Long Read
8 March 2016

Women empowerment in Bangladesh: village women tell their story

These women from small villages in Bangladesh became beacons of hope and empowerment through participation in Simavi’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes. As inspiring leaders in their communities, they have been able to increase the respect for women and their capacities. The stories come from a qualitative case study research to assess if WASH interventions can be instrumental in women empowerment, conducted by Simavi and the Gender and Water Alliance.

Ritu Sardar: “Sometimes struggle makes you strong.”

When 23-year-old Rituwomen emowerment through wash Bangladesh Sardar moved to Dahar Moubhuog, a Bangladeshi village in Fakirhat union, the first thing that struck her was the salty tube well water that burned the tongue all the time. And like others in the village, she had to drink unsafe water from ponds which were also used for bathing animals, washing and other household needs.

Ritu and her husband had nothing much at the time. They had no land and house and it was difficult to find a job in this new place. Ritu’s husband worked as an agricultural labourer and earned about 250 taka (2.90 euro) a day. Ritu decided to change their fortune. She leased a sewing machine for 100 taka (1.16 euro) a month. Through sewing, she earned 500 taka (5.80 euro) a month which she saved to buy a cow later for 8,000 taka (93 euro). After two years, she sold the cow for 40,000 taka (466 euro). She continued to develop her small business and in three years, she was able to save 200,000 taka (2,300 euro). With the savings, she acquired a small piece of land and built a house in her name. Nowadays, in their backyard she is growing vegetables which she sells in the market. She now owns two cows – one for dairy milk that she sells to neighbours and the other she rears for sale.

The mothers’ parliament

Despite her successful small business, Ritu was very aware of the health problems in her village that were caused by the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. So when she first came across a meeting of DORP (Development Organisation of Rural Poor), a Simavi partner for WASH programme in Bangladesh, she did not hesitate to let them know of the situation. Soon she became a member of the mothers’ club, and through that she was elected into the Mothers’ Parliament where is a vice-speaker.

The Mothers’ Parliament is a body representing women from the Union and looking after the immediate concerns of villages concerning health, nutrition and family planning; education, WASH, Livelihoods, savings and fundraising, good governance and accountability. Members of the Mother’s Parliament are elected by all women in the Union and do their work on a voluntary basis.

Pond sand filter installed

Through the Mothers’ Parliament, Ritu advocated for a Pond Sand Filter in her village. Ritu walked to visit meetings of government structures such as the Union Parishad (last tier of local government in Bangladesh) at least twice in a week, as well as to the DPHE office, the Family Welfare Centre, and the Upazila Parishad (the district council) to exert pressure on them. She would often bring her son to the meetings saying that her son was unhealthy like many other children in the village because of the lack of safe drinking water. Ritu was so active that even when she was not invited to a meeting, she would show up. She said: “If I knock the door properly, once somebody opens the door from inside, then I am in.”

True enough, after three years of persistence, the Pond Sand Filter was installed in her village. To maintain the filter system, a management committee consists of 15 women was established. Ritu became the treasurer of the group. She makes sure that whenever the tap breaks down, it is immediately repaired. Ritu also went house-to-house to tell other women in the village about the importance of safe drinking water. And she did a household survey on families without proper latrines and presented the survey to the Union Parishad to demand for toilets.

From immigrant to well-respected community member

Ritu is a very special lady. She empowered herself and made it from an immigrant to a well-respected community member. For Ritu, health and sanitation is just the start. She wants to see more women becoming empowered through a development process, focusing on all aspects of life: health, income and housing. She is going to propose the Union Parishad to include a budget for a “One Family, One House, One cow, One Income” scheme. Ritu thinks that she is successful in her mission because she volunteered herself to do to something. “They (DORP) did not come to me. I came to them. Sometimes struggle makes you strong,” she said smiling.

Noorjahan Begum: “I was not a born leader. I used the opportunities givenwomen empowerment through wash to me.”

Noorjahan Begum (60) has been doing volunteer work for SLOPB (Stichting Lands Ontwikkelings Project Bangladesh), local partner of Simavi, since 1997 in Nowmala Union in Bangladesh. She spent about 7 days a month doing house visits to identify families who had no safe drinking water and toilet. She would then meticulously compile a list and submit it to SLOPB, who would use the list as a basis do define places for construction of deep tube wells (DTWs) and toilets. Noorjahan has also been counselling pregnant women and organising them for growth monitoring sessions.

