Three Women from Satkhira Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities of Social Security in Bangladesh


Last week I visited Ashashuni union of Satkhira, a flood-prone area where river erosion, limited economic opportunities and increasing salinity caused by climate change and made worse by shrimp cultivation has resulted in poverty for thousands of people. There I met three women.

Poor citizen. The first young woman was a bright eyed lady named Parul AkhtarShe was dressed in a colourful shalwar kamiz, busy behind her sewing machine, when I arrived at her homestead.  I asked her to tell me a bit about herself while her son circled us curiously.  Parul’s father was a van gari puller who was very poor.  She was married off young because her father could not afford to feed her properly and felt bad about that and he hoped her husband would provide her with a better life.  This didn’t turn out and when she was pregnant she returned to her father’s home because her husband had married another woman from a neighbouring union.  A few months later, her father’s home was washed away by the river during cyclone Aila when she was pregnant. It was a harrowing experience.

Parul worked as a maid for some years, unable to properly support her father or her young son, and was afraid that perhaps she would hand her poverty down to her child.  Later she heard the village police talking about a social security programme called Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO).  She went to the Union Parishad office on the day announced and was deemed eligible for the programme. However, there were many more eligible women than there were available slots. Luckily she was selected and joined SWAPNO.

SWAPNO is a cash-for-work programme managed by the Local Government Division in partnership with UNDP, and being locally implemented through Union Parishads.  The programme offered Parul 18 months of paid road work, paying 200 Taka per day, of which 50 Taka was saved in a personal bank account for her.  Additionally the women developed a group savings scheme amongst themselves. When it was her turn to cash in on the group savings scheme, she used the money to purchase a sewing machine. SWAPNO also provided her with life skills training and business management training.

Parul now has enough money to eat well, send her son to school, look after her father who is sick and cannot work.  She has ducks, chickens, goats, even a little pond with fish. She has many clients and she is very happy that her son will have the freedom to choose a better life. I was awed by her resilience, her determination and her courage. She said that before SWAPNO she was too shy to visit a market but now she is bold enough to visit not only markets but also the UP Chairman’s office, if necessary!

Union Worker. Next I spoke to Sharmin Akbar, a union worker of the partner NGO assisting SWAPNO in Satkhira.  Sharmin works for the programme during the day and is enrolled in a Master’s programme by night.  She has also applied to a law programme and will be starting there in September.  She wants to be a lawyer so she can help women. Her father, who used to be a school principal, is ill so he no longer works and cannot pay for her education.  Working for SWAPNO allows her to fund her own studies and support her family.  She is happy to help destitute women and earn her own independence while doing so. She is not keen to get married and her family supports her decision.  She says people don’t know about their entitlements. She says women get married off as children and then they are very vulnerable because they have not been able to complete their education.  She says the area is very difficult to live in because of the river erosion and high salinity and she hopes to move to Dhaka after she completes her degree in law.

I was inspired by Sharmin’s incredible drive for success despite her challenging environment and her determination to help others transform their lives. Most social security programmes are implemented through Union Parishads and do not have field workers to support with case management of beneficiaries. However, evidence suggests significant hand-holding and support is needed to enable a poor family to graduate out of poverty. Increasing the number of trained field officers implementing social security programmes may be a way to ensure impact and value for money of these poverty reduction efforts. Partnerships with local NGOs may be another effective route.

Upazila Nirbahi Officer.  The third lady I met was Shushoma Sultana, UNO.  She spoke very highly of the government’s poverty eradication efforts, especially the new National Social Security Strategy that aims to improve the impact and efficiency of the social security system. She suggested training the UP members, who are the managers of the programmes, fortifying them with information communication tools so they may digitize their data. She said some programmes are experimenting with digital financial services for delivery of benefits, a positive step forward.

Shushoma said that UP implements many programmes, such as Old Age Allowance, Widows Allowance, Vulnerable Group Development, Lactating Mothers Allowance, Open Market Sale of rice, Disability Allowance and others. Of all the programmes she had seen, SWAPNO was the best, as it created transformational changes in the lives of beneficiaries. While not all programmes can afford to provide such support, she is hopeful that other programmes will learn from this success and create partnerships with vocational training institutes and private sector companies to help beneficiaries engage with markets, making their transition to the mainstream economy possible.

It seems that areas like Satkhira suffer from lack of economic opportunities, climate change and natural disasters, which leave people poor and vulnerable.  Schools are few and far between, roads are poor, salinity is high and there is a lack of clean drinking water. Social security programmes have the potential to bring about transformation in the lives of beneficiaries if, and only if, they are coupled with livelihood support such as training and asset transfers or savings mechanisms that allow for capital accumulation and asset purchase. However, currently, the safety net programmes administered by the Union Parishads cover less than half of all the poor people and the benefit amount is too small to make any significant difference. Union Parishad representatives need to improve the skills, knowledge and tools with which they are to implement the vision of achieving zero poverty by 2030.

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