Women’s group and local government join forces to protect lives

In Chakaria upazila, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a women’s association is  partnering with the local government to raise awareness of Covid-19 and hygiene measures, in the face of widespread misinformation and fake hygiene products. Their coping strategies and organising power demonstrate women groups’ potential to be change-makers. Md Fahad Hossain reports.

This is the thirtieth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Located on the southeast coast of the Bay of Bengal, Cox’s Bazar is famous for having the world’s longest sea beach. Chakaria is one of the eight upazilas (administrative regions) of Cox’s Bazar district.

Zannatul Bokeya Rakha, is a 48 year old local woman who works as an executive director in a women’s welfare association called Padmaphul Chakaria Nari Unnayan Samiti in Chakaria. Established in 2009, the association seeks to empower women by providing training in computer skills, tailoring and beauty. They train 10 women at a time,  charging a nominal cost of BDT 200 (US$ 2.35) or less, depending on candidates’ ability to pay.

The association is run with financial support from the government’s Social Welfare Office.  The members of the association also save money collectively in a bank with a monthly deposit of BDT 10 (US$ 0.12). When any of the members needs money, she is given an interest free loan; only a nominal amount of BDT 50 (US$ 0.59) is charged as a service fee.

The associationalso actively raises its voice on violence against women. Due to limited financial resources, they choose to support women and raise awareness in ways that do not require money. For example, the association helps women who do not know where and how to file complaints against violence to access legal support.

“We help them locate and get legal aid from the relevant agencies that provide legal services to the poor free of cost. Sometimes, we also help them file cases when they are unable to do so either because of non-cooperation from the relevant office or because of their illiteracy. We also advise women to call the national helpline for violence against women and children, when they fall victim to any kind of violence” Zannatul explains.

Raising awareness during the global pandemic

In March 2020, when the first COVID positive case was detected in Bangladesh, Zannatul came to know about the virus from television news. “Initially people seemed indifferent about the disease. They thought, COVID-19 wouldn’t reach them,” she narrates.

With the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown, the association’s operations came to a standstill. The women had to stop conducting training and regular meetings. “Nothing this big happened during my lifetime that affected our lives in this way. It never happened that we had to stop our training activities for months” Zannatul reflects.

Seeing the rapid spread of the virus, Zannatul and her team decided to do something for the local community. They communicated with the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO)’s Office and managed to produce some awareness raising leaflets. To reach out to the most vulnerable, they translated the messages into the local language and disseminated from door to door. Such mass awareness raising also helped them to fight certain misconceptions. One major misconception was that the disease affects the rich only.

“People in the community listened to us because they trust us. In the early days of our work, people did not take us seriously as we are women. But when they saw we are helping women with training and skills, they could not neglect us anymore,” she shares.

They also distributed masks and hand sanitisers to people who did not even know what a sanitiser is . “We purchased Hexisol with the savings of our association. This was not planned as we kept the money for the members’ personal use,” Zannatul says. As the collective savings were inadequate, some members also contributed from their personal savings.

As they were helping the community members with supplies of sanitiser and masks, another challenge arose. High demand of sanitisers led many crooked businessmen to start producing fake hand sanitisers by mixing colour with water.

“We met the local dignitaries/ leaders from the village and made announcements to alert people and warn the businessmen. We also handed over some such businessmen to the law enforcement authority,” she proudly shares.

Zanntual appreciates the active involvement and stern actions taken by the UNO office when informed about how some people are risking people’s life by selling fake sanitisers. But to make grassroots initiatives sustainable, she thinks three things are important: awareness raising about the contributions people can make; skill development through training; and funding.

“We need awareness both at the organisation and community level at the first place. Secondly, having training enables us to do things better and more efficiently. For example, if we had the training on how to produce hand sanitisers and masks ourselves, we did not have to purchase them at the market price; with less cost we could produce more of them and distribute them among more people” she proposes.

“Another very important thing I have learned is, networking plays a crucial role. Reaching out to the local dignitaries and the Local Government Office as well as securing their support so easily would not have been possible had I not had a good relationship with them. Empowerment of women is also vital here,” she concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The fact that Padmaphul Chakaria Nari Unnayan Samiti  persisted in working to achieve such broad community measures on COVID-19 – and , in the face of such societal prejudice –  provides a vivid example of women’s ability to disrupt the status quo. They reached a stage where they could no longer be considered ‘incapable’ because of being women.

The story highlights the women’s  compassion and strong will, which underpinned the organisation’s achievements during the pandemic, despite their limited financial ability. The story also brings us four important insights: 1) women’s empowerment can play a vital role in bringing about positive changes in society; 2) small savings groups can be a lifesaver; 3) collaboration between the grassroots organisations and the local government can have greater impact compared to when they work in silos; and 4) proper financial support and capacity building can unleash the true transformative potential of grassroots initiatives in building a resilient society.

About the Interviewer

Md Fahad Hossain is a research officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD)

About the Interviewee

Janntul Bokeya Rekha, aged 48, works as an executive director at Padmaphul Chakaria Nari Unnayan Samiti, a women’s welfare association at Chakaria upazila, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She has led the awareness raising and hygiene kit distribution initiative from her association during the global pandemic. She is also the founding member of several schools.