Although Bangladesh has experienced a steady decline in poverty rates, it’s still struggling to reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty. In southwest Bangladesh, 26.7 percent of households live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.
To make matters worse, the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh is subject to many natural and man-made challenges. The area is frequently hit with cyclones, tidal surges, floods, and droughts. Increased soil salinity, waterlogging, and the conversion of too much cultivable land into shrimp farms has made life difficult for farmers. As a result, many families struggle to put nutritious food on the table and too many children are malnourished. It can take a toll on families’ health, outlooks, and even their relationships.
But Nobo Jatra, a five-year food security and development program implemented by World Vision and funded by U.S. foreign assistance, is working to change all of that. The program’s ultimate goal is to reduce malnutrition, but to make that a reality, the program intervenes with thoughtful and empowering projects around issues that get at the root of poverty: maternal and child health, water and sanitation, gender, food security and livelihoods, good governance and accountability, and disaster risk reduction. Some households in the region get assistance in one or two of these components … but some are engaged with all six.
That’s the case with the Devnath family. During cyclone Aila in 2009, their house was destroyed. “We didn’t have anything,” says Tumpa Devnath. “We took a loan to prepare this house. We are not in very good financial condition.”
Tumpa’s husband, Bikash, is a salesman at a local clothing store and is the only earning member of the family. As if that weren’t difficult enough, their water source was dirty and they often got sick. It all put an impossible strain on their relationship: Bikash was often angry and Tumpa felt unsupported in her housework.
When Tumpa gave birth to their son, Arko, Bikash took action to improve their lives. He reached out to a friend connected to Nobo Jatra: “Are you giving any help?” he asked. “We need help. We have a baby.”
As a result, Tumpa’s first interaction with Nobo Jatra was postnatal care and growth monitoring of her now 2-year-old son with one of Nobo Jatra’s maternal health facilitators.
Tumpa cheerfully lists off what she’s learned: “Whenever I feed Arko, I have to wash my hands. When I cook for him, I have to clean all the vegetables nicely. I wash his clothes every day with an anti-septic liquid. I have to keep my house neat and clean. We use soap after taking food and coming from the latrine.”
Then a water and sanitation facilitator identified the Devnath’s community as one in need of cleaner water: A pond sand filter was installed and a water management committee established to care for the filter and collect money to keep it operating. Tumpa and Bikash are on this committee: “We are so proud,” says Tumpa. “We are drinking safe water and helping other community people too. At the same time, the water-borne diseases decreased sharply in this area. Now we are living a healthier life.”
“We feel happy as everybody can get safe drinking water in a neat and clean environment,” Bikash says. “We feel protected. It tastes better!”
“It is our responsibility to keep it clean,” says Tumpa. “The next generation as well. If Nobo Jatra is not here, we will maintain the water system by ourselves and for ourselves.”
For improved nutrition, one of Nobo Jatra’s agricultural facilitators helped the family set up a vegetable garden on their property so Arko could have a reliable source of nutritious food. They use the produce mostly for their own house, but sometimes they sell the excess to their neighbors as an additional source of income.
“I used to wait so long for my husband to collect vegetables from the market,” says Tumpa. “Now we have our own vegetables.”
To help the family become more resilient in the face of cyclones, a disaster risk facilitator from Nobo Jatra helped them save money and make a disaster plan that includes securing livestock, storing dry food, and going to the nearest cyclone shelter.
“As a human being, the disaster is not in our hands,” says Tumpa. “But we learned we can take precautions.”
But the biggest change at the Devnath house has been the improved relationship between Bikash and Tumpa. A Nobo Jatra gender facilitator led the couple in a male engagement class that transformed their relationship and helped Bikash value Tumpa as an equal partner both in their household and in improving their community.
“I didn’t have confidence to talk to my husband before,” says Tumpa. “We had an understanding gap. Now we understand each other very well. We are not like as before. We are more friendly than ever.”
These days, Bikash helps care for Arko and keep the house tidy. He bikes to the pond sand filter so Tumpa doesn’t have to walk to collect water.
Even with a new garden and a clean water source, Bikash says this shift between he and Tumpa is the most dramatic change he’s experienced: “Now I can understand my wife. We are living as a very happy couple. This is the biggest change in my life.”
“I wish my Arko will be better than me,” he says. “I wish he will have a good relationship with his wife and that their understanding level will be even better.”
Tumpa and Bikash’s relationship has become a model for others in their village. When they heard about a husband in their village who was physically abusing his wife, Tumpa and Bikash successfully intervened using lessons they’d learned from Nobo Jatra.
“People think we are one of the ideal husbands and wives,” says Tumpa. “People are replicating our behavior.” Bikash agrees and says that many men in the village are learning things from him and practicing them in the community.
It takes a village to transform that village. By empowering Tumpa and Bikash to be agents of change in their own community, the Nobo Jatra program is ensuring its success has long-lasting and far-reaching effects.
“We are feeling so happy,” says Tumpa. “I wish everyone in society could be like us.”
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Top photo: Bikash puts a flower in his wife Tumpa’s hair. (©2019 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)