Bangladesh: The Bangladesh Surf Girls
The Bangladeshi surf girls are a group of eight outgoing and spunky girls who started surfing when they were ten to thirteen years old living and working in Cox's Bazar. Poverty forced them into an early adulthood, as they were obligated to shoulder the responsibility of earning money to help feed their families. Early each morning, rain or shine, they would leave their homes, some of which are perched on the side of steep inclines, and make their way to the beach where they worked selling jewelry and eggs until late into the night before returning home. Their families are unable survive without the girls' income.
Most children who have been conscripted into the role of wage earners have little joy in their lives, but the surf girls have been learning to surf and skateboard thanks to the efforts of 25-year old surfer, lifeguard and beach worker Rashed Alam and his wife, American expat Venessa Rude.
Rashed, who comes from the same background as they, has assumed the role of big brother to them, looking out for the girls, making sure that they are safe on the beach while they work, and teaching them to surf in the afternoons. Until she returned to America in mid 2016, Venessa tutored the surf girls 6 days a week. The other boys in their club out for them and encourage them.
Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world. Outside of the relatively progressive cities, girls are married off as young as 9 years old because they are seen as a burden for their families. The view is that men can earn a wage, but that women cannot. Girls older than 20 are considered old maids, unfit for marriage, which is generally a girl’s only realistic aspiration. Women and girls are harassed in the street. There have been cases of acid attacks against girls resulting from spurned marriage proposals or dowry disputes. Dozens of women and girls commit suicide each year because they are sexually harassed, which is infuriatingly referred to as “eve-teasing”.
As the surf girls are getting "older", men frequently harass them on the street or on the beach while they work. Their parents have been pushing them to wed, or get more “appropriate” work as domestic workers, which can put them in an unsafe environment.
In February 2015 photographer Allison Joyce and Venessa Rude started a fundraiser for the girls, which has enabled them to enroll in school and stop working on the beach full time. For many of them, they are the first in their families to go to school. The media attention has led to other opportunities for them, including workshops with Microsoft, who also donated computers to their club, and a trip to Dhaka to visit local newspaper offices, women's medical colleges, and historical sightseeing so that they could learn the deep and rich history of their country.
In a conservative Muslim country it is uncommon to see these very vivacious, spirited, confident girls learning to surf and skateboard. They know that there is an alternative to the patriarchal, conservative lifestyle that they see imposed on women around them in their villages and communities. They’re up against so much, but rather than despair, they have dreams. The Surfer Girls all want something good for their lives; safe, stable and dignified jobs, an education, and the ability to choose to delay marriage until they are adults. One aspires to be a doctor, others dream of being professional surfers, and still others plan to work as lifeguards on the beach. Surfing and skating empowers them, giving them a chance to dream and an outlet to be children.