New Opportunities Float Down the River

Anowara lives on a pristine island in rural Bangladesh, 360km from the capital Dhaka, surrounded by the Dudhkumar (the Milk River). Anowara traversed stormy waters for the first chapter of her life. Landless and impoverished, her family used to live on somebody else’s land. Poverty took its toll - her mother died when she was seven, and her father when she was nine. This forced her to support herself as a child worker in Dhaka. She worked for 6 years as a domestic aid until the day she lost 100 taka given to her by her employer. She fled to her village of Kutirchar, in Nageshwari sub-district, to escape violent punishment. On the run, lonely and afraid for her life, fifteen year old Anowara got off the bus in the dead of the night still two hours away from her native Kutirchar. Taking advantage of the darkness and the desolate area, the unthinkable happened – three unknown miscreants assaulted her.

At 18, Anowara married a day labourer and gave birth to a daughter two years later. Repeated domestic abuse led to Anowara divorcing her husband and returning to her village. Anowara and her 8-month old baby used to sleep wherever she could find space, until a kind villager allowed her to build a hut and live on his land. She used to work as a day labourer or domestic aid, but it was difficult to find work every day and she and her daughter often went without food. Marginalized, malnourished and disoriented, Anowara lost all hope of living a dignified life with her daughter.

“I can’t explain Anowara’s misery in words.” Says Ahammad, her landlord. “On many occasions I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of her weeping and found them starving. I used to manage some rice for them.”  

If her experience is exhausting to read, imagine how painful it was to live. If her story sounds familiar it is because it is a testament to the development challenges that remain for Bangladesh.

One day in August 2015, Anowara heard a loud speaker announcement addressed to extremely poor women like her. It explained that women who were separated, widowed, abandoned or had disabled husbands would be recruited by a UNDP-supported project called SWAPNO, implemented by the government of Bangladesh and supported by SDG Fund programme.

Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO) is a social transfer project for ultra-poor rural women for eradicating poverty through public works employment, human capital development, empowerment, financial inclusion, vocational training and market driven employment.

Anowara started her public works employment in August 2015. She bought 3 goats and 20 fowl from the money she saved from daily wages.  She now has a bank account where a part of her wage is saved and she will receive BDT 22,500 (US$ 288) with interest after a period of four months. She will expand her livestock with this and plans to buy a piece of land. She is now able to go anywhere she likes, knows her rights as a citizen, and knows how to access to government services. “When I looked at the river Dudhkumar, the water all looked like tears to me. SWAPNO has helped me escape my frustration and build a dignified life for me and my daughter”, Anowara says. She further suggested that women should be trained in trades before they start their income generating activities.

SWAPNO has employed and trained 4464 women from Kurigram and Satkhira districts on different life skills such as rights and entitlements, health and nutrition, financial literacy and preparation for business. Apprenticeship and vocational training activities are currently underway. Given its immense success, the project intends to expand its operations significantly, with the goal of lifting over 65,000 ultra-poor women out of poverty by 2019.

The project has also repaired over 4500 rural roads, embankments, canals for irrigation, flood shelters etc. essential for local economic regeneration. 124 local government institutions (union parishads) are now capable of implementing similar pro-poor projects. With the average income of women participating in the programme tripled, the baseline found that 100% of SWAPNO women have more than one Income Generating Activities after 13 months of project intervention. The project has become a model for right targeting to the government, where the SWAPNO baseline survey reveals rate of right targeting is 96%, compared to 65% for other social protection programmes. 

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