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Nowrin vs female farmer poverty

VSO/Qamruzzaman

As the sole female volunteer on VSO’s rural livelihoods programme in Bangladesh, Nowrin Sultana, 26, is in demand. For the last two years, she’s been working to financially empower all-female farming groups in rural communities in the northern district of Rangpur.

Nowrin, VSO, Bangladesh VSO/Abir Abdullah

Nowrin has been involved with VSO since 2016.

My job is to make sure more women profit from farming.

In Bangladesh, agriculture is our biggest sector. The rural economy here, which supports more than 70% of the country’s population, has accounted for 90% of the reduction in poverty between 2005 and 2010. Farming really does have the power to help people live more prosperous lives.

And here on VSO’s Growing Together programme we’re seeing the same results. In our first year, 98% of the farmers we helped train in modern agricultural methods saw a 20% increase in their crop. In 2020 – six years on from its inception – we’ll celebrate reaching 100,000 farming households.

In Bangladesh, women and girls are socially confined

In 2016, I joined VSO's youth volunteering programme, ICS. I spent three months in Bagerhat, a district in the south-west of the country. There, my team of 19 UK and Bangladeshi volunteers were helping improve sexual health information and livelihoods for young people across the region.

A particular focus for us was involving young girls in our work. In the rural communities where we volunteered, child marriage rates were very high. The reason: girls and women are socially confined. They’re restricted in their movement, in their activities – everything.

I remember one woman entrepreneur on ICS who we’d selected for funding. The day she found out she’d been chosen, she cried with joy and held her money to her chest. It was probably the first time in her life she’d had the chance to do something on her own. The importance of that really hit me.

My parents gave me what they didn’t have

Like her, I come from the south too. I remember when I was 16 or 17, maybe 80% of the girls that I went to school with ended up either married or pregnant. Most wanted to continue studying but societal pressure ultimately meant they’d end up with a husband before reaching 20.

Fortunately, that never happened to me. My parents simply had more liberal views. But I always carried a sense of guilt that my parents gave me what they never had the chance to have for themselves. I grew up knowing that I wanted to repay them and empower women.

Being a woman gives me the upper hand

Group of women on the Growing Together project in Bangladesh

Women farmers wanted women-only groups to talk more openly about their families and their finances.

That moment came when I was asked if I wanted to join VSO’s Growing Together project in 2016. The team had found that there was a huge demand for learning how to farm and manage finances better – but that women in rural communities didn’t feel comfortable talking in front of the men.

These ladies said clearly that they wanted to be in women-only farming groups. At first VSO wasn’t sure if separating them from their husbands and male community members would be successful – and as an all-male team, they didn’t have a female volunteer to broker those relationships.

My academic background in gender studies and my work on ICS helped me bridge that gap. When I visited those women, I understood things that male members of the team couldn’t. The women found it easier to talk to me – to talk about their family, to talk about their finances.

Currently it’s only me managing the gender aspect of the whole project. Sometimes I can find it hard as a woman – and sometimes it can feel like I have to explain the thought process of these women over and over to male colleagues. But when they do get it, it feels like we’re truly working together.

I never realised I was a feminist before volunteering

For the international corporate volunteers who spend a month with us away from home, often Europe or the US, they’re moved by these rural women’s stories. Many times I’ve heard them comment that they never realised they were a feminist before they went to Bangladesh.

Recently, a group of them who had volunteered at different points in the past fundraised $2,000 USD to help us scale up our pilot projects so they’re available to all the women farmers involved in Growing Together. They want to continue supporting the women they met long after they leave.

Volunteering showed these individuals – and me – that we can make a huge difference when we empower women through their livelihoods. It gives me the feeling that I’m doing something for them, that I’m fulfilling that duty from childhood to repay what I was given.

Believing in the power of women in farming

When I’m asked about which individuals really inspire me, one particular woman comes to mind. She was part of our first pilot group. When we began the project, the women were nervous and doubtful about what was to come. They’d never taken part in anything like this before.

One woman took the role of leading the group. She was meek and quiet. But gradually, as the project went on, she gained in confidence. By the end, she was doing everything. People in her community now take pride in her and believe in the power of women in farming.

It makes me feel like a proud mother seeing that transformation on a daily basis.

I want to see what’s beyond agriculture

At the end of the day, the definition of a farmer in our country doesn’t mean a woman. If you’ve grown up with the background of most of these women then it’s hard to see beyond that. My job is to help people become open to the change that is happening, and recognise and appreciate that.

I always joke with my sister that I’ve been present for so many of their agricultural training sessions now, I think I’m ready to just become a farmer. But deep down I think that beyond agriculture – women in enterprise, for example – that’s perhaps where I’d like my next focus to be.

What I’ve learnt from my experience with VSO is that when these women started working with volunteers, they weren’t confident. Empowering women is about taking challenges, and whatever you’re doing, give it your best. If it doesn’t work, then it’s always a lesson learned.

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