Mitu, Hasina, and Jamila are three women of different backgrounds, sharing the same fate: widowed, abandoned or divorced, they were left to fend for themselves and their children. Life in Satkhira, one of the most climate-vulnerable districts of Bangladesh located near the famous Sundarbans, is tough for the villagers. Salinity intrusion, flooding, cyclones, and droughts frequently wreak havoc on their livelihoods and food security.
Mitu Dashi welcomed us into her home with a warm smile, leading us directly to her small pond in the back of her house, where she proudly showed us her fattened crabs. With the help of the Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO) project, Mitu started her crab fattening business after graduating from the project in 2019. The project provided her with financial security, training and market linkages that have set her up for a successful business.
“My husband died of cancer when my son was only three months old. I was left to support my family all by myself. I relied on daily labour, which kept me afloat, but the income fluctuated. SWAPNO provided me with financial support and training to start my crab fattening business. Now I can provide for myself and support my son and my grandchildren,” Mitu said.
Mitu buys small crabs every month and fattens them over 15 to 20 days until they double in weight. She then sells them to a local crab supplier that regularly visits her house. Through her business, Mitu managed to create a reliable source of income that could withstand shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saying goodbye to Mitu, my journey continued, and my next stop was to visit Hasina Begum. At first glance, Hasina’s bright and bubbly nature would not reveal her struggles. Hasina was driven out of her home with two kids and no money. Abandoned, she found employment as a domestic worker but constantly worried about supporting her children as her income was irregular.
“I was in the marketplace in my village and heard a loudspeaker announcement of SWAPNO. They were recruiting, so I immediately went to the local council and was selected. To add to my luck, I won the ROSCA lottery and was able to invest the money into buying fabrics for my business,” she said.
The ROSCA (Rotating Savings and Credit Association) lottery is a saving mechanism set up by SWAPNO wherein the beneficiaries form a group that acts as an informal financial institution. Meetings take place every twelve days when wages are paid; each member puts up a sum of money in a lottery, and the winner invests the cash in income-generating activities of her choice.
With the support of SWAPNO, Hasina now successfully runs her clothes business. Her resilience and diligence have even earned her an additional role: she is now an agent for Bank Asia. Old age pensioners and recipients of other government schemes can come to her shop to cash out their government support. This not only gives Hasina an additional income source but also drives in new customers for her clothing business.
Before I headed back to Dhaka, I stopped by a village market to have some tea. Jamila welcomed us at her tea stall in the middle of a busy marketplace, where an old customer was enjoying his mid-day cup of tea. Jamila is the only woman running her business in this prime location and has many customers stopping by at all times of the day.
“I am very grateful to have a tea stall in this marketplace. All other business owners here rent their stalls. With lobbying support from SWAPNO, the local council gave me this rent-free stall” Jamila explained.
The revenues from her business have allowed her to save up money and invest in her son’s future. He is now running a successful jewellery business in the same marketplace.
All three women’s stories demonstrate the value of investing in women’s economic independence. Not only have our SWAPNO women been economically empowered, but they also have a newfound sense of self-confidence and autonomy. Their dreams for their daughters have changed too: the beneficiaries now refuse to marry off their daughters at a young age and wish their girls to be equally independent.
Since its inception in 2014, SWAPNO’s approach has helped almost 12,500 distressed rural women change their conditions and lift them out of extreme poverty through diversified, adaptive income-generating activities. With financial support from the Government of Sweden and technical assistance from UNDP, SWAPNO improves rural women’s human capital, livelihoods and living conditions to make them resilient against economic and natural shocks and create a long-lasting positive impact on their lives.