In the Bangladeshi coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, many young girls work from dawn to dusk, selling tourists food and trinkets to provide for their families.
This – or marriage – would be the only options available to the young women who live in one of the poorest and most conservative nations in the world, if not for one tourist’s forgetfulness over 25 years ago.
According to the LA Times, Cox’s Bazar’s first surfers learned their sport on a board left behind by an Australian tourist. Those pioneers passed their love of the sport on to generations of men.
In 2013, a young girl named Shoma Akthar approached local lifeguard Rashed Alam on his way in from surfing and told him, “I want to do that,” the newspaper reports.
Alam offered to teach Shoma to surf and before long, more girls followed. The girls loved the sport so much they began stealing away from their days’ work for a few hours to ride the waves whenever they could.
“My life before was making jewelry at home, work, sleep, making jewelry, work, sleep,” a 14-year-old girl named Mayasha, told the newspaper. “When I started surfing, I began thinking about my dreams.”
Surfing offers more than just a new awareness of life’s other possibilities; it has also provided a means of getting there. Alam’s wife, an American expat named Vanessa Rude, provides English lessons to the young girls and some have even had the chance to train as lifeguards, TIME reported. Alam said he hopes some of the young girls will be able to find work as lifeguards, a welcome alternative to entering into a child marriage – a common practice in the patriarchal nation.
And for those who are truly skilled, surfing competitions can lead to prizes equivalent to several months’ salaries. A $40 prize Shoma won for third place in a local competition was enough to convince her mother that she could be more valuable independently than if she were sent off to work as a housekeeper, or to get married.
“She’ll get married when she wants,” Shoma’s mother, Maryam Katho told the newspaper. “She might be going surfing in Hawaii one day.”