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Bangladesh’s climate champions

  • Published at 05:25 pm December 30th, 2019
Climate Tribune_December 2019_Pg 4-8
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10 Powerful women combating Climate Change with smartphone technology

Just this year, the government of Bangladesh declared a planetary emergency. Now more than ever, it is crucial to support the people that are most vulnerable to climate change, and that means looking out for marginalized women in the coast, charland and hoar of our country. The following articles chronicle the stories of ten climate champions, women who are adapting and thriving at the front lines of climate change. As part of Oxfam’s PROTIC project, they went above and beyond expectations, using the training and smart phone technology they received not only to empower themselves through agricultural practices but to also start businesses, develop their communities, and most importantly, empower other women.

The PROTIC Project

The Participatory Research and Ownership with Technology, Information and Change (PROTIC) project aims to empower women economically by increasing their resilience in agriculture using Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Initiated in 2015, the project is a collaborative effort between the IT department at Monash University, Australia and Oxfam, Bangladesh. It is part of Oxfam’s largest programme in Bangladesh: Resilience through Economic Empowerment, Climate Adaptation, Leadership and Learning (REE-CALL), which recognizes the complex, interrelated issues of poverty and lack of agency that make women more vulnerable to climate change. 

The project was implemented in the following three climate vulnerable ecosystems of Bangladesh:

• Coast - Borokupot village under Atuliya union at Shyamnagar upazilla in Satkhira

• Charland - Dakshin Kharibari village under Tepa Kharibari union at Dimla upazilla in Nilphamari

• Haor - Bhawanipur village under Dakshin Sreepur Union at Tahirpur Upazilla in Sunamganj

The coast is facing increasing salinity intrusion, leading to loss of crop production and lack of access to fresh drinking water. The charland is vulnerable because of the constantly changing nature of the river banks, leading to erosion and frequent flooding. Communities face land loss, especially during strong storms. The haor region is vulnerable to frequent flash floods, causing significant losses in rice production.

300 animators participated in PROTIC, 100 from each of the three areas. Services included a weekly SMS, outbound dial (text to speech of SMS), interactive voice response (pre-recorded call center), apps and a live call center that provided local agricultural information on crop farming, homestead gardening, fisheries, livestock, horticulture and poultry. Animators also had access to information on agro-meteorology, early warnings for disasters, weather forecasts, market rates of agricultural products, and government programs through these services. The project included long lasting capacity building initiatives on modern technology, dissemination of information through learning sharing, exposure visits, group meetings, and men engagement activities, and development of a strong network with the local government, Union Digital Centres (UDC), non-government organizations (NGOs), private sector, civil society organizations, and markets. Through the Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach, animators exercised local knowledge and skills to increase their confidence, decision making ability, as well as communication skills. 

The International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD)’s Research on PROTIC’s Exceptional Animators

During an initial field visit to Dimla to learn about PROTIC and the impact that it has had on animators’ lives, Dr. Saleemul Huq, director of ICCCAD, observed that several women were doing exceptionally well through the project. They took the smart phone technology they received and did more than what was expected of them. In addition to sustaining themselves through agricultural work, these animators had their own initiatives, ranging from a bKash business to the construction of a freshwater pond using the connections forged with local government, and more. In collaboration with Oxfam and its implementing partners, Pollisree and Shushilon in Dimla and Satkhira respectively, we, Mahmuda Akhter Mity and Tania Ahmed, research officers at ICCCAD, set out to collect the stories of ten of these empowered women.

The following levels are how we determined which women were at the exceptional level. Nearly all the women were at Level 0 before the PROTIC project started in 2016. They had minimal economical activity and were mostly tied to their homes. Most lacked decision making power in the home, community or local government. Through PROTIC’s capacity building activities and information technology, all animators graduated to Level 1, earning through agricultural work, gaining decision making power in the home, and forming connections to local government through PROTIC. We wanted to find the women at Level 2 – these women went above and beyond their own interests, helping not only themselves but their communities. They were self-reliant not only through agricultural work but also their own initiatives and jobs. They were influential in their communities and local government, taking on greater responsibilities after having established their own security. We wanted to get to know these women who made the Level 0-2 jump.

