Bangladesh: Empowering women to fight poverty

A Bangladeshi woman in her tea stall
Shyamola in her tea stall with her two daughters. Photo: Kawser Ahmed / UNDP Bangladesh

Shyamola Begum, 43, says she understands why her husband left her. Under the pressures of crippling poverty, with too many mouths to feed, he left their one room shanty in the capital one morning and never came back, she explains.

“We came to this city looking for a better life but my husband Jamal struggled to find work and ended up pulling a cycle-rickshaw. When I got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, he wasn’t happy,” Shyamola says.

Highlights

  • 3 million people, especially women and children, have better living conditions and job opportunities
  • More than 88,000 extremely poor women have been supported to set up their own businesses through small enterprise grants
  • 376,000 households now participate in savings and credit groups with over USD 5 million of savings
  • 166,000 households have improved access to sanitation and water

Less than a year later, Shyamola got pregnant again, with another girl. Soon after, Jamal left for work one day and never came back.

“For several weeks in my pregnant state, I frantically searched for him in hospitals and morgues but the people from the slum knew he had left me,” she says. “They told me to stop looking.”  

Shyamola shares her fate with tens of thousands of other women, whose husbands, driven by poverty and lack of employment opportunities, abandon their partners every year.

But Shyamola’s story has a comparatively happier ending, and she has managed to turn her life around thanks to a partnership between UNDP and the United Kingdom’s Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction.

Through the project, she was awarded an entrepreneur grant of Tk 2,500 (roughly US $30) earmarked for the extremely poor. She matched this money with the $30 she had managed to save working as household help  and set up a small tea stall in the slum where she lives. In just two months, Shyamola’s profits exceeded her own investment.

“Until I became destitute, I had never imagined I could run a business, that I could do accounts, that I could be successful,” she says.

This particular success story is not the exception either. Over 55,000 families like Shyamola’s have received such grants over the past five years, with encouraging results. In many places, these men and women have started making monthly contributions to their own local savings groups, so that there is a source of a larger loan in cases of emergency.

By Mahtab Haider, Communications Analyst at UNDP Bangladesh, and Nader Rahman, Communications Associate at UNDP Bangladesh.