A (final?) Trip to the Chars, and an Opportunity to Reflect. Blog: written by Matthew Pritchard, Team Leader, CLP.
Since April 2010, the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP) has been working with extremely poor inhabitants of the riverine islands in 10 districts of north-west Bangladesh. But all projects have a start and end – and the end of CLP is nearly upon us!
Situated in and among the mighty course of the Jamuna river, which is part of the Ganges / Brahmaputra river system, the extreme poor living in the chars are some of the most vulnerable in Bangladesh.
That’s why CLP has been working to help them break free of the poverty trap. I’ve described what CLP does in this post so I won’t repeat it all here. But we’re now at an end: technical activities finished on 29 February 2016 and after all the audits and other admin, we’re turning out all the lights at the end of June 2016.
While it seems difficult to believe that this long-running and highly-successful programme is closing, nevertheless it’s a great opportunity to reflect on all the achievements and challenges it faced.
Therefore on 25 February I headed out for what might be my final field visit. I wanted to go and talk to some of our most recent intake of participants to see how things had changed for them since joining CLP back in the dim and distant days of September 2014.
My team and I headed off to West Batikamari village in the district of Gaibandha. We first met with the Social Development Group; 22 women that received the Asset Transfer / Stipend and training that is part of CLP’s core package of assistance.
After the introductions, I asked them “What has been the most significant change that you’ve experienced as a result of CLP?” It’s a question I often ask and different groups always respond differently.
This group led off very strongly with the changes they’ve experienced in health, sanitation, hygiene and nutrition. Vying with one another to show how much they’ve learned, they told us all about the changes in their hygiene routines – proper hand-washing at important times, with soap which is now permanently available next to their water point (which CLP also helped to install), making sure their whole family uses their newly-installed sanitary latrine (and wears sandals inside, of course!).
“What difference has all this new hygiene behaviour made?” I asked. The enthusiastic response made it difficult to pick one answer out from another. Finally, one lady was elected spokesperson, and she said, “Before we learned about proper hygiene and changed our ways, we would often get sick with diarrhoea or dysentery. But now it’s very rare compared to previously. We also know much more about the importance of healthcare during pregnancy. We get frequent check-ups and take Iron and Folic Acid tablets.”
Following up on this segue into mother and child health, I asked, “What about feeding babies younger than six months?” Once again, a chorus of consensus went up: “Exclusive breast-feeding till they are six months old. Then some supplementary foods, like leafy greens, rice, egg, milk.” Our Nutrition project, which focuses heavily on mother and young child nutrition, looks like it did a good job!
After that, they spoke about the gender equality changes in their community. “Now we know that it is illegal for girls to marry before they are 18, and boys 21. And that dowry is illegal too. We didn’t know this before. We don’t differentiate between boys and girls now, they both go to school. And the gender training helped in our relationship with our husbands too! We make joint decisions in the household now.”
What was surprising about this visit was that the economic factors came relatively late in the discussion – often they’re among the first things that groups talk about.
Of the 22 ladies, six (27%) had opted to invest in bulls, with the remaining 73% choosing heifers. Compared to the rest of Cohort 2.6 (13,590 participants in total), this is unusual. Over 55% of Cohort 2.6 participants opted for bulls, given that the market for meat is booming in Bangladesh.
So this group was acting more like participants in the early days of CLP2, between 2010 and 2013. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of participants back then would choose heifers, to profit from milk and grow their herds.
They reported that they could sell their milk on the char to a ‘goala’ (milk collector) for Tk 30 per litre (about 26p) or, if they take it to the mainland themselves, for Tk50 per litre (44p). Most people, however, sold to the goala rather than make the visit.
The SD group meeting was rounded out with the story of an inspiring lady, Nazma. Using a loan from the CLP-supported Village Savings and Loans Group, she had bought a sewing machine. She has now set up a tailoring business and shop in her home, selling adults’ and children’s clothing right there on the chars. Expensive trips to the mainland for clothes-buying no longer required!
I’ve often been impressed with the entrepreneurial drive of the chars people once they see an opportunity, and Nazma’s story helped cement my respect for them.
After the Social Development Group, we biked off to meet with the Village Development Committee (VDC). The VDC was formed by CLP to help with many of the social development activities, particularly health, hygiene and gender equality.
When asked about the most significant changes they’d seen, they immediately spoke about the gender equality issues. They pointed to a flip-chart sheet on the wall. “This is how things were before, and how they are now,” they said.
“Before, families would give more food to boy children than to girl children. But now we have helped educate people that both boys and girls are equal and should be fed equally. Also, boys would be sent to school but not always girls. This is also changing now. For women themselves, before CLP they were not able to leave their house, but now they can go out and move around the village.”
I asked them if there had been any resistance to such changes, and how they had dealt with it. Amid laughter, they admitted that it had not always gone smoothly, but they had met with people that were resisting and explained the benefits. Sometimes the whole VDC would go to that person’s house; sometimes just a few of them. Sometimes during the day, or sometimes at night when they were available. So gradually, even those that resisted began to change. “Economically,” they said, “there are still some people in the village that are unequal. But now we have a common understanding socially.”
“So what will the VDC do now that CLP is ending? Do you intend to carry on your activities?” I asked.
“Yes,” they replied. “Even though CLP will not be here, we will continue to meet monthly and carry on our activities. We have had meetings without Belal (the CLP staff member supporting them) and can do it ourselves now. We will continue to register births and deaths properly. Also, the VDC is supporting a coaching centre for children. For example, for students that need extra help with some subjects, or those that dropped out of school. Also, there is an Arabic lesson. We will also carry on talking to local government. We are now registered as a local body, a trust, so government officials now listen to us in a way that they didn’t before.”
We talked for a bit about this registration, of which they were very proud. Although no direct benefits had come from it yet, they said, “We are talking to local government about getting grants and other help for disabled people in the community. Now that we are an official body, we can also get help from other government departments, or even non-government organisations if they come here with assistance. We can help them organise and continue to help the community.”
On this suitably inspiring note, we handed over the presents that we’d brought for the village kids and set off on our dusty journey back to the mainland.
Although I felt a sense of melancholy that this might be the last time I have the privilege of visiting these fascinating islands and discussing people’s lives with them like this, nevertheless the trip confirmed what CLP’s excellent monitoring and evaluation system has been reporting for some time. With a huge dose of enthusiastic hard work from the participants themselves and a bit of assistance from CLP, the vast majority are heading out of poverty and, in many cases for the first time, are looking ahead with optimism.
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