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SHOMY HASAN-CHOWDHURY_

2019 Legacy Award Recipient and WASH activist

“As A Legacy Award Recipient, I Have A Responsibility”

The Legacy Award was launched in 2017 to celebrate Diana’s legacy in the 20th Anniversary year and inspire a new generation of young people to service their communities.

Every other year, this unique accolade celebrates the achievements of 20 outstanding young leaders, visionaries and role models from across the world, who have demonstrated their ability to inspire and mobilise new generations to service their communities, as Princess Diana believed they could.

Shomy’s drive to take action manifested after she tragically lost her mother over 6 years ago due to complications from diarrhoea. Committed to turning her loss into a positive experience, Shomy began to raise awareness about the importance of personal hygiene and sanitation in her hometown.

Her engagement quickly gained traction: Over the past years, more than 70,000 people have been educated through Shomy’s WASH Talks in which she explains how washing your hands helps to stay healthy and lead a prosperous life.

Shomy’s focus lies on reaching people from underprivileged backgrounds and vulnerable communities such as sex-workers, sewerage workers, slum dwellers, underprivileged school children and people with disabilities.

We at The Diana Award are keen to support our Award recipients to create wide-reaching and lasting impact. One year on from receiving her award we checked in with Shomy to hear about her work as a sanitation activist and how the Legacy Award has made a difference in her life.

How it all began

In 2014 Shomy’s mother fell sick with diarrhoea. When her condition worsened abruptly, the family rushed her to the hospital, but within just a day, she died.

The shock of losing her mother inspired Shomy to educate others in hopes of preventing similar tragedies. At the end of 2020, in an interview with Samsung Mobile press, Shomy explains:

“When I did the research and found out that there are thousands of people who die and my mom is just one tiny part of that staggering statistic, I felt I needed to do something about it – that was a defining moment.”

Just four days after her mother had passed, Shomy gave her first WASH talk to a group of 3,000 local sewerage and sanitation workers.

Shomy’s talks quickly gained traction and towards the end of 2014, she decided to scale her mission to reach even more people, which is when she co-founded Awareness 360, a youth-led organization that empowers young people to implement community service projects that address all 17 Global Goals.

A few years on, Global Changemakers contacted the Diana Award team to nominate Shomy for a Diana Award.

Receiving the Legacy Award

In 2019, the Legacy Award was presented by Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s younger brother. In appreciation of the Legacy Award recipients, Earl Spencer says:

“I’m very proud to be here tonight, because I am the lucky person who gets to give the awards to these 20 quite incredible young people. I think it’s important to celebrate people who are doing amazing things, because first of all they deserve the recognition on an adult stage such as this, but also hopefully it encourages them and young people around them to do even more great things.”

Receiving the award from such a distinguished host was a major highlight for Shomy and she remembers her surprise when Diana’s brother – Earl Spencer approached her to congratulate her on her achievement.

“He came up to me and said ‘You must be Shomy. I am so honoured to meet you; I am Princess Diana’s brother.’ And I was truly astounded that he would take the time to come up to me to say that he was honoured to meet me.”

Shomy receiving her Legacy Award from Earl Spencer in 2019.

Meeting Prince William At Kensington Palace

A special honour reserved for our Legacy Award recipients is a visit of Kensington Palace where they get a chance to meet HRH Prince William.

This royal visit took place on day four of the inaugural Legacy Award Experience and was kept a secret from the Legacy Award recipients until a couple of days before. After thorough security checks and vetting, the Legacy Award recipients were given the opportunity to individually speak to HRH Prince William about their work and the reason for receiving the Legacy Award.

For Shomy, meeting Prince William was an absolute highlight:

“The meeting with Prince William was just such an honour and I am so thankful to the Diana Award for this opportunity. I was not expecting that Prince William would actually ask me anything. And then he came up to me and I was ready to introduce myself and then he was like: ‘You are the one who spoke in front of 60,000 people, right? How do you do this?” I was so shocked I forgot what I wanted to say, but we had a really casual conversation then. What I really loved about it was that he asked a lot of follow-up questions. He really did have a genuine interest to know about our work on a deeper level. It honestly was an experience of a lifetime.”

