Let us commit to upholding the rights of women everywhere
Like many other girls, Shahida Begum (45), a middle-aged woman in Narsingdi, was married off at an early age. However, neither early marriage nor poverty could destroy her dreams. Her firm conviction made her successful in life.
Shahida Begum became a member of BRAC-CEP’s grassroots platform Polli Shomaj at an early age. Since then, she has dreamt of working for women in her community. Soon after, she became a Polli Shomaj leader and a trendsetter for the village on women’s rights. She plays an active role as an arbitrator to settle village disputes.
She is well regarded in the area for her leadership role. She has been representing herself in different committees, including the school committee, clinic committee, UP standing committee, etc. She contributes to raising awareness in her community regarding the negative consequences of sexual harassment, early marriage, dowry, women’s rights, and other relevant issues.
In 2019, her dream came true when she was elected as the upazila (sub-district) vice chair. Even during the pandemic, she mobilized significant resources for her community from different GOs and NGOs.
Most significantly, she arranged low-cost ambulances for poor people to carry them immediately to the hospitals.
Shahida became a beacon of hope and empowerment through her participation in Polli Shomaj. She says: “My remuneration is the love from my villagers. I recognize myself as a Polli Shomaj leader, which gives me the confidence to serve as a public representative.”
Like Shahida, the BRAC Community Empowerment Program (CEP) reaches more than a million rural women who actively play their leadership roles to make their communities stronger and more resilient. Along with the pre-existing social and systemic barriers to women’s participation and leadership, additional barriers have emerged in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Polli Shomaj leaders across the country have made significant efforts to overcome those barriers in the rural communities of Bangladesh.
Given the adverse impact of the pandemic on individuals as well as community lives, UN Women has announced the theme for International Women’s Day as “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.” The theme reflects the terrific efforts by women and girls worldwide in shaping an equal future and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
To recognize the importance of women leadership, since its beginning, BRAC has been working to empower women towards creating an equal future and making stronger communities through women’s effective participation and decision-making in every stage of life.
Since 1998, the CEP has been working to empower vulnerable people, especially women and girls, by increasing their human, social, and political capital so that they are aware of and exercise their rights, claim their entitlements, resist exploitation, and actively perform as community leaders.
Global data from 133 countries also shows that women constitute 2.18 million (36%) of elected members in local deliberative bodies. In this connection, CEP promotes community institutions where women have their own community-based organization such as Polli Shomaj to encourage women leadership at the local level.
Through pro-active leadership, they are able to mobilize social safety net services and resources for the poor, eg, old age allowances, widow allowances, maternity allowances, health services, stipends etc, from local government and other available sources.
They also play a strong role to prevent and respond to issues relating to violence against women and girls.
There are 12,517 Polli Shomaj platforms across 53 districts in Bangladesh, consisting of about a million members, influencing decision-making processes at the local level.
They are transforming their own lives and, at the same time, bringing change in the community towards creating a resilient and equal society.
Since 2011, a total of 9,072 grassroots women from CEP have won the prestigious ”Joyeeta Award” for their tremendous work -- setting an example as women leaders in their communities and across the nation.
During this pandemic, BRAC’s Polli Shomaj members have played a critical role in leading response and recovery efforts -- they distributed leaflets and stickers to make the community aware and ensured aid for the most vulnerable and low-income families. Many of them raised funds from the local UP members and others.
Later, they distributed masks they had made themselves, along with soap, rice, and other grocery items among the community people to meet their daily requirements. They also ensured isolation and home quarantine for those who had arrived from outside of the area.
From our database in 2020, we observed that a 24% increase in cases of violence against women and girls has been recorded. It has also been founded that our Polli Shomaj members were more vigilant and prevented quite a significant number of incidents against women and girls.
Otherwise, the incidents could have increased further and the situation could be worse. During this emergency situation, our women could play a stronger leadership role in supporting communities and standing beside them.
They were able to bring different experiences, perspectives, and skills to the table which is important for critical analysis and creating a better and more sustainable future.
On this International Women’s Day, let us all strengthen our commitment to create opportunities for women where they can uphold their rights and leverage the potential of leadership to achieve an equal future.
Anna Minj is Director-Community Empowerment Programme and Integrated Development Programme, BRAC.