by Jenny Baxter, State Director Australian Baptist Women – Tasmania
While I was in Bangladesh recently with Baptist World Aid, I visited a Self Help Group of women in a village called Bausi about 2-hours’ drive west of Mymensingh.
While there, my friends and I saw the work of a group called PARI (Participatory Action for Rural Innovation). They are an indigenous aid agency whose vision states,
“We are an organisation where the poor and their communities are empowered to experience hope, and live life to its fullest.”
It was a privilege to be shown the work of these faithful people, who bring life-changing confidence to hundreds of communities. Our trip sure was an eye-opener! So here’s a description of what happened, and some of the things I learnt about the life of mothers in Bangladesh. Clearly, we can learn so much from them!
Noise, Dust, Dirt – and an Unexpected Haven
The busy highway was edged with watery, green paddy fields, complete with workers in ankle-deep water. Even in these remote parts there were people everywhere. The 160 million people in Bangladesh are crowded –the population, 6 times the size of Australia, live in a space 2/3 the size of Victoria!
We came to a shopping strip, of open shopfronts in streets strewn with plastic, garbage and the debris of everyday living built up, kerbside. Clearly, in this culture, there is not a high value placed on keeping the environment clean.
Homeowners lived behind the stores where they sold their wares – small grocery shops, butchers, pharmacies, motor bike parts, saris and snacks. While it was a bitumen road, dust was everywhere, coating trees, footpaths and roadsides with a thick burnished layer. It really was a mash of people and commerce. It was Bangladesh.
Without warning, we turned into a lane between the shops. The side road was “unmade”, bumpy and rutted, a jolting reminder of the wet season, not so long ago. About five minutes down the road we stopped, and suddenly found ourselves in weak winter sunshine, following our leader along a path between houses.
Visiting the Bausi Women’s Self Help Group
As we turned a corner we found ourselves in a courtyard surrounded by huts. These large tin sheds contained the whole area, and while still very dusty, the space was tidy and clean – distinctly different to the busy highway.
Around half the area was spread with tarps and clean blankets, and about 30 women were seated, on three sides of a rectangle. The fourth side had some plastic chairs waiting for us, their guests, to sit on. But in our usual conspiracy to make this an equal meeting of women, we elected to sit on the ground.
In operation for about 17 years, this community group is changing life for the entire village. This is because all the women have received small loans from PARI, with an interest rate far lower than offered by banks or loan sharks. A condition of the loan is to join this local Self Help Group. And PARI staff give training on many topics, ranging from how to service their loans; health and hygiene; and the importance of sending their children to school. It’s clear this group of women, all of them mothers, has revolutionised their small village.
A Communion of Spirits
The meeting started as the MC introduced herself and welcomed us to their village. She then asked each group member to introduce themselves. Our translator was kept very busy! They described themselves simply as “members” (of the group). Or office bearers “Secretary”, “Treasurer” or “President”. Or committee members of committees such as Child Protection, Health and Hygiene, and Environmental Care. The penny dropped. Of course! So that’s why this space is so clean.
By this time, we were mostly smiling. Making deliberate eye-contact with the women was heart-warming, as they smiled back without exception. Somehow it was a deep communion of sprits, as if our visit allowed us deep into their souls, as they were seen, affirmed and valued.
At this point we were asked to introduce ourselves. During the preceding few days I had got very good at saying,
“Āhmi nām Jenny Baxter!” My name is Jenny Baxter.
Once we’d made our introductions, we were on equal ground. Women among women.
An Official Report
The Secretary stood to give her report – an overview of the group and some of their achievements. It’s crazy! They do so much for their community. Here are a few of their achievements:
– The Self Help Group donated money to the poor, helped three families to buy school books, and bought warm clothes for winter
– The group helped ladies access healthcare and hospital carer during birth
– They supported mums with childcare, and pregnant mums with support and counselling
– A vegetable garden was begun in the village
– They include parents of kids with disabilities in their activities
– Women with disabilities are included in the group
– They planted trees
– They stopped child marriage and child labour in their village
Our host then asked us:
“Āpani ki kichu jānatē cāna?” Do you have any questions for us?
Our very able leader, Steph, firstly asked for permission to take photos and share their stories – they all said:
“Samasyā nē’i.” No problem.
So, I have confidence as I write about these women. They know their stories are being told.
A Life-Changing Future
Steph then asked if any of the women would be happy to share their story of involvement with the group. Several ladies raised their hands, but one was very insistent. Our translator told us she would like to tell us what happened at the very beginning, before she was part of the group.
And so, we heard the story of Khaleda – a 39 year old widow.
Without exception, these mother’s faces were hopeful and positive. They have a vigour for life, and family, because their futures are secure and they know their children will have a much better life then they have had. Empowered. They’ve been empowered.
After several more startling stories, some of the women sang us a song using their traditional instruments. (See picture above.) The song told the story of a life-changing future because of the decisions of one couple. Very powerful.
