How social security programs in Bangladesh are helping to empower impoverished women
Last week, I visited Ashashuni union of Satkhira, a flood-prone area where river erosion, limited economic opportunities and increasing salinity caused by climate change made worse by shrimp cultivation have resulted in poverty for thousands of people. There, I met three women.
The first young woman was a bright-eyed lady named Parul Akhtar. She was dressed in a colourful salwar kameez, busy behind her sewing machine, when I arrived at her home.
I asked her to tell me a bit about herself while her son circled us curiously. Parul’s father was a van puller who couldn’t afford the upkeep of his five children, so she was married off young.
Her father had hoped her husband would provide her with a better life but that wasn’t how things turned out. He was poorer than she and tortured her for monthly dowry, and finally, when she got pregnant, he married another woman.
Parul returned to her father’s little tin-roofed mud shack. A few months later, her father’s shack was washed away by the river during cyclone Aila. It was a harrowing experience, but the birth of her son brought some joy to her soon after.
Parul worked as a maid for some years, unable to properly support her father or her young son, afraid that she would hand her poverty down to her child. When she heard the village police (chowkidars) announcing a social security program called Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO), she applied at the Union Parishad office.
She was deemed eligible for the program but there were many more eligible women than there were available slots. Luckily she was selected and joined SWAPNO.
SWAPNO is a cash-for-work program managed by the Local Government Division in partnership with UNDP, locally implemented through Union Parishads.
The program offered Parul 18 months of paid road work, paying Tk200 per day, of which Tk50 was saved in a personal bank account for her.
Additionally, the women developed a revolving group savings scheme in which Parul participated. When it was her turn to cash out, she used the money to purchase a sewing machine.
SWAPNO provided her with life skills training and business management training with which she began a small enterprise.
Parul now has enough money to eat well, send her son to school, and look after her father who is sick.
I was awed by her resilience, her determination and her courage. She said before SWAPNO she was too shy to visit a market but now she is bold enough to visit not only markets but also the UP Chairman’s office, if necessary
She has chickens, ducks, goats, even a little pond with fish. She has many clients and is happy that her son will have the freedom to choose a better life.
I was awed by her resilience, her determination, and her courage. She said before SWAPNO she was too shy to visit a market but now she is bold enough to visit not only markets but also the UP chairman’s office, if necessary.
Next, I spoke to Sharmin Akbar, a union worker of the partner NGO assisting SWAPNO in Satkhira. Sharmin works for the program during the day and is enrolled in a Master’s program at night. She has applied to law school and starts there in September. Her father, who used to be a school principal, is ill so he no longer works or earns.
A saline wasteland
As staff of SWAPNO, she is able to fund her own education and support her family. She is thrilled to be economically independent and is not keen to get married. Her father supports her decision.
She says the destitute women she works with are unaware of their entitlements. They do not hold the government accountable for their poverty, nor do they know how to demand their rights. She says women get married off as children and then remain oppressed and vulnerable for their entire lives because they have not completed their education. She says Satkhira is now a saline wasteland and she hopes to return after she completes her degree to help the women in the region.
I was inspired by Sharmin’s incredible drive to help those haunted by challenging circumstances. Most other government social security programs have no front line field workers to support beneficiaries.
Evidence suggests significant hand-holding is needed to enable a poor family to graduate out of poverty so programs should consider appointing a team of trained field officers to manage beneficiaries’ progress. Partnerships with local NGOs may be another effective route.
The third lady I met was Shushoma Sultana, UNO. She spoke very highly of the government’s poverty eradication efforts, especially the new National Social Security Strategy that aims to improve the impact and efficiency of the social security system.
She suggested training the UP members, who are the managers of the programs, fortifying them with information and communication tools so they may digitise their data. She said some programs are experimenting with digital financial services for delivery of benefits — a positive step forward.
Shushoma said that UP implements many programs, such as Old Age Allowance, Widows Allowance, Vulnerable Group Development, Lactating Mothers Allowance, Open Market Sale of Rice, Disability Allowance, and others.
Of all the programs she had seen, SWAPNO was the best, as it created transformational changes in the lives of beneficiaries through its training component and savings mechanism.
While not all programs can afford to provide such support, she is hopeful that other programs will learn from this success.
She said she hopes all programs partner with vocational training institutes and private sector companies to help their beneficiaries engage with the mainstream economy, so we may achieve the honourable prime minister’s dream of zero poverty in Bangladesh.
Shazia Omar is a consultant to UNDP’s Social Security Policy Support Program. To know more about the author and her work, visit www.shaziaomar.com.