In January 2014, Vanessa Rude and her husband, Rashed Alam, began offering surf lessons and English lessons to girls in Bangladesh through the Cox’s Bazar Lifesaving and Surfing Club. Despite pushback from some in the community, they’ve created an invaluable space for girls to learn both in and out of the water. In a country where only 40 percent of girls pass secondary exams, and an estimated 4.9 million children ages 5-15 are engaged in child labor, the surfing club and school provides the girls with education and freedom to realize their potential. Later this month, the girls will compete in a tournament run by the Bangladesh Surfing Federation, which features a large cash prize. At last year’s competition, two of the girls Ruge and Alam teach placed.
Women in the World: How did you and Rashed get the girls involved in surfing?
Vanessa Rude: Rashed is the head of the new lifeguard service in Bangladesh, and part of the surf club. The girls were working on the beach, selling water, chips, or eggs. He would talk to them and ask them to come surf, and they eventually started coming around. We tried to do lessons once a week, but even that was difficult. Their parents were so focused on them earning money. If they took two hours off to surf, that was two hours of money that they weren’t making. So, it went slowly at first.
WITW: What obstacles have the girls faced from their families and the community for surfing and going to school?
VR: In Bangladesh, it’s such a man’s world. Being a woman doing anything by yourself, let alone in the water, is not normal. They work on the beach, and once they reach 12 or 13, it looks like they might be prostitutes. The community automatically assumes they’re doing something promiscuous because they’re alone, so their parents restrict them. Plus, they get teased and harassed all the time by men, even by those trying to help them.
WITW: Vanessa, you’re also the girls’ English teacher. Tell me about how that started.
VR: Rashed encouraged me to set up a kind of school for them. I came with my backpack and papers, and would show them pictures, and we slowly started going through English lessons. I would talk, and Rashed would translate. They eventually started coming every day, and got more involved.
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WITW: What does education mean to the girls?
VR: They’ve learned so much. They know 50 English words, and how to read and write them. Before they didn’t have any education, and their parents weren’t committed to it. But now there are people who are committed to them. I think it’s teaching them to commit to something in turn.
WITW: What have you seen the girls learn through surfing about themselves? About their potential?
VR: Once we got them in the water, they started to become more confident. Another change for them is that there’s a community of young guys in the surf club who aren’t trying to pick up on them, or tease them. Instead, the boys are encouraging them. They feel respected for the first time.
And now, they can see that they deserve to be heard. At the club, they know that they’re loved and appreciated and protected, and they didn’t have much knowledge of that before. Their parents give that to them, but not in the same way. Even at the dinner table, the men take the bigger, healthier portions of food, and leave the girls what’s left. So for them to see 30 guys serve them their plate first, that’s a message to them.
WITW: How do the girls cope with criticism from the community?
VR: They face it together as a group. If someone says something to them, they’ll turn right around and go off. They’re like little tigers towards people, and they protect each other. They’ve all grown up together, and learned how to fumble and fall with each other on a surf board. Most of the time when you meet girls in Bangladesh, they don’t talk, but not the girls. That has come from the surf club, I think. Sometimes, guys will see them on a skateboard and tease them. And the girls will rip and do all these tricks. I’ll tell the girls to go give their board to the guy, and he’ll totally eat it. I want those guys to see how hard it is to skate and surf.
WITW:What are your hopes for the girls as they grow up?
VR: As much as I don’t want to let them go, maybe one day their families will be able to send them to a proper Bengali school, or maybe if we just keep them busy, and if they got sponsored for surfing, they might be able to get jobs, as lifeguards, tutors, or anything. I think the goal is just to delay marriage. At least until they’re 20. They say in Bangladesh it’s illegal to get married as a minor, but it happens all the time.
They’re skating, they’re learning, they’re life-saving, and they’re surfing. And so, the goal is for their families to see that difference in their daughters, and the attention they’re getting. And that they’ll start letting their daughters be more free to choose what they want. They deserve better.
To see more photos of the girls, visit photographer Allison Joyce‘s website.
To donate to the girls at the Cox’s Bazar Lifesaving and Surfing Club, visit: www.surfforlife.org. Donors must include “Bangladesh Surf Girls” in the comment field.