Asha Lata Baidya (born 1956) is one of Bangladesh's best-known freedom-fighters. She joined the freedom struggle of 1971 against Pakistan when she was only 15 years old and went on to lead the women's guerrilla corps. After she completed her studies - suspended until her country won independence - she set up the Surjamukhi Sangstha (SMS). SMS has been working on issues ranging from setting up cooperatives and helping with loans to women's empowerment, education, and environmental issues. More than 200,000 families have benefited from Asha Lata's 34 years of tireless activism.
Asha Lata Baidya joined the struggle for freedom from Pakistan when she was still 15 and at middle school. "My father told them that he had no son," she says. "His daughter, meaning me, would join them [the freedom-fighters]. I was very excited." Asha learnt how to operate firearms and was trained in guerrilla combat. She led several operations as commander of the women guerrillas, the Mohila Muktijodha Dal. Only after Bangladesh had won its independence in January 1972 did Asha Lata resume her education, going on to complete her Bachelors and Masters in Bengali literature. In college, she set up small women's cooperatives. Capitalizing on this experience, she formed the SMS soon after she completed her Masters. Today, Surjamukhi works in 42 upazilas in 17 districts, and about 200,000 families have benefited from their input. Asha has been working for 34 years now, organizing people at the grassroots level and aiding them to attain economic solvency. Surjamukhi has helped people set up cooperatives and small businesses. Asha Lata combines her business acumen with advocacy and awareness raising on subjects including human rights, gender issues, the environment, primary health, and HIV/Aids. She has also conducted programs on community-based disaster preparedness and nonformal education, simultaneously working to strengthen local government initiatives for women's empowerment. Asha fiercely promotes literacy and enrolls children in schools. "I do not waste time, ever," says Asha Lata. "I did not waste even an hour in my whole student life for any boyfriend. I did not even get married. I believe in hard work and sacrifice. I am hopeful that things will change for the better. 'Asha' means hope, you see!"
Surjamukhi Sangstha (SMS)