THE BLOG

How Women Are Stamping Out Poverty In Bangladesh

05/06/2017 11:51

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"My daughter is going to finish school," one young woman told me, defiantly. "She's going to get the opportunities I didn't have."

We were sitting on the dry ground between a few tin shacks in Bangladesh, about 70km north of the capital, Dhaka. Gathered around were a number of young women - most of them teenagers. Each one of them had a small baby or toddler bouncing on their knee.

In rural Bangladesh it's not uncommon for girls to be married off in their early teens, and most fall pregnant soon after. They stop attending school and instead stay at home to look after their new family. Without an income, and under the control of their husbands, they have little say in family affairs or how money is spent.

Many children are malnourished - fed on a diet of plain rice - and school drop-out rates are high. As soon as they reach 14, boys are enticed to work in dangerous factories while girls may be handed over in marriage, usually to much older men, though the legal age to wed is 18.

But all that is changing.

With the help of international children's charity World Vision, thousands of women across Bangladesh are taking control of their finances - and their children are reaping the benefits.

12,000 women are taking part in a three-year economic empowerment programme designed to break the cycle of poverty that blights rural areas. Now more than a year in, the changes are already monumental.

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Women have been trained in gardening, poultry and livestock rearing. They're growing their own fruit and vegetables - maximising the use of the small plot of land around their homesteads. In a space smaller than an average allotment in the UK, they're producing a kilo of vegetables every single day. Children, who before ate meagre portions of plain rice, are now eating fresh green vegetables every day, and meat several times a month.

Women have been given seven chickens and one cockerel each - so their families now have eggs three to four times a week, too. Most women have chosen to hatch half their eggs and save the other half to eat and sell. One woman I met had grown her flock to 150 chickens in just 14 months. Others had traded them in for goats, and one even bought a cow. In three months, it had doubled in value - so she sold it and paid for her children's school fees.

That's where the changes have been most dramatic. Time and time again, as I met with women taking part in this programme, they told me their children were now attending school full-time and were doing better academically as a result. One group told me that while before all of their children had been 'red' on a malnutrition scale - the worst measurement - now, almost all of them are green.

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Mother-of-two Shikha lives in Palasia, in Bangladesh's District of Sherpur. Before she began working with World Vision, Shikha's family were only able to eat twice a day and her children were regularly sick due to malnutrition. They had no toilet in their home and often contracted diarrhoea. With only a tiny income, Shika struggled to pay for her children's education and so they missed out on school.

But now, with the help of World Vision, Shikha is changing her children's future for the better. She was given two goats, which she bred and sold, and is now growing her own food to feed her family. They eat three nutritious meals a day and her children's school is paid for. She even bought her husband a rickshaw so he can also earn more money, and installed a sanitary latrine in their home which means the children are at a far lower risk of disease.

Other women have begun tailoring businesses and have established local crèches, so some women can go to work while others look after their children. Some are saving money collectively and lending money to one another. Not only are they achieving economic empowerment, but social empowerment, too. By working together, women are combatting isolation and loneliness - key drivers of poverty.

And child marriage is being stamped out, too. One group told me proudly that they had stopped two child marriages, thanks to having autonomy over family income and therefore a greater say in what happened to their daughters. And they're determined to prevent more.

Mark Hammersley travelled to Bangladesh with World Vision in March 2017.

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