Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Empowering women to end extreme poverty, food insecurity and undernutrition

Over the past 10 years, significant achievements have been made by a number of organisations implementing promotional safety nets for the ultra-poor in Bangladesh. All these projects target women and are based on asset transfers — either direct transfers or cash grants for investment. Some include additional monthly allowances to support basic family needs while their investments grow enough to yield returns.

Syed Ashraful Alom Tito/drik News

Syed Ashraful Alom Tito/drik News

A key distinguishing feature of all the programmes is the use of grants, not loans, to give ultra-poor women a real chance to change their future. The use of a grant gives the boost they need without the danger micro-credit poses to families vulnerable to shocks and the potential of resulting cycles of debt. Women are targeted for the same reasons that have emerged from the experience of micro-credit: they are the main caretakers of the family, they stay in the village when men migrate in search of income and better opportunities, and they generally spend income wisely.

The grants bring extra responsibility to women, but they also bring significant opportunities. Across all programmes and models, women have become more empowered. Participants in WFP’s EU-funded Food Security for the Ultra Poor (FSUP) project were provided with training in entrepreneurial skills, income generating activities, disaster preparedness and nutrition. To put this knowledge into action, ultra-poor women received a Tk.14,000 cash grant, and an additional Tk.500 each month over two years to meet their basic family needs. This enabled them to secure three meals a day, invest in trade and other productive assets for both themselves and their husbands, and prioritise the education of their daughters and sons.

These women who were once shy and submissive, are now confident and articulate. They are involved in their communities through group formation and regular meetings, and draw strength from one another. Some have even courageously and successfully entered local politics, winning landslide victories with the support of their peers.

This transformation from “ultra-poor woman” to successful entrepreneur, and then politician, is an astounding achievement. Even the more modest successes achieved, however, are to be celebrated. The 30,000 FSUP women participants have all undertaken successful investments and reinvestments, growing their income and improving the food security of their families. The project has in this way lifted 150,000 people out of extreme poverty. Models implemented by other agencies follow similar approaches and have seen similar transformations in the lives of participant families. There will be follow-up undertaken to examine the sustainability of this success, but all signs point to long-lasting change.

As the government develops its social protection framework and strategy, we believe promotional safety nets should feature strongly. While protective programmes (and programme components) will always be necessary — particularly in a country prone to natural disasters such as Bangladesh — promotional programmes that give women the chance to lift their families out of extreme poverty should receive equal attention. Established government programmes, such as the long-standing Vulnerable Group Development programme, which assists 750,000 women every two years, could provide an ideal platform on which government could build further promotional safety net models.

Further impact could be achieved through the addition of behavioural change messages on improved maternal, infant, and young child feeding practices. In a country where four out of ten children under five years of age still suffer from stunting (chronic malnutrition), these messages are a priority. The mainstreaming of nutrition into promotional safety nets would allow participants, primarily reproductive aged women, not only to receive a much needed income boost, but also to learn about proper nutrition practices. With a higher and more stable income, these families are in a prime position to put this new knowledge into practice and change the state of child nutrition in Bangladesh.

The writer is WFP Representative in Bangladesh.