2 December 1979
Village women of Jamalpur
meet to discuss common problems. THe Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee helps to initiate aid projects based on the idea
that the villagers themselves know best.
Photo: Nick Fogden
The women of
Jamalpur, Bangladesh, are breaking with tradition - a tradition that has kept them secluded in the houses of their husbands
for centuries. They are learning to read and write. They are finding out about the causes of poverty and disease around them.
They are teaching one another about farming and weaving, health and medicines. They are assuming public roles of leadership
and management for the first time in their history and are contributing to local economic development through successful production
It is hard for us in the West to imagine the
drama involved in such profound changes. These Bengali women have always assumed heavy reponsibilities and worked long hours
to maintain their households. But their work was neither visible nor recognized and they bore their burdens in isolation.
At the age of five or six, Jamalpur girls begin rearing their younger
brothers and sisters. They usually do not go to school. If they do, they seldom attend past primary school. Often they are
given less food to eat and fewer clothes to wear than their brothers, for their status is second to any male born into the
When she grows up, a Jamalpur woman can expect 11 to 12 pregnancies and several miscarriages and
infant deaths. She will spend 14 to 16 hours a day housekeeping, childrearing, farming, threshing, husking, preparing and
preserving food, spinning and weaving. She will also tend livestock, collect fuel, make fishnets and carry water. Her husband
works fewer hours out in the fields, where communal activity is too public for women. By the age of thirty she will probably
be a grandmother and will be considered too old to be useful.
contributions to family economics are essential, and she must know a great deal to carry out her roles effectively. But she
earns no income or recognition. Her low status is deeply ingrained in her culture. If she were not poor, she would work less
but would still be socially isolated by the ‘purdah' tradition.
The devastating floods of 1974 wiped out harvests and drove many of these women into the streets to beg. The struggle
for survival was stronger than the tradition which had kept them behind closed doors. Food was a vital necessity and had to
be obtained somehow. UNICEF offered a food-for-work program and 15 women agreed to be trained as teachers. When the program
ended in late 1975, they had gained enough courage to seek assistance in continuing their work.
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), aided by funds from Oxfam in the U.S. and the
U.K. agreed to support a program the 15 women would plan, manage and implement to serve 24 villages within a five-mile radius
of Jamalpur town.
After five days of intensive training, the
UNICEF experience in conducting ‘functional education' classes, and two short evaluation and planning courses, they
embarked on the new project in January, 1976.
BRAC is a non-profit
private organization of Bengalis whose rural development plans have served hundreds of villages throughout Bangladesh.
At the heart of BRAC's philosophy is the expectation that the villagers will achieve a level of competence that will later
enable them to carry out programs without BRAC's help. The. idea is to make
villages economically. independent, In Jamalpur, the women are organizing cooperatives, education, and family health programs
- all run by the village women themselves.
The goal of the Jamalpur Women's Program is to provide ‘functional
education' - education suited to the needs of the villagers: raising the level of literacy, improving personal health, advancing
economically and increasingly cultural awareness. Functional education provides an opportunity for critical selfawareness
in relation to that environment, for building confidence in the women's own creativity and in their capabilities for action.
Villagers are learning to focus on and analyze their own problems and to see the advantage of coming together in groups, such
as village cooperatives.
The fifteen women from Jamalpur spread
their movement effectively. Because most of them were from the same socioeconomic class as the village women, the latter were
open to learning from them. Subjects such as personal health or hygiene could be discussed without embarassment. New teachers,
para-medics and group leader are all volunteers, from the same class as the villagers.
Despite occasional discrimination for breaking away from the 'purdah' tradition, the women sense
the real importance of their actions and are not deterred. The BRAC Newsletter reports:
Although they have experienced some community resistance to their
work, especially from their mothers-in-law, the resistance has died down. They are proud to be earning members of the family
alongside their husbands. Even if they do not earn a large income, they have benefitted from the actual fact of working.
The BRAC staff address their activities primarily to the most disadvantaged
of the villages, since development programs usually do not include these people. For the Jamalpur program, the target population
is women of productive age (15 to 45) who came from landless families with no assets, fisherman families with no tools, and
families who sell their manual labor on a seasonal basis.
changed from skills training to the establishment of economic cooperatives. Fourteen cooperatives were established with some
loans and financial assistance from BRAC. They include eight (rice) paddy husking cooperatives, one paddy - husking and silk
worm cooperative (sericulture), one paddy husking/fishery coop, a paddy husking/ cheera making coop (cheera is a snack food
made from rice), two poultry co-ops and one weaving co-op.
difficulty in establishing the co-ops has been finding economic activities with ready market outlets. When new markets
have to be established, the women face a community of men who are reluctant to deal with businesswomen - obviously an anomaly
in Bengali society.
Paddy - husking was the first successful
economic venture of the program, primarily because it produces quick cash. Two women working a rice husker can process 410
pounds of rice per week yielding 58 pounds of rice and 21 pounds of husks. The rice can be sold at a reliable profit and the
husks are used as poultry feed.
Workshops in sericulture and
weaving, cooperative organization and management and groundnut (peanut) cultivation signal the change in emphasis from education
and social development to economic development. Fisheries, silkworm farms and weaving cooperatives require several years to
realize any profits; thus they represent the kinds of longterm economic plans that can be implemented by the women of Bangladesh. The key has been to tailor economic development plans to the skills, resources and needs of
Fazel Hasan Abed, BRAC's executive director,
has described their approach as:
humanist rather than humanitarian approach to development, one which is people-as
much as service-oriented. In the past development programs have failed because
their objectives did not match the real needs of the people. We say, who knows the needs o f the village best? The people
who live in it - and it is from the local community that we enlist workers for each project.
But the road is not always smooth as BRAC itself admits. The Committee's 1978 report
on the Jamalpur project notes that ‘local field staff did not mature and develop as expected' and there was confusion
about loans amongst both management and field staff.
the direction andguidance of the program is left to women of limited education and limited experience with the outside world.
The success of the Jamalpur project is directly dependent on the training and understanding of the original 15 women. Consequently
the first few years have been a time of discovery; the first teachers now are discovering their abilities as leaders.
As teachers they were raising the consciousness of their students and at the same time having their own consciousness
raised. As leaders, this process continues.
This article is from the December 1979 issue of New Internationalist.