By Jason Woods, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Joe Tobiason
Opportunities for women and girls in many parts of Bangladesh are traditionally sparse. That’s changing, thanks to the committed work of women-led, Heifer-supported farmer groups.
CHAR JOKNALA, Bangladesh — Every day before school, 12-year-old Sadia Khushi walks to her teacher’s house for group tutoring. After coming home, showering and doing her chores, she returns for more tutoring in the evening.
Her mother, Joynob Begum, beams as she praises her youngest daughter. “Sadia likes to study,” she said. “She likes to go to school.”
Although she does well in all of her classes, Sadia’s favorite subject is English. “It is easy to read for me,” she said. “And if I learn English, it’s easy to know about the world. It’s better for conversations with foreigners, and it’s easier to get a job.”
Her mother has already been thinking about what that job might be. “My plan for her is to work as a schoolteacher when she grows up,” Joynob Begum said. But when Sadia chimes in with, “Police officer!” her mother smiles and quickly changes her mind. “I want my daughter to be a police officer, because that’s what she wants to be.”
Whatever the future brings for Sadia, it looks much brighter than it did a couple of years ago. Before joining a Heifer Bangladesh project, Joynob Begum said her family was in a financial crisis, and it was hard to keep her three children healthy.
“They were lacking in nutrition,” she said. “They were mostly affected by swollen jaws. Colds, runny noses. They had intestinal problems like dysentery.” Eventually, Joynob Begum and her husband, Shakhawat Islam, had to take their children out of school because they could no longer afford it.
Before Heifer came to this area, about 50 percent of girls weren't going to school. After the project, in this community, 98 or 99 percent of girls go to school. Joynbob Begum, Project Participant
Then, a few years ago, Joynob Begum received 4,500 taka (about $54) from Heifer Bangladesh to buy a goat. Although the family already had a couple of cows and some hens, training from Heifer built on their knowledge. After a few months, the family sold their goat for 6,000 taka ($72). Before long, Joynob Begum and her husband were running their farm like a business.
Through the sale of goats, cows and hens, Joynob Begum and Islam improved their family’s health and nutrition. They built a larger house out of stronger material and started saving money. Now Sadia is back in school, and the family can also aff ord the 500 taka ($6) a month for tutoring.
Finishing school is something neither of Sadia’s siblings did. Shanaz Parvin, now 22, is married. Islam Akhend, 18, makes traditional Bengali clothes on a handloom. But Sadia’s mother is determined that her youngest child will continue her education.
“As long as the almighty creator allows me to improve my condition, I will educate Sadia as much as possible,” Joynob Begum said.
A Different Path
Sadia Khushi is not the only girl in the neighborhood who is hitting the books. “Before Heifer came to this area, about 50 percent of girls weren’t going to school,” Joynob Begum said. “After the project, in this community, 98 or 99 percent of girls go to school.”
Although not every family is working with Heifer, most have seen the impact the project has made and are emulating its successful formula. An important part of that is making sure the girls have as much opportunity as the boys.
Another area where that holds true is marriage. Bangladesh has the fifth-highest rate globally of children married before age 18, the official legal age. According to the nonprofit Girls Not Brides, in Bangladesh slightly more than half of girls are married before it’s legal, and 18 percent are married before they turn 15.
“I got married at 14 or 15,” said Morzina Begum, a Heifer project participant who lives in the community of Walia. She is making sure her 16-year-old daughter, Jannatul Ferdaus, waits until later to marry, in part so she can study to be a doctor. “She will be a self-dependent woman,” Morzina Begum said. “She will be able to think.”
In addition to addressing gender inequality, Heifer Bangladesh’s training curriculum touches on the detrimental effect early marriage can have on a child’s development. And it’s changing patterns in Walia and other project areas.
“As time goes by, early marriage has become very rare,” Morzina Begum said. Before the trainings, in most cases it happened, maybe eight out of 10 people. Now the ratio is nominal, one person out of 10.”
Women like Joynob Begum and Morzina Begum are influencing communities not only on their own, but also through the strength of organized groups. As a Heifer Bangladesh project begins, local staff members and partners assist in creating self-help groups. Each group consists of 25 project participants, and they support each other by sharing information and resources.
Several self-help groups also might band together to start a cooperative. Barogachi Women’s Cooperative Limited is the first co-op Heifer Bangladesh supported. Since gaining legal recognition from the government in 2015, Barogachi has grown from 56 members to 383. Out of that number, 250 women are part of Heifer projects. Last fiscal year, shareholders received a 55 percent dividend yield, and the cooperative netted a profit of 328,545 taka (nearly $4,000). Additionally, hundreds of loans were granted to members for agricultural activities.
But financial solvency is only part of the cooperative’s vision. In addition to ending poverty for member families and growing as an organization, Barogachi is dedicated to social change. Monira Begum, president of Barogachi Women’s Cooperative Limited, said the organization uses education and awareness campaigns to prevent early marriage, domestic abuse and the dowry system.
Early on, the success of the cooperative is striking. “Use of the dowry system is down 50 percent,” Monira Begum said. “Early marriage has been reduced 80 percent already. Abuse is down from 100 percent to 10 percent.”
According to Monira Begum, the key is coming together to form a collective voice. “Before forming the cooperative, we felt alone,” she said. “We were scattered in diff erent places.” Banks, assuming they wouldn’t get their money back, would not open accounts for the women.
“In society, no one cared what we wanted or what we were doing,” Monira Begum said. “No one cared about me because I’m just one person. After forming the cooperative and getting government approval, we have power. In society, even the local government, everyone values us. Now we are confident.”