We met strong resilient women who took advantage of smartphone technology and information they received. We learned the following big lessons, with one animator as an example of each.

Access to technology can bridge gaps in knowledge and people in incredibly powerful ways.

At 21 years old, Mahua is the youngest animator and the most versatile. On behalf of her community, she uses her phone to communicate with the agricultural and fisheries officers to learn rice, fish, crab, and shrimp growing techniques, sharing everything she knows so that her community may benefit.

If you have usable knowledge and skills, you can become financially independent.

After getting married, Saleha was dependent not only on her husband but also his maternal uncle. Through PROTIC, she learned how to properly space her maize seeds and doubled her production using disaster resilient seeds. Using her savings of several years in combination with a couple of loans, Saleha was able to buy land to cultivate and build her own house, ensuring her financial security. 

When you are financially independent you have decision making power.

After PROTIC training, Farida was able to expand her agricultural practices. After earning enough to gain financial independence, she could take a risk and start a maize business, which she digitized by communicating with buyers through her phone and receiving payments through bKash. She manages the business, making deals and determining strategy.

Strong connections with the local community and government lead to successful initiatives.

Roni wanted to build a freshwater pond because her community lacked a source of fresh drinking water. She submitted her proposal to the Upazilla Parishad in 2013, but no government officer took her seriously. Through PROTIC trainings, she became a familiar face to local government officials. They saw her investment in the community, as she held monthly meetings to share what she learned through PROTIC with non-animator women. When she requested for the construction of the pond again in 2017, she succeeded.

Recommendations

If PROTIC was to be reiterated, we would want all animators to jump from Level 0 to Level 2. We suggest doing this by including leadership training as a mandatory part of the project for all participants. Using the smart phone technology and leadership training in combination, the animators would commit to solving a problem in their community. Just as in the first round, the animators would get 2 years of access to the call center and weekly SMSs. What would be different is the additional year in which they would implement their community project with a small seed grant. PROTIC staff would guide animators in planning their project and troubleshoot with them during implementation. At project completion, all animators would document their projects’ successes, setbacks, and room for improvement in video form.

To get the climate champions we interviewed to jump from Level 2-3, we recommend arranging a workshop facilitating the connection between these women and national level government officials, such as the Agriculture Extension officers and Meteorological Department officers. This workshop would be a knowledge exchange platform, in which the animators would be the main givers of knowledge and the officials would be the receivers. The women would share their valuable insight on community issues that could be solved with national level policy and development projects. This workshop would enable these women to advocate for their communities at the national level, serving as a stepping stone for advocacy at the international level.

For the future of PROTIC, we recommend implementing the project in four climate vulnerable areas of Bangladesh with 150 women per area. We propose keeping the existing three locations of the coast, charland, and haor while adding a fourth in the Mongla upazilla, another climate vulnerable area prone to cyclones and high salinity. By providing smart phones and training to the local women of Mongla, they could increase their profits from shrimp and crab farming and learn adaptation techniques to return to traditional agricultural work.

Conclusion

It is crucial that we act now to increase the resilience of marginalized women in our country. PROTIC was an opportunity for some of these women to gain the knowledge, skills, and technology required to become self-reliant and consequently decision-makers for their families, communities, and local governments. The ten climate champions that we interviewed went above and beyond expectations, helping not only themselves but their communities. The next two steps would be to 1) provide this technology and training opportunity to more marginalized women in climate vulnerable areas and 2) raise these champions up to be decision-makers at the national level so that they can do more for their communities. We want more women to not only empower themselves through agricultural practices but to find innovative solutions to problems, develop their communities, and empower other women. Through the following 10 stories, we hope that you learn more about the struggles, successes, hopes, and dreams of our climate champions.

Tania Ahmed and Mity Mahmuda are research officers at ICCCAD

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