Shomy with HRH Prince William at Kensington Palace

Carrying Diana’s Legacy Forward

For Shomy, receiving the award has encouraged her strong commitment to her mission. She tells us that the award is much more to her than just a piece of paper and a fancy ceremony. For her, it marked the beginning of a long-lasting commitment to her action – carrying forward the legacy of Diana.

“After I came back to my table – with my award in hand – I thought to myself ‘OK, now that I am actually carrying this title, I have a real responsibility’ – a feeling that I suddenly realised. You are receiving an award named after Princess Diana and you feel like the legacy behind it. And I thought to myself ‘OK whatever I have been doing up until now I have to continue doing this and I need to inspire more people. That legacy, this title I will now carry that with me – forever.”

Supporting our award recipients in carrying Diana’s legacy forward we organise a range of activities to ensure maximised impact and reach of their activities.

All Legacy Award recipients are enrolled onto a unique two-year Development Programme which will provide them with the opportunity to enhance their skills in four key areas: leadership, community development, social entrepreneurship, and technology for good.

This programme takes the form of tailored support and access to training, resources and opportunities to help them develop personally as well as growing their campaigns and projects. All Legacy Award recipients have a dedicated catch-up call with The Diana Award every three months to ensure the support they are receiving is helpful.

Working with Covid – educating sex workers in Bangladesh

As for everyone, 2020 was a challenging year for Shomy and her team at Awareness 360. The Covid-19 pandemic has put pressure on some of the most vulnerable communities in Bangladesh. Some of the most affected were local sex workers – a community Shomy and her team were keen to support.

“2020 has been crazy; on so many levels it has been difficult for all of us at Awareness 360. When the pandemic started and the first lockdown happened, we had to pause all our in-person projects. At that time, we were preparing to work with a community of sex workers to provide access to clean water and sanitation. I got in touch with the community leader responsible for looking after a local brothel to ask how they were managing the lockdown. Because of the lockdown they obviously lacked a regular income source, so they were struggling quite a bit. So that’s when my team decided to launch a fundraiser to support them.”

Raising funds for the sex worker community was complicated by a crucial factor: In Bangladesh the stigma surrounding sex work is particularly pronounced because of religious and cultural beliefs. This is why Shomy and her team struggled to obtain backing from the community to support them.

“I was quite frustrated as nothing was moving forward”, Shomy says “but then thankfully, the Diana Award stepped in to help us out. They helped us with promoting the fundraiser through the ‘Monday Motivation’ initiative. Having the Diana Award support us really added a lot of credibility to this fundraiser.”

The fundraiser turned out to be a success: Shomy and her team raised a significant amount of money and supported almost 400 sex workers with 1 months’ food and hygiene supplies. Equally, Shomy and her organisation managed to shine a light on the sex worker community, while other organisations were focussing on supporting other daily wage earners. Through the fundraiser, the Awareness 360 team was able to inspire other groups to also support this community.

“This is what I really like about the Diana Award: It’s not just that you get an award and go to a fancy ceremony and its done; there is a continuation of support for a lifetime. And the network, the family, the community that now I belong to. That whole eco-system is just so helpful both for all sorts of support, but also in terms of resources.”

The pandemic equally took its toll on many team members at Awareness 360 who were feeling the strain of lockdown, which inspired Shomy to launch the Awareness 360 live series project.

“During lockdown when most of in person projects were halted, many of our members were feeling burnt out and the pandemic had caused a huge toll on their mental health. We decided to launch the Awareness 360 live series project – an online space to keep the team engaged with discussions and skills-based sessions, bringing together young people from all six continents.” For the online series, Shomy collaborated with other Legacy Award recipients, leveraging insight from the amazing work they do. This was a great way to share the Diana Award experience with other Awareness 360 team members. “We wanted to bring diversity into our sessions, so fellow Legacy Award recipients Ezara-Mai Downes, Dan Lawes, Cora-Laine Moynihan, Ben West, Madhav Datt, Olivia Hancock and Gabby Tan ran online sessions on Latin dance, politics and young people, gardening, refugee crises and mental health.”

