“I am a woman. I am Sabina from the remote island of Fechka on the Brahmaputra. My husband beat me, left me and my child, then migrated to Dhaka. I broke boundaries and fought for justice, received my dues from him, got trained in sewing, and today I am working, earning three times what my husband earns. I take care of my parents and my child eats well and goes to school.”
“I am a woman. I am Ratna from Sonatola in Bogra. Due to a fistula which I could not afford to operate, my husband left me, I was ostracised by everyone. I fought to have the operation done and today I am healthy, everyone accepts me once again as part of the community and I work and earn my own living. I do not need to remarry.”
These are stories I hear from the field, regularly. If we look beyond the clichés of the role women are supposed to play in households for the well-being of the family, we uncover “the real woman” -- someone with incredible dignity, courage, and resilience in the face of adversity.
Where does this strength come from?
Some 80 million women live in Bangladesh, 30% below the poverty line -- lack of proper healthcare and situational disempowerment are amongst the major causes which hinder the advancement of women. It is a formidable challenge to bring health care and empowerment to the 4 million women in the most remote communities that we work in.
When I started Friendship 14 years ago, each challenge I faced as a woman made me realise the issues I would encounter whilst trying to meet my goal of nurturing dignity and creating equal opportunity for all, especially women.
I found social stigmas in Bangladesh went beyond religious stigmas: Harassment, income differences, and doubt of our abilities were common issues; and humility, kindness, and generosity of spirit were misconstrued for weakness.
What I remember most is the incredulity that as a woman, I could actually take on the challenge of making the first mobile hospital, build health care systems, and an integrated development model in such remote and hazardous areas. All that as a local Bangladeshi woman through a local Bangladeshi organisation!
I faced condescension and scepticism in the development sector, the government, and my own social circle, where my work was seen as an indulgence, a mere whim that I would “get over.” I was classified as a woman whose actual work must be done by her husband or an elusive “man” somewhere in the background.
I thought that if my challenge for acceptance was this difficult despite the privileges available to me, then what monumental challenges those I wish to serve, must confront daily. But women are driven by commitment, deep self-dignity, empathy, and compassion -- herein lies our strength to achieve our goals.
Working in philanthropy meant funds were always limited. They needed to be utilised in an innovative and efficient manner. With innovative methods and synergy, we achieved results that exceeded the realm of the presumed monetary output. For a woman, efficacy and innovation are daily tools. I believe that women are the strongest instruments for ensuring sustainability and bringing long-term impact into a community.
Thus, we work so that women are accepted as equals in society. We have implemented inclusive, deep-rooted, and systematic programs for empowerment to achieve the opposite sex’s acknowledgement of women’s potential and, more importantly, to ensure respect towards them.
All our programs involve both sexes. We do not design “women only” programs -- that invariably creates deep confrontation, jealousies, and disharmony within the families and communities. Yet 80% of those we help are women because to reach equality, which is the purpose, women need more support right now. To feel empowered is to be empowered. To be healthy is the first step for which curative and preventive health care had to be provided.
I introduced Friendship’s three-tier health system, which includes hospitals, satellite clinics, and trained Friendship Community Medic-Aides (FCMs), which serve over 180,000 women and children every month. The FCMs are our female community health service delivery agents, who work in areas where there are absolutely no health services.
In this area of training and enabling committed village women to become micro-social medical entrepreneurs, we work with The Mangrove Foundation, a sheltered foundation within Fondation de Luxembourg. The FCMs receive basic medical and field training and advanced training for treatable conditions and diseases.
They also sell medicines and basic hygiene products to the communities within a strict WHO-Bangladesh Government protocol. They give an essential service to the communities, but are also generating an income for themselves. 630 FCMs are presently working, of which for now 200 are being selected for the Friendship tele-medicine program.
These women are respected and empowered, and they help empower others.
In Friendship, empowerment means not only healthy women, but women who can earn a living and gain knowledge of where to seek out basic services when Friendship is not accessible. To achieve this, we train women in vocational skills and functional literacy courses.
Train them as teachers, paralegals, in livestock rearing, agriculture, weaving, sewing, and help them gain essentials skills in business through marketing, selling, distribution, and to liaise with the various government sectors so that they can demand their rights as citizens.
Women can change their own role in society. We only need to provide a little help and fill the gaps. Sustainability for any development work means people are able to nurture their value and dignity which leads to the creation of a stable platform from which they can “take off” themselves.
Dignity, empathy, compassion, vision of what is right and wrong, a sense of justice equaled with a deep anger at injustice and capacity to overcome the sense of fear of the unknown, are some strengths of women who become leaders of societies.
What is it about women that they can perform their best under the most challenging, excruciating circumstances where others give up?
Seeing the thousands of Sabinas and Ratnas, how can we not have faith in their ability and strength for creating a new world? Seeing this level of commitment and single-mined determination for betterment, do we not see humankind at its genuine best?
This article first appeared in the Philanthropy Letter of Fondation De Luxembourg.