Story and Photos courtesy of Heifer Bangladesh Staff
Bilkis Begum, a 32-year-old housewife mostly engaged in household chores, lives with her family in Bangladesh's Teyarirchar village. Bilkis’ family consists of her husband Murshid Mia and four sons, ages 2 ½ to 13. They did not believe she could contribute something of value to the family. Even if she had the desire to do something great, without assets or cultivable land, Bilkis' family figured it would be impossible.
Before Bilkis joined the self-help group (SHG) Setu Mohila Unnayan Samity, or Setu Women’s Development Group, her husband was the only member of her family earning an income. He worked as a day laborer on other people’s land during sowing and harvesting season, which lasts for four to five months. The rest of the year he was either jobless or migrated to the nearby city center in search of jobs. As a day laborer, he earned barely enough to sustain his family, who lived in extreme poverty.
Before the Heifer project, Bilkis' family typically had two meals a day. Bilkis and Murshid often ate only once a day so their children could eat more. The food's quality and nutritional value were questionable, as they did not have a choice, their menu consisted of whatever was available and cheap.
The family used to live in a thatched house with a tin roof, bamboo fence, and one room the entire family shared. Murshid inherited the house and about 871 square feet of land from his father. They shared a small yard next to the house with their neighbors. They had no sanitary latrine or source for safe drinking water, and Bilkis had to walk a long distance to collect potable water from a tube well.
The future promised nothing better for this family, let alone the opportunity for Murshid to start his own business. However, when Bilkis joined the SHG and Heifer project in June 2011, things began to change. They received a young bull and funds to use to purchase small fruit plants and supplies to build a cowshed. Bilkis and Murshid received training on Heifer’s 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development and Gender Equity, and Bilkis participated in group management and improved animal management trainings.
The couple had never owned cattle and did not know much about rearing livestock for profit, so the improved animal management training proved most useful. After rearing their animal for seven months, they sold it for more than twice its original value. They then bought another young bull and leased about one-third of an acre of land to cultivate paddy. After five months, they sold their second bull for a profit, which they used to buy another young bull and lease another small piece of land (about 4,355 square feet) for growing vegetables. With the profit from the paddy production, Bilkis bought three ducks and three chickens, which have multiplied to 15 and 10, respectively.
Bilkis now thinks positively and believes that even the poorest women can shine if helped with minimum resources. She understands that there is no alternative to education and sends her children to school as she can afford it.
She took out a loan of 8,000 takas, or about $103, from her SHG and bought a sewing machine. Now Bilkis uses her tailoring skills to earn extra income during agriculture's lean period.
Murshid no longer sells his labor to others, but works his family's land and looks after the animals. He even started a small part-time business selling nuts. Before, he didn't think a woman could possess assets and make money from them. Since attending the trainings, however, Murshid's way of thinking has changed, and he treats his wife differently.
The standard of living for this family has significantly improved. They used project loan money to install a sanitary latrine. The nutritional quality of their daily food intake has improved. They have better clothing and have decided to build a new house. Before the project, Bilkis knew nothing about autism, but she now takes her eldest son, who was diagnosed with the condition years ago, to see a doctor at the nearby Upazila Health Complex.
Bilkis has already passed on her gift to another project member and has started making monthly payments on her family's loan.
While serving as cashier of the Setu group, Bilkis proposed starting a preschool in their village. She recognized that many poor families had children who would soon reach school age, but the parents either lacked the ability to prepare them for school or were unaware that they should. A preschool could provide the children with a classroom environment and basic lessons before they entered primary school. Bilkis urged her fellow group members to present the idea to the Project Management Committee, and it was applauded. A pre-primary school was set up in Teyarirchar village, and 26 children attend. The Project Management Committee agreed that all the school costs would be paid for from group savings.
Bilkis has definitely proved herself as a pioneer among women. Her success story and leadership has transcended her own group and touched many other women who fight hard against extreme poverty and the negligence of society. As a testament to her contribution, Bilkis was elected chairperson of the second Project Management Committee.