Making a Difference
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Rahima Begum was married to a poor rickshaw-puller in Ramgati upazila of Lakshmipur district three years ago, at the age of 20. She soon conceived a child. But where her husband could barely provide for the two of them, the thought of raising a child in abject poverty was daunting. A two-year government maternity stipend of Tk. 300 helped them through the initial months of pregnancy and birth of the child. But the next and greater challenge was to provide for their daughter, Ankhi, as well as themselves, for the rest of their lives. Along came Development Organization of the Rural Poor (DORP) with its dream package for poor mothers.
DORP, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) was established in 1987 with a major objective of alleviating poverty. In 2005, on the occasion of Mother's Day, its founder and Secretary General AHM Nouman, decided to introduce a stipend for poor mothers.
“When I saw Mother's Day being celebrated in Dhaka,” says Nouman, “it occurred to me that there are many poor mothers all over the country who do not, during pregnancy, get maternity leave or the other benefits that mothers living and working in the cities do and I wanted to provide them with these facilities.”
|DORP Secretary General AHM Nouman’s
According to Nouman, the stipend is one of pride and empowerment. “Some of these women are abandoned by their husbands and in-laws but when they receive a government stipend they themselves feel empowered and are shown respect by their families,” he says.
At the start of the project, Nouman, his family members and organisation officials all contributed to the fund for expecting mothers. Under the project, 40 women were paid a monthly stipend of Tk. 300 before and after the birth of a child for a total of two years. In order to ensure that the women truly benefited from the project, the stakeholders were expected to meet certain requirements, such as going for regular medical check-ups during pregnancy. In the first year of the project, all the women gave birth in hospitals to healthy babies.
DORP approached the BNP-led ruling coalition government at the time about including maternity stipends in the national budget. It was during the time of the caretaker government in 2007, however, that 17 crore taka was allotted for this purpose, under which 45,000 expecting mothers were covered. The following year, the number of benefactors was raised to 60,000 and under the current budget, 80,000 women from all over the country are benefiting from the programme with an increased monthly stipend of Tk. 350.
“It is a matter of pride that our initiative has been adopted at the national level, especially by a political, democratic government, and we hope that in 20 years, one crore women will be covered by the project,” says Nouman.
The project has certain criteria which the women must fulfil in order to be included, most importantly, that of extreme poverty. Not only is it aimed at the extreme poor, but it also discourages early marriage and encourages family planning. The women must be over 20 years of age and having either their first or second child. Besides these, they must also fulfil two of the following criteria: their monthly income is below Tk. 1,500; they are the main wage earner of the family; they are disabled; they don't have a home of their own; they don't have any cultivable land or assets such as livestock or a lake to farm fish.
As a part of the programme and for their own benefit, the women are expected to go for at least three medical check-ups during pregnancy, get a tetanus shot, have regular, healthy meals and get adequate sleep. It is also expected that they will be treated well by those around them and not be made to do any strenuous work or carry heavy loads and be at rest for a month prior to the expected delivery date. The child should be breastfed and given the required vaccines. The mother must get post-natal care from the health centre, have nutritious food for at least a year after childbirth and adopt family planning methods.
While the monthly maternity stipend tides mothers through the initial months of childbirth, many women have little means of providing for their families afterwards. With this in mind, DORP has recently introduced a longer-term social assistance programme.
Supported by Spanish Agency of International Co-operation for Development (AECID), it has introduced a 'SAPNA' (Social Assistance Program for Non-Asseters) package with a broader approach to poverty alleviation. The programme aims at a social safety net which will ensure health and birth control, education and culture, housing and sanitation, livelihood seed money and, if necessary for employment/income-generation, micro-credit. Under this programme, the selected women are given a small home, including a latrine, worth Tk. 30,000; a means of income generation such as a rickshaw or a cow, worth Tk. 30,000; and, if required, support in establishing a linkage with micro-credit programmes; and a health card and education card.
Besides fulfilling the above criteria for the basic stipends, benefactors of the SAPNA programme are also expected to participate in fortnightly education sessions for mothers which covers topics such as hygiene, safe water, nutrition, family planning and other necessary health aspects, as well as couple education sessions on early marriage, marriage registration, gender discrimination, dowry, divorce, etc.
“Many people have several children because they think of them as assets,” says AHM Nouman. “I have met women who have demanded either financial or human resources in order to survive. If they are provided for, they will not need to have so many children. But they must be provided for in a way which will help them to stand on their own feet and not be dependent on others. SAPNA aims at empowering these women.”
Currently, 450 such women from three upazilas in Lakshmipur -- Lakshmipur Sadar, Ramgati and Kamalnagar -- have been brought under the project and have been provided with a home and a means of income generation. Rahima Begum, for example, has been given a tin shed home with a latrine, a calf, a goat and a rickshaw in order to be able to earn a living.
The health and education cards are inactive right now, but DORP hopes that if the government adopts the programme, those with the card will be able to avail of free health services and education for the entire family.
“We do not want to depend on foreign funds for the project because we will not be self-sufficient,' says AHM Nouman. 'If the government implements the project, it will be a step towards our people and our country standing on their own feet.”
According to Meher Afroza Chumki, Chairperson, Women and Children Affairs Parliamentary Standing Committee, however, while the government is taking the project into consideration, there are no immediate plans for adoption.
“Children are our future,” she says, “and we must plan for them well and ensure their rights in society. SAPNA is a step towards this.”
The health and education cards, for example, are a part of a greater process, says Chumki. “With them, the birth of the children is automatically registered,” she says, “which will later prevent early marriage because the age of the person will be officially known. The cards will also ensure their healthcare and education, which is very important. Development will not be limited to the cards but be part of a greater, long-term development.”
This long-term, sustainable development is what DORP has in mind. For founder AHM Nouman, empowerment cannot come from the assistance of others but from one's self-sufficiency. This is the target of the SAPNA package, a practical programme to make true something that for many was only a dream.
“We believe in the slogan 'New child, new father, new mother -- new Bangladesh',” says Nouman. “If we empower children of the next generation along with their parents, I believe that in 20 years we will have a new, strong and proud Bangladesh.”
(R) thedailystar.net 2009