Women’s Day: How crops grow independence in Bangladesh
Four years ago, shortly after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees arrived in her community of Cox’s Bazar, Hason Ara received food rations from the World Food Programme (WFP).
At the time, her husband, a food trader, was struggling to find any work, and with rising prices, they could not afford to put food on the table for their family of eight. They often skipped meals so that their children could eat; and having chicken or fish was a fantasy.
In 2018, Hason Ara enrolled onto a WFP project designed to help the most vulnerable rural women of Cox’s Bazar start or expand their own economic ventures, increasing their incomes and their access to nutritious foods.
She, and hundreds of other women in her community, received a US$180 grant from WFP, which they used to start growing vegetables and rearing livestock. (They also received a monthly allowance of US$12 while they set up their activities.)
Participants learned how to prepare a business plan, how to safely gather and deposit savings, how and where they could sell any surplus. They also learned accounting and basic financial management.
“We were taught how to take care of savings, how to negotiate with buyers, and even how to protect and store our crops to prevent losses. I was taught how to deal with insects and who to call if there is an infestation,” says Hason.
'The land feeds us, and what we cannot eat, we can sell'
When it got started, the group of farmers that Hason Ara formed with 23 other women would produce an average of 80kg of vegetables per week. Now, the average week brings 280kg.
“We have more land now. The land feeds us, and what we cannot eat, we can sell,” she says.
WFP also built an ‘aggregation centre’ in the community, where buyers and sellers can congregate to negotiate and trade the fresh produce. The centre offers an autorickshaw service to help farmers carry heavy loads. Some of the produce is directly bought by the retailers who supply food to the Rohingya camps, where WFP provides monthly food assistance to almost 900,000 refugees - benefiting two communities at once.
“We used to need to travel to the market in Ukhyia to sell any produce, now we can sell it at the aggregation centre, which is very helpful,” she says. “Sometimes the buyers even come directly to us, because we have grown so big.”
The profits of Hason Ara and her group are divided equally among members. Over four years, those profits have grown steadily, allowing her to build a house, pay for the education of her six children, and support her grown-up children's marriages.
“I even bought tables and chairs so my children can study at home.”
Hason Ara is now the main breadwinner of her family, and no longer relies on WFP’s food assistance to feed her children. Her husband supports the farm.
But growing economic autonomy is not the only change that transformed her life in the past four years. Learning new skills and finding success in her business helped her gain confidence. She started leading community discussions, reminding other women of the importance of good nutrition and sound economic management: saving, investing and not giving up after difficulties or a bad harvest.
“Being so successful in this programme built my confidence and inspired me to do more,” she says. “I have realized that I can work well and I know that I am capable of more. People in the community respect me, and often come to me to solve quarrels. I have found the confidence and courage to solve issues: if a family cannot afford to support their marriages, I help raise funds in the community to pay for it. At the same time, I often speak out to prevent the early marriages of the younger girls.”
Now, Hason Ara wants to become a community leader in the local government, a rural council. “I have more ambition than in the past. I know that women can solve problems without involving a man, and I even think we are better at it”.
The Enhancing Food Security and Nutrition (EFSN) livelihoods programme in Cox’s Bazar is generously supported by the governments of Canada, France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. The programme has supported 45,000 host community women in Cox’s Bazar since 2018. In 2021, women participants earned a total of almost US$7 million with a wide range of business activities including vegetable, fruit, mushroom and fish production, livestock rearing and poultry farming, handicrafts, garments and pottery.