Then they said to us, “Please sing!” And our other fearless leader, Karen, suggested we might use their instruments! So that’s how I came to be singing in front of a beautiful group of Bangla women, tapping on a local tambourine. There was much laughter.
Here’s what I learned from the Self Help Group mothers of Bausi
1. Working together is revolutionary
With the support of many others you are capable of far more than if you are alone. This is as true for me as it is true for you. And it stands to reason – this is what it ways on the Bible:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labour:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV)
2. Unforeseen tragedy can be beaten
It IS possible to keep on going when tragedy strikes. It’s one of those, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” situations. Sometimes tragedy is the thing that makes it possible to break a cycle and things turn out better that you could possibly have hoped.
We saw women who were once child brides, young widows, abused wives, women ill-treated as children, or uneducated. Consequently, all of them now have a hope and a future because of the support from agencies such as Baptist Aid an PARI working in their communities. But this assistance is a drop in the bucket amongst the huge population of Bangladesh.
3. Age is not a factor
It’s never too late to start a new venture. Some of the women we met were quite elderly when they took out their first micro-loan. The training they receive as part of the Self Help Group means they pay back the loan with the small amount of interest required, as well as putting food on the table for their families and developing their community. It’s a win all round.
4. Having a difficult start to life does not stop you from achieving
Going through difficulty as a youngster often builds the resilience required to be successful. I know this because I had to face the death of my mother when I was just 16. We saw uneducated women, from desperately poor families who had been married as child brides to abusive situations. Amazingly, even from this awful cocktail, women had transformed themselves, and their communities, with the support of the Self Help Group.
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
5. You always have a choice
While you may feel very stuck being where you are, most people can choose to move out of a difficult situation to something else. The reason women get stuck in awful situations (in any culture) is often because they are afraid of the new opportunity. But if you banish fear from the equation, you can move into unfamiliar territory with freedom. A Self Help Group is a catalyst in this situation because there is the support and encouragement of others to help you, once you decide to make the move.
6. Education breaks the poverty cycle
We in the West can take our education system for granted. But it really is the difference between a life of poverty, and a life of hope and fulfilment. So be diligent, and make it easy for your children to get a good education. It really sets them up for life.
7. Health and hygiene make so much difference
We take this for granted too. We expect nothing less than clean water, good sewerage systems, and clean streets from our government. But it goes so much further, into personal territory such as hand-washing, covering your cough and sneeze, staying home when sick, getting children immunised, and eating healthy food. All these are critical to long and healthy life.
8. Cultural issues sometimes hinder development
In Bangladesh, paying a dowry to the groom’s family when your daughter marries, maybe when she is only 10 years old, is normal. It’s been that way for generations. Most of the women we saw were once child brides. Thankfully, it is no longer legal to marry off youngsters so early, but it still happens “under the radar”. Payment of dowry also creates huge problems, and is very slowly becoming frowned upon.
One woman declared, very loudly, that she would not expect to receive a dowry for her son’s wife. However, she said she couldn’t be sure what would be demanded for her daughter in marriage. But her daughter, sitting nearby, heard her comment and insisted: “I will not let you pay dowry for me!”
As a unit, the Self Help Group broke cultural norms to make these “outrageous” counter-cultural claims. Perhaps there are cultural norms we must break too. For some, this might mean breaking submission to abusive husbands; choosing to reduce sugar/wheat/dairy consumption; deciding to eat more food; breaking addictive behaviour (you know what you are addicted to); or not caving in to pressure to conform to a “type” – because the reality is, you are a unique individual.
9. Enjoy our maternal health system!
Many mothers in Bangladesh have horror birthing stories – every baby’s arrival is a life and death situation. They cannot always go to good maternity care because the roads are so bad, and transport scarce. If it were like that for us, we would have horror stories too. Even those who choose home birth here in the West, know they can opt for hospital if things turn bad.
These women, in Bangladesh, are only just now making the connection with hospital births and safe deliveries – just as our mothers and grandmothers did in the 20th Century. In one short generation this Self Help Group is guaranteeing better outcomes for their kids, simply because their kids survive!
10. Living in Community
Life has transformed for these women. They are purposely working together with one mind and purpose, and they commented how they now work together in unity. Instead of living in their own little houses, they have a vibrant community life.
This is no mean feat, given they are breaking social norms as they do it. In this Self Help Group, Muslims and Hindus are working together in unity. They know this is abnormal. And they love it.
What they may not realise, and what I pray they will gradually discover, is that they are living in unity as Jesus calls his disciples to. And that’s radical.
A former Victorian, Jenny Baxter writes a regular blog called Treasuring Mothers, designed to encourage and cherish all mothers. Check it out here. Along with the other State Directors of ABW, Jenny was invited to Bangladesh by Baptist World Aid Australia. Please support the transformational work of Baptist World Aid by giving here