Kurigram, Bangladesh: Rural women forging together to deal with multiple crises
By Md Fahad Hossain
In Kurigram district of Bangladesh, a women-headed, community-based organisation is training rural women and extending support to deal with Covid-19 and monsoon floods. Md Fahad Hossain reports.
This is the thirty-fifth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Kurigram, located in the northwest region, is the poorest district of Bangladesh. The northwest region has already started facing slow onset climate change (temperature rise, changes in precipitation, drought) as well as sudden climatic shocks (floods, erratic rainfall). Such climatic events put huge pressure on the livelihood of the inhabitants of this region.
Nari Associate for Revival and Initiative (NARI), a women’s community-based organisation, came into being in 2016. Farida Easmin is the founding executive director of NARI.
Empowering women with alternative livelihood opportunities
NARI aims at raising awareness among women on different socio-economic issues, promoting economic empowerment through alternative means of income, and sensitising society on women’s inclusion. Primarily it is a women-only organisation, but it sometimes involves men in disaster response activities if they are vulnerable or disabled.
Farida and her team train women to seek different, alternative livelihood opportunities. In this process, they link them with the private sector to market their products. They also seek to support divorced women and widows. They work toward preventing violence against women and early marriage.
“Under the NARI project, need-based training had been provided on handicrafts, sewing, and livestock rearing by government and private trainers. Now we provide training on jute-based handicrafts,” she explains.
Initially, NARI received support from Practical Action and the Jute Diversification Promotion Centre (JDPC). Now they have their own trainers. “The journey that began with one sewing machine has come a long way. Now we have a factory with 78 looms, and over the years, about 700-800 women have acquired skill in making handicrafts,” she proudly shares.
NARI’s members help each other by providing resources during natural disasters, and distribute whatever they receive from different donors. They also collaborate with other women-headed organisations and offer them training on alternative livelihoods.
Usually two types of training are offered – if the training is under a funded project, the trainees receive a monthly allowance of BDT 3,000-3,500 per person depending on the budget. Otherwise, they offer training for free but without any allowance. If the trainees perform well, they get the chance to work in NARI’s factory.
“We are not registered with the Social Welfare Office. But we are registered with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, the Department of Cooperatives, and the Department of Youth Development. They provide us financial and training support,” Farida says.
Dealing with dual crisis: Covid-19 and monsoon floods
Farida first got to know about the pandemic through Facebook. “It hit us very badly—it was like we went back to where we were 5 years ago. Except those involved in livestock and agriculture, local people, particularly involved in small businesses, had no work to do. Family members working in the cities also came back home as lockdown took effect there as well,” she shares.
All the training programmes and operation of NARI’s factory came to a standstill with the lockdown. Many buyers cancelled their orders and product shipment halted.
In July 2020, the region was hit by monsoon floods which lasted for months. The flood inundated 17,135 hectares of land and at least 60,000 people were marooned. The double whammy of floods and Covid-19 made people’s lives miserable. “We work primarily with women-headed families—their misery was even worse,” she adds.
In order to sensitise the community, Farida liaised with donors such as Christian Aid Bangladesh and Oxfam Bangladesh to distribute leaflets and hygiene kits among villagers. NARI members also started raising funds by themselves and formed consortiums with other organisations to support the community collectively.
“We distributed food packages along with hygiene kits among the flood affected people. We supported not only our beneficiaries, but also other vulnerable people in the area. We also supported entrepreneurs outside our organisation working with jute who were affected the most. We regularly held zoom meetings to discuss the way out from the situation,” she narrates.
Team NARI created a database for distributing food and hygiene kits within the community. They mobilised the local leaders from door to door to create a database of vulnerable women-led households in the area.
“Now we will be able to use this database for other interventions even after Covid-19, without going to the field on an ad hoc basis. The community leaders not only collected data, they also shared different information on Covid-19 from door to door that usually does not happen during normal times,” she says.
This exercise has enhanced the team’s skill in using technology; they all are now experienced users of online meeting platforms. “Before the pandemic, I personally was familiar with Skype only, that too for one-on-one meetings. Now I along with my colleagues can use many online platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet to hold meetings,” she adds.
Ensuring proper distribution of food relief
Farida and her team had training on disaster management which helped them a lot to deal with dual crises. Furthermore, her organisation has a contingency plan and emergency financial policy, which proved to be very useful during the pandemic.
Relief distribution while maintaining social distancing was a challenge. But NARI, together with six other organisations, had previously taken part in a training on disaster response. Based on that knowledge, they developed a model for relief distribution taking into account health safety measures and trained their staff on the model, online. The model was praised by many including the government officials.
While local government officials were very supportive throughout, some local Union Parishad (UP) (lowest unit of local government) members created difficulties during relief distribution.
“The UP members had some ill intentions during relief distribution. They included some people in the list who are not eligible to receive relief. We found one case of a well-off person on the list of relief recipients,” she adds.
But the consortium tackled the situation strategically and ensured that the relief package went to the right people. They further tracked down the absentees and handed them the relief packages.
Although Farida and her team managed the dual crises very effectively, they still have a lot of opportunities to improve. “In order to improve the community’s resilience, capacity development of local leaders is very important. Training the local government’s volunteer team at the Union Parishad level who usually are the first responders during disasters is also key. They often lack the equipment to go out in the field,” Farida proposes.
“Localisation of humanitarian aid is also crucial. Spontaneous and whole-hearted participation of community people in our efforts is also needed,” she concludes.
This amazing case story shows how a strong woman leader and her dedicated team’s love for the vulnerable fused with the commitment to improve their lives can propel socioeconomic changes. Their motivation, proper training, organisational plans and policy, interorganisational collaboration, utilisation of technology and cooperation from the community are behind their successful response to the dual crises of Covid-19 and flood. Broader insights from the case story are:
1) In order to have long-term, sustainable impacts, development actors should shift their thinking beyond the one-off project-based narrative to a programmatic one.
2) Locally led actions can be more effective than the traditional top-down approaches in reaching the right people in the right way.
3) A supportive local government is a precondition for the maximum success of the local initiatives. Local organisations can play a vital role in ensuring accountability of the interventions thereby driving corruption away.
4) Localisation of funding should accompany capacity building of the local actors including the government.