When she’s not doing volunteer work, the 60-year-old is busy as a trained birth attendant. She derives her income from this profession but when a poor family comes to her, she provides her services for free.  “I never take any cash or goods from poor families for my services as a birth attendant as I am committed to it,” she said.

Noorjahan is a woman tested in life, but that didn’t stop her from helping other people. She is married to a deaf farmer, now 70 years old, and has three daughters and a son. Because of her husband’s condition and age, Noorjahan has taken the responsibility over her household. Her children were able to go to school through financial support of relatives. Now, her eldest son helps her financially.

Nominated for a seat in the local government

The volunteer work has become an important aspect of her daily life. Through this work, Noorjahan has gained the respect and love of the villagers. She was nominated for a seat at the Union Parishad (last tier of local government structure in Bangladesh, consisting of about 9 villages) and is now an elected member. “My biggest remuneration is the love from my villagers,” she said about her new position. She recognises that her experience as a volunteer built her confidence and made her a competent public representative.

In her district, the WASH programme of SLOB has come to an end and Noorjahan is aware of the consequences. How to go about future requests for latrines and DTWs? She is asking the Union Parishad to use the budget they have available for WASH interventions to sustain this programme. Noorjahan hopes that this kind of initiative will be replicated in all rural communities as it helps empower women like her.

Nayanessa Begum: “Confidence comes from accomplishments.”

women empowermentBy obeying the purdah (religious rules), Nayanessa Begum never went out of the house. As a wife of a former military she stayed most of her life inside military quarters, she was not allowed to work. She devoted her time rearing their four children and taking care of the household as her husband was always on assignment. When her husband, now 70, retired, the family moved to Alipura Union, her husband’s birthplace.

With a new place, a new life had also begun for Nayanessa. She became an active volunteer for the SLOPB (Stichting Lands Ontwikellings Project Bangladesh) WASH programme. When the SLOPB team recruited volunteers, the 62-year-old was among the first who showed interest. She thought: “When a Bangladeshi moves back from the Netherlands to Bangladesh (the founder of SLOPB is of Bangladeshi origin) to help rural communities develop, we should also work for our villages.”

Nayanessa was elected as a chairperson of the Ward Health Development Committee (WHDC). She conducted house-to-house visits to make an inventory of people who had no access to drinking water and toilets. The WHDC then identified places where deep tube wells (DTWs) and toilets should be constructed. In addition Nayanessa was going to meetings, organising satellite clinics and motivating pregnant mothers for ante-natal check-ups. She devoted two to three hours a day to her volunteer work.

Every household a toilet

Every  DTW constructed served 20-25 households. Through Nayanessa’s leadership, almost every household in her village now has a toilet. This has led to the abandonment of open defecation. The WHDC had also initiated court-yard sessions that raised the villagers’ awareness on health and sanitation. As a result, there are no more recorded incidents of diarrhoea due to water contamination. Furthermore, the interest for education among young people and their families has increased and early marriages rarely take place anymore.

Because of these accomplishments, Nayanessa became a Union Health Development Committee (UHDC) member. An even bigger accomplishment was that she was elected as representative of the formal government structure, the Union Parishad (last tier of local government structure in Bangladesh). Nayanessa said she did not spend anything for the campaign because the villagers who nominated her paid and worked hard for her to win. As a UP member, her hands are full, not only with WASH projects, but also with other tasks like allocation of safety net allowances in her constituency.

A well-respected leader

Since SLOPB stopped its activities in Alipura Union, the WHDC has also stopped its regular meetings but the members still continue to do house-visits to monitor and advise on hygiene and sanitation issues. And for Nayanessa, the volunteer work made her husband and family proud of her. They fully supported her in all her endeavours. Through participation in the WASH committees, she was able to empower herself and become a well-respected and competent leader in her region; a huge achievement for a women who spent many years inside the house.

Start the conversation

Share this article

Long Reads

A long read is a full-length article covering one of our current topics.

More ‘long reads’ Read next long read

Related stories