The dense fog starts to lift and the morning sun radiates warmth. Street vendors shower water on fresh vegetables and a few rickshaws begin to appear on the streets. Shamsunnahar walks across a field in Gangachora, her village in northern Bangladesh. She smiles and greets people as she gets on a rickshaw.
I first met Shamsunnahar two years ago, when she was first selected for our ultra poor graduation program through an intensive, community-based participatory process.
She now points at two houses as we pass by: “See those? Those are mine.” This is no ordinary feat in Bangladesh, a country where women own only 4% of the land. For a woman to even lease out a small piece of land can be a daunting prospect.
Shamsunnahar started working as a domestic helper when she was a child. She was married off at the age of 13, and had conceived two children immediately after her marriage. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer and passed away early into their marriage, leaving her to provide for a family of three all by herself.
Shamsunnahar was amongst Bangladesh’s poorest; the 9% who live in ultra poverty. Through our graduation program, she took her first steps towards becoming an entrepreneur, buying a cow and 10 chickens.
With hands-on training, she was soon able to access the local market. She used the profit to send her children to school. That was the start.
Power through parenthood
She often visited their school to check their progress, and quickly understood that there was more to be done, especially for children from poor households. Shamsunnahar identified that the students would perform better with a little help in their lessons.
She rallied village authorities to organise free after-school support for all children, personally ensuring that children from ultra-poor families attend the open-air classrooms.
It is not only that people living in poverty lack current income, but they also lack assets with which to generate income. Land is a critical asset because it provides shelter, dignity and a means of livelihood
She tells me of a time where the thought of writing in a notebook as a privilege that she never imagined she would have: “Many people don’t realise that education is not just the ability to read and write; it opens so many other doors.”
When we return to her home, she takes me to her kitchen and proudly shows me the crops that she has grown on her land: “Look at all of this -- I’m creating a sustainable livelihood from the land I have leased.”
While women are primarily responsible for food production in Bangladesh, 96% of all land is owned or controlled by men. Land has always been a sensitive issue, a scarce and valuable resource that is the source of one in every five legal cases currently pending in court.
There are many misconceptions and a lack of awareness surrounding rights and entitlements in many areas for women in Bangladesh, and this is particularly true with respect to land rights.
To fight poverty, you need an arena
Our fight against ultra poverty starts by identifying those at the very bottom of the pyramid, and providing them with the necessary tools and knowledge to generate income. They are able to take loans to advance their enterprises and “graduate” themselves from ultra poverty over a period of two years. From women in rural parts of Bangladesh to donkey farmers in Peru, the pathway out of poverty usually begins with acquiring a piece of land, no matter how small.
Shamsunnahar sought technical training on vegetable cultivation, and encouraged other households to do the same; planting quality seeds to grow carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables that have high nutritional benefits.
She is now the president of the village development committee, teaching women to make the most out of the rich land.
It is not only that people living in poverty lack current income, but they also lack assets with which to generate income. Land is a critical asset because it provides shelter, dignity and a means of livelihood.
The BRAC graduation program is a start to better livelihoods; the program has helped 1.77 million women in ultra poverty to realise their potential by equipping them with the tools they need to rise out of poverty.
43% of the agricultural labour force in the world is made up of women. To that end, ensuring rural women’s access to productive agricultural resources is key to decreasing world hunger and poverty.
Samia Mallik is a development sector professional.