After suffering an unimaginable personal loss, Shomy Chowdhury took action. Here’s how she became a leading advocate for clean water and sanitation in Bangladesh.
Four hundred and sixty hours—a new record. That’s how much community service Shomy Chowdhury completed in a volunteerism exchange program to the U.S. that required 40 hours from its participants. For Shomy, though, accomplishing this milestone in high school was just the beginning.
Today, the 26-year-old is a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) advocate and entrepreneur in Bangladesh, dedicated to ensuring that everyone understands the life-threatening risks of poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation. She has traveled the world to give educational talks in marginalized communities where she teaches the importance of personal hygiene, removing the stigma around menstruation, proper handwashing, and food safety.
“I want to reach those who are the hardest to reach—communities where no one else would go,” says Shomy. “Because if we don’t go, then who will? And if not today, when?”
Motivated by Tragedy
Her passion for educating others is rooted in an unimaginable personal loss.
In 2014, after returning home to Bangladesh from the U.S., Shomy’s mother fell sick with diarrhea. 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.
“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,” Shomy says. “That was a defining moment.”
Just four days after her mother passed, she gave her first WASH talk to a group of 3,000 sewage and sanitation workers.
“When I go and tell a community that 45,000 people die from diarrhea every year in Bangladesh, it’s easy to see that as just a number,” says Shomy. “But when I tell them my mom died from it—healthy one day and gone forever the next—it connects.”
Since that first talk, she has helped educate more than 70,000 people from vulnerable communities, including sex workers, sanitation workers, and others who are often marginalized and live in extreme poverty. She has worked to influence policymakers to invest in sanitation and hygiene.
Towards the end of 2014, she decided to extend her mission beyond WASH and scale her impact by cofounding Awareness 360, a youth-led organization that empowers young people to implement community service projects that address all 17 Global Goals.
Shomy’s efforts have been recognized globally by President Obama, The Diana Award, Global Citizen, and many others. Meanwhile, Awareness 360, now active in 23 countries, has supported projects benefiting more than 150,000 people
Finding Resilience Amid COVID-19
While her work has global impact, Bangladesh remains a personal priority for Shomy. Her ultimate goal is to provide access to clean water and sanitation for all; she hopes to reach the halfway point—access for 50 percent of the population—by 2030.
During the pandemic, handwashing and sanitation are more important than ever, but some populations are especially vulnerable, such as those living in Bangladesh's densely populated slums. In response to these urgent needs, Awareness 360 has raised funds this year to buy food and hygiene products for these communities.
“We can work on these shared problems—the Global Goals—together,” Shomy says. “And that has turned my pain into my strength.”
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