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A small meeting room in the Maniknagar slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh, grows more humid with each passing minute as 20 women pile inside its walls after coming in out of the rain.

One of the women, Aklima Begum, sits comfortably in the lotus position, a tiny baby girl in her lap, as she recounts for a visitor the events that brought her to this place.

It would be easy to believe that Aklima (Begum is a title used by married women, similar to “Mrs.”) is 28, as she claims. In fact she is just 21 and already has four children, including a 10-year-old son who was born nine months after her 11th birthday.

“I was ashamed because of my young age,” she explains. “I didn’t want you to think poorly of me.”

Aklima has felt plenty of regret and shame over the years, starting with her very early arranged marriage. “I didn’t know I was going to be married,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know what marriage was—I was only 11. The arrangement was made and it was done.”

In the Muslim culture of Bangladesh a bride and groom need only say “kobul” (meaning “I agree”) for a marriage to be sanctioned. “I said ‘kobul’ because my parents and the priest were telling me to,” Aklima explains, “but I didn’t know what I was saying. I just did what I was told.”

Early marriage is common here and is one of the issues addressed by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. CRWRC’s justice groups provide opportunities for people to learn about and discuss the dangers of marrying too young. The groups are structured so that men and women have equal input in planning and decisions about community development.

“Some organizations only teach justice to their women’s groups,” explains Kohima Daring, CRWRC’s Bangladesh program consultant. But, she said, that promotes the idea that women are responsible for all the problems they face. “Men must learn their responsibility [too].”

Aklima continued to live with her parents for the first 10 months after she was married, but she became pregnant almost immediately after her marriage. Instead of following tradition by bringing his wife to his parents’ home, her husband took his frightened young wife and their new baby to live on the streets of Dhaka.

“My husband and I had a hard time,” Aklima recalls. “We couldn’t feed our son; we were always hungry. I almost died giving birth, and I had health problems afterwards. Whenever my son or I would get sick my husband would send us away to my parents to take care of us, which wasn’t so bad. At least it got us off the street.”

Seeking a Better Life in the City

Aklima’s parents had the best of intentions when they moved their three children from the Barisal district of southern Bangladesh to Dhaka in the early 1990s. “My father was cheated by his siblings out of his inheritance [land] so we had to move to Dhaka so he could find work,” she says. But shortly after moving, her father became sick and was let go from his street-cleaning job.

Daring explains that many people living in the country move to the city to look for a better life. “But once they get here, they find it’s worse, and they become trapped. They then try to find ways to save so they can move back to the country.”

To make ends meet, Aklima’s mother took a job as a brick breaker for the roads, one of the most laborious jobs available to the poor and uneducated. Her only hope for her daughter was that she would find some relief in marriage. Instead, the 11-year-old bride went from being poor to extreme poverty, living on less than $1 a day.

Poverty has received a lot of attention in the past year. The Global Call to Action Against Poverty has inspired campaigns like the Micah Challenge, Make Poverty History, and The ONE campaign—all of which the Christian Reformed Church participates in.

Aklima knows what extreme poverty looks like. “We had no money, so we fought all the time,” she says, recounting her early days on the streets. “We were feeling desperate; nothing was good.”

She, her husband, and their three sons moved into a small tin shack in the Maniknagar slum of Dhaka. But their struggle for survival was far from over. Her husband worked as a rickshaw driver earning an average of 20 BTD (Bangladeshi taka, about $0.30 US) per ride. Food for the children was minimal, and attending school was out of the question.

I Thought They Would Cheat Me

After five years of struggling to care for her family, Aklima had a visitor. Dilruba, a staff person with a local partner agency of CRWRC, explained to Aklima that she could get training to better care for her children’s health, learn to read and write, and find ways to save money that she could use to start a business or send her children to school.

“At first I didn’t believe it,” Aklima says, shaking her head. “I thought they would cheat me, take my money, and disappear.”

But Dilruba didn’t give up. She continued to visit often, encouraging Aklima to participate in one of the community-development groups. (CRWRC offers a repertoire of training groups on topics such as literacy, health care, small-business development, and justice to provide people with tools to help them change their lives.) Though she still mistrusted the agency’s motivation, Aklima started attending a savings group in her slum, but she didn’t tell her husband for nearly a year, fearing he’d order her not to go.

“When I joined, the group was collecting 5 BTD a week in savings,” she says. “Sometimes I didn’t eat, saving 1-2 BTD per week to attend,” she continues, noting that she could only afford to go every other week. “I was afraid my husband would find out and say, ‘You don’t need any money from me if you are giving away that much each week.’”

Then one day while participating in her savings group, the young woman had an idea: If she couldn’t earn her husband’s trust, maybe she could buy it.