For the online series, Shomy collaborated with other Legacy Award recipients, leveraging insight from the amazing work they do. This was a great way to share the Diana Award experience with other Awareness 360 team members.

“We wanted to bring diversity into our sessions, so fellow Legacy Award recipients Ezara-Mai Downes, Dan Lawes, Cora-Laine Moynihan, Ben West, Madhav Datt, Olivia Hancock and Gabby Tan ran online sessions on Latin dance, politics and young people, gardening, refugee crises and mental health.”

Looking ahead – Promoting hygiene beyond the pandemic

Personal hygiene and the WASH campaign have assumed major significance during the Covid 19 pandemic. The 360 programme interventions have helped thousands of people in Shomy’s community to stay safe throughout the pandemic and take care of their personal hygiene needs.

“We definitely want to continue our advocacy for the WASH work, because I think this pandemic was a very good learning experience. Unfortunately, a pandemic had to come our way to teach us why sanitation and washing hands are important. These are the things we’ve been trying to tell people for years, but I guess they didn’t take them that seriously until now. And now this is something that we want to continuously emphasise: Even if the pandemic is over, handwashing, sanitation and hygiene – these are things that are important not only to protect yourself from Coronavirus but helps protect people from other preventable diseases. This is something we want to keep pushing for. Creating a value for WASH among the mass public.”

But the purpose of the WASH intervention has a much wider purpose. One of the biggest problems is that educating people on sanitation is still not ranking highest in the government’s priorities. Globally, 2.3 billion people do not have access to sanitation services globally. The WASH initiative aims to rectify this:

“This is why I try to create a value for WASH, it is not only protecting yourself for diseases, but it helps you with getting out of poverty. This is the angle Shomy comes from when trying to influence decision makers to increase investment.”

For every 1-dollar investment in sanitation and hygiene, there is a 4-dollar return caused by reduced healthcare cost and increased productivity.

The “Forbes 30 Under 30” list spotlighted Shomy as a Featured Honoree for Social Impact.

A fact that Shomy is committed to change

“Globally, we want to advocate for more investment – currently there is a very low investment on the WASH space. In addition, tracking that investment is also another problem. The Bangladeshi government definitely raised their investment for this year’s budget, but they are focussing too much on the hardware of the issue: They ask “How many toilets do we have? How many hand-washing stations do we have?” But it is equally important to make people aware of the importance of hygiene and make them value it. So, in fact, there might be a toilet, there might be a handwashing station, but people are not washing their hands. We need a behavioural change! It’s not knowing that handwashing is important, it’s about actually doing it and remembering it. And also understanding that wash is not just important to protect yourself from diseases and not doing. Its more than that, it will help people get access to education, it will help being more productive, get more economic return. It can actually help people to get out of extreme poverty. So, this is my hope for wash after the pandemic: That people will realise its power to overcome extreme poverty and that this is the main reason to convince policy makers to invest in it.”

Looking ahead, Shomy’s aim is to speak to policy makers to achieve a more long-lasting change for her country and beyond. To achieve this, Shomy and her organisation are continuously training new ambassadors to work together with her. Shomy is keen to ensure to that her ambition inspires others to join in and help spread the mission of her work and achieve greater impact on a global scale.

“I want to come up with policies that will be scalable and that will be so good that other countries will also be motivated to follow in their countries, so we can create impact beyond the borders of Bangladesh. I want to see more young people being empowered. At Awareness 360 we want to give our volunteers a transferrable skill set so they can go ahead make a change themselves. We want them to be self-standing ambassadors so that in the future they themselves can grow the network and continue our mission.”

2021 also holds a personal milestone for Shomy; she will start a new chapter in her life, starting a Master’s degree at the prestigious Schwarzman College in Beijing.

Shomy has been chosen among 3,600 applications to study Global Affairs in China. This will be a unique opportunity for Shomy to enhance her leadership skills together with a cohort of exceptional young leaders.

Most recently, Shomy has made the “Forbes 30 Under 30” list and has been spotlighted as a Featured Honoree for Social Impact for her advocacy work through Awareness 360.

We at The Diana Award are looking forward to accompanying Shomy in her future mission and are keen to support her in becoming one of the world’s true global leaders and a role model for her generation!

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