Women take the lead in fighting poverty

Women take the lead in fighting poverty
Shyamola Begum is representative of a broader Bangladeshi reality, where economic empowerment has often led to a greater voice for women in the family and the public sphere. Photo: Kawser Ahmed / UNDP Bangladesh

Shyamola Begum, 43, knows why she lost her husband. Under the pressures of crippling poverty, with too many mouths to feed, he left their one room shanty in the capital one morning and never came back, she explains.

“We came to this city looking for a better life, but my husband Jamal struggled to find work and ended up pulling a cycle-rickshaw. When I got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, he wasn’t happy,” says Shyamola.

Less than a year later, Shyamola got pregnant again, with another girl.  Soon after, Jamal left for work one day and never came back.


  • 55,000 urban poor families received cash transfers to start micro-businesses.
  • Slums in 29 towns mapped enabling government to make informed decisions for the poor.
  • 3 million people, especially women and children have better living conditions and livelihood opportunities.
  • 150,000 households have with improved access to sanitation and water.
  • 230,000 households have improved access to footpaths.

“For several weeks in my pregnant state, I frantically searched for him in hospitals and morgues but the people from the slum knew he had left me,” she says. “They told me to stop looking.” 

Shyamola shares her fate with tens of thousands of women who find themselves abandoned by their partners every year; an unfortunate Bangladeshi reality for centuries.

Fortunately, Shyamola shares her strength and resilience with millions more in the country who are turning their own lives around, and in so doing, achieving a remarkable turnaround for Bangladesh in terms of economic and social indicators.

Shyamola’s second chance at a better future came with UNDP and UKAid’s Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) project.

Three years ago she was awarded an extreme poor entrepreneur grant of Tk 2500 (roughly $30), and she matched this money with her savings to she set up a small tea stall at the slum where she lived.

In just two months, Shyamola’s profits exceeded her own investment.

“Until I became destitute, I had never imagined I could run a business, that I could do accounts, that I could be successful,” she says.

UPPR results reveal this success is not a one-off either. Over 55,000 families like Shyamola’s have received such grants in the past five years.

“UPPR is Bangladesh’s premier urban sector development project - delivering support to livelihoods and living conditions in 29 towns and cities, changing the lives of around three million poor people for the better,” says Stefan Priesner, Country Director at UNDP Bangladesh.  

“It has directly provided clean water and sanitation, promoted employment opportunities and facilitated savings and loans through community banking for the extreme poor. Based on a locally-driven model, UPPR has real potential to secure poverty reduction at scale,” he adds.    

Shymola’s story also represents a larger success in the Bangladeshi development landscape.

In the past decade alone the country has slashed its poverty by half, rapidly decreased family size to near replacement levels, ensured that roughly 90 per cent of its girl children are enrolled in schools and reduced child mortality by 60 per cent – a feat recognized by a United Nations award two years ago.

Much of this has been possible through investments in women’s education and expansion of women’s opportunities in the economic sphere, say experts.    

“Investing in women yields dividends for the entire family, specifically for children’s education and nutrition,” says Stefan Priesner. “UNDP’s interventions to tackle rural and urban poverty are proof of this.”

When UNDP’s REOPA project, which ended last year, started providing cash-for-work schemes for destitute and abandoned women in rural Bangladesh, school enrolment rates for beneficiaries’ children nearly doubled to cross 90 per cent, in a before-after comparison.

As the country once defined by rural poverty wakes up to the fact that it now needs a strategy to address pockets of extreme poverty in urban areas, UPPR’s pioneering satellite mapping of urban poverty settlements is aiding a targeted approach. 

The UPPR project does more than hand out block grants, it provides apprenticeships, educational stipends and in a few short years has provided 150,000 households with improved access to sanitation and water along with providing over 230,000 thousand households with improved access to footpaths.

“UPPR has also had an effect at the policy level, through its innovative partnership with local and central government. It is working to improve strategic level thinking about urbanization, and to tackle the local questions which effect slum dwellers, such as land tenure,” says Priesner.

“In Bangladesh’s current development trajectory, Shyamola’s story could very well cease to be an exception,” says Priesner.  “With a large, entrepreneurial and highly motivated human resource base we can expect many more socio-economic success stories from Bangladesh in the future.”

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