“I borrowed 25,000 BTD from my women’s group and got a job for him with the city as a cleaner,” she smiles wryly. (Municipal jobs, such as street cleaning, require the applicant to pay a fee to be hired.) “My husband couldn’t ignore how my joining the group helped our family.”

Soon Aklima’s husband had joined a CRWRC men’s group and began learning about savings and gender equality. “There was a real change in his attitude,” she recalls. “The justice training in his group made him more sensitive to my needs. We didn’t fight so much, and he started to understand my point of view.”

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I let my wife go to group, and I send both my son and my daughter to school,’” Daring explains. “We like to challenge the group to think more deeply about the issues and to encourage men and women to be advocates for women’s rights within their own communities.”

That approach is taking root in CRWRC programs across Bangladesh. In the Sutrapur slum, adolescent theater groups influence the community through performances that emphasize the dangers of early marriage and domestic violence, calling out to the audience: “Nari narjaton bondho koro; sanctir somaj gora tolo” (“Stop injustice for women; build a peaceful society”).

I Can Finally Read!

Back in Maniknagar, Aklima continues to attend her CRWRC groups: health care, small-business development, literacy, and justice.

“I can finally read the signs and instructions at the health clinics when I take my children,” she says. “And I can calculate my own savings. I know how much I spend, and I can track it.”

Rather than spending her savings on mostly material things, Aklima invests them in her family. “I send all three of my sons to school,” she says.

The advanced training she has received through CRWRC as a traditional birth attendant has benefited her community as well. “In five years I have delivered 40 babies,” she says proudly. “I’m not paid, but if someone gives me one sari as a token of their appreciation I’m more than happy.”

Aklima looks down at her infant daughter. “I made many mistakes,” she says with a sigh. “I had no education. I was married too early. But my daughter will have a different life. She can wait to marry; it’s okay! Her husband will be a good man, and she will be educated. This is my dream for my daughter.”

It is a good dream, a possible dream, a familiar dream. It’s a dream that may just come true.

Working Together

In Bangladesh, Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) work hand in hand to bring about sustainable transformation.

CRWM is the newcomer to this field, while CRWRC began working in Bangladesh in the early 1970s. Today, while offering relief in times of need and disaster, CRWRC focuses on strengthening national Christian development organizations through partnerships.

CRWRC collaborates with five partner agencies that work in poor communities. CRWRC also facilitates a larger group of Christian development organizations through a network forum called the Learning Circle and maintains a resource library.

CRWM missionaries support this work in a number of ways, including helping to explore questions such as How does Christian community development differ in a country with an astounding number of development organizations? How does it portray the gospel? How do we share the love of Christ in a society that restricts evangelistic work? How can we do it together?

Partnering takes patience, and cooperating can be hard work. However, working together is essential for Christian mission and community development. In Bangladesh, CRWRC and CRWM will continue to look for ways to work hand in hand.

—Jeffrey and Melissa Bos,
CRWM Bangladesh

The Label Dilemma

I’ve become somewhat label conscious when I shop. Not for those celebrity-endorsed brand names, but for the “made in” label.

When I flip a collar to reveal “Made in Bangladesh” printed on the inside, I can’t help thinking of sweaty garment factories with hundreds of young women hovering over oily sewing machines.

My mental image is not all that far off. Though legally women in Bangladesh are not supposed to work past 8 p.m. many work several hours longer in dilapidated buildings with no ventilation. Minimum wage for an unskilled garment worker is around $30 per month (US).

And then there’s the fair-trade issue. Countries like the United States and Canada continue to offer subsidies for homegrown garment producers while the industry in Bangladesh must fight—in part by paying low wages—to compete in the global market.

My first reaction would be to put the billowy cotton blouse back on the rack. But Kohima Daring, who works as a program consultant for CRWRC in Bangladesh, suggests it might actually be better to have the cashier ring it up.

Daring explains that although conditions in the garment factories are poor (some are gradually improving) by North American standards, they must be seen in light of the overall conditions of Bangladesh.

For most garment workers, having a job is the difference between living in relative poverty (that is, poverty that is considered normal by the standards of a country) and living in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day.

So the question remains: Do I buy the blouse at half the price of its North American-made counterpart and contribute to the ongoing substandard conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry? Or do I pass and buy something made in the USA?

Neither choice is overly appealing, but though I feel far from warm and fuzzy buying clothing made in Bangladesh, boycotting the garments could make the situation in Bangladesh worse.

So I buy the blouse and continue to support CRWRC in its effort to help people find alternate, safer ways to earn a living. I continue to advocate for U.N. members to make trade fair through the Micah Challenge, Make Poverty History, and The ONE Campaign. And I continue to challenge what I think I know, to have a better version of the big, hard truth.