Kohinoor Yeasmin always had a keen awareness about the plight of underprivileged women in Bangladesh and it was after she was awarded a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship in 2009 that Kohinoor learnt to channel her confidence and leadership quality to transcend the barriers of stereotypes which so often impede the progress of women in developing countries. “My fellowship in the UK gave me the confidence to say ‘no’,” she said. “It developed my capability to take decisive decisions, and I acquired the ability to be diplomatic. I took the tips that I learnt from the UK and contextualised them for Bangladeshi perspective and time, and again these have stood out as some of the most useful learning during engagements with partners, employees, internal and external stakeholders, etc.”

It was her passion to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged women that motivated her to join Tarango, a non-government organisation (NGO) right after completing her studies in 1994. Formally established in 1989, the NGO was set up with the intention of helping marginalised women. In 2000 Kohinoor took charge of Tarango as its Chief Executive Officer and almost two decades later under her leadership the NGO currently supports around 18,425 women in 9 districts across Bangladesh and produces various craft items. “I became interested in Commonwealth fellowship after becoming the CEO as I had to face challenges related to leadership in a male-dominated society,” remarked Kohinoor. After returning from the UK, she brought about many bold changes in her organisation, including putting more female colleagues in leadership roles and personally supervising them on behavioural and communication skills. At the field level, she encouraged females to come forward as leaders and engage in conflict management roles.

There have been obstacles on the path for Kohinoor and the women working with her, but regardless of challenges, Tarango has become one of the foremost NGOs in Bangladesh working for women empowerment, with its products being displayed at places such as Harrods and the V&A museum in London. Through her NGO, Kohinoor works at the grass-roots level in the remotest areas of Bangladesh from where the products are made, all by poverty-stricken and underprivileged women affected by various forms of gender violence. The array of products include different types of bags, carriers, baskets, wallets, table mats, decoration pieces, etc. – made entirely out of natural raw materials. One such raw material is ‘kachuripana’ (water hyacinth), a plant that is widely found in rural Bangladesh. “The stems from these plants are picked and dried,” said Kohinoor. “After the processing, this plant becomes a superb raw material with which we make bags and baskets.” Apart from being functional, the baskets provide high durability along with an effortless appeal. Even something as mundane as cement bags are innovatively transformed into laptop bags, files, handbags, etc. and provide for an out-of-the-box product.

Tarango follows a 100 per cent export strategy with their goods going to many countries such as USA, UK and several EU nations, filling the racks of Marks & Spencer, The Body Shop, etc. However, Kohinoor maintains that the primary aim of the NGO is to empower women and in that vein she works with some of the most marginalised women, providing them with the opportunity to develop their skills through training and education on entrepreneurship, village savings, loans associations, micro-credit, income generation and awareness of gender and human rights within communities, amongst others. It is remarkable when taken into account that every woman associated with Tarango is a victim of some form of gender violence. The organisation even has a safe home where women are given shelter to cope with trauma and recuperate for a duration of 15 days to 1 year. Through counselling, skills training, legal and social support they are gradually phased out to a society where they can take charge of their lives. The NGO also maintains a day-care centre for the children of underprivileged women (not only for Tarango employees) who are taught dance, drama and other extra-curricular activities. Kohinoor is even planning to include self-defence classes for girls. “I want our girls to be strong from a young age and not be afraid to stand up for their rights,” Kohinoor commented.

The story of Kohinoor is one of determination, and she has become a beacon of strength for the thousands of women Tarango has supported so far. She was recently recognised by the Embassy of Spain in Dhaka and the Bengal Foundation as one of the real-life heroes in Bangladesh – a female ‘Quijota’ – when she was selected for the “10 Quijotas of Bangladesh” exhibition. Kohinoor believes she still has much to do for the underprivileged women of Bangladesh and wishes to include female children in her programmes. She wants to work towards the elimination of the practice of dowry and hopes for modification in Bangladeshi law for women. “Be bold for change,” she says to the future Commonwealth scholars and fellows, and they will surely find success in their chosen fields.