP chairmen not to falsify the age of the girls in their birth certificates.
In recognition of her contribution, Farida was given the Faraaz Hossain Courage Award-2019 at a programme in the city’s Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel last evening.
The ceremony started with recitation from the holy books. A documentary on the life of Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain was screened.
Faraaz, 20, a student of economics at Emory University in Atlanta, US, refused to desert his friends and was brutally killed by terrorists in the July 1, 2016 terror attack at Holey Artisan Bakery at the capital’s Gulshan.
The terrorists specifically targeted foreigners dining at the Gulshan café. They were looking for “infidels”, taking test as to who could recite verses from the Quran and who couldn’t.
Faraaz — son of Simeen Hossain and Waquer Hossain, and grandson of Latifur Rahman, chairman of Transcom Group — recited from the Quran, and was given the chance to walk out of the cafe.
But he chose to stay with his friends — Abinta Kabir, a Bangladesh-born US citizen and a student at Emory University, and Tarishi Jain, an Indian student at the University of California, Berkeley — with whom he had gone to the café on that fateful night.
PepsiCo Global introduced the award in 2016 with a fund of $200,000 which will support a $10,000 prize to be awarded annually for the next 20 years in recognition of acts of exceptional courage by individuals who set examples of empathy for fellow human beings and imbue the Bangladeshi youths with the spirit of bravery, the very spirit that Faraaz symbolises.
PepsiCo India President Ahmed El Sheikh, Bishwo Shahitto Kendro Chairman Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed and Faraaz’s mother Simeen Hossain handed a check of $10,000, a crest and a certificate to Farida Yesmin.
A jury board comprised of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG, founder of Brac; Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed, chairman of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro; Nihad Kabir, president of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Dhaka; Naser Ezaz Bijoy, CEO, Standard Chartered Bank; Sabahat Jahan, teacher, American International School Dhaka; Debasish Deb, country manager, PepsiCo; and Latifur Rahman, grandfather of Faraaz, selected Farida Yesmin out of 860 submissions.
Addressing the award ceremony, the PepsiCo India president, Ahmed El Sheikh, said the world is grateful to Simeen Hossain for bringing up such a child. He demonstrated humanity over cruelty and his sacrifice defeated the terrorists.
“Faraaz’s courage inspires us to stand up against ills in bad times. It brings hope against frustration,” he said.
Ahmed El Sheikh said he was personally inspired by Faraaz to serve humanity.
“Selfless act of Faraaz inspires the future generations of not only Bangladesh, but also those across the world,” he said.
Prof Abdullah Abu Sayeed said the Bangalees fought the Liberation War for achieving freedom and the courage of Faraaz carries a “higher meaning”. “Sacrifice of his life was for higher values like love, humanity and friendship,” he said.
He then said Farida Yesmin braved all odds to prevent child marriages. “She didn’t do it only for her job. She went extra miles. She demonstrated her courage for values, for a social cause. We salute her.”
Simeen Hossain, managing director of Eskayef Pharmaceuticals Ltd, thanked PepsiCo for introducing the award that can help promote the values of Faraaz.
She said the memories of little, playful Faraaz are still fresh in her mind. He was a loving son, affectionate brother and a friend.
She said she is a proud mother as everybody showers her son with love.
Faraaz’s brother Zaraif Ayaat Hossain said the courage of his brother to stand up for friends is a rare example that will continue to shine.
He thanked his mother, saying she had been a role model for Faraaz.
Faraaz used to say, “Let’s make a difference and amaze the world”, said Zaraif, who moderated the event.
In her reaction, Farida, now an additional district magistrate in Mymensingh, said, “I am extremely happy that I have been awarded, but I think my work is little compared to the greatness that Faraaz had demonstrated by sacrificing his life for the sake of humanity and friendship.”
Farida, daughter of Fazlul Haque Chowdhury and Khaleda Begum from Jamalpur, did her post-graduation from Jahangirnagar University. Yesterday was her ninth year in public service.
“I want to continue my work for the rights of women and children. But it’s not enough to prevent child marriages. We should create a society where women can thrive,” said Farida, mother of a son.
She said she would like to dedicate the award to the welfare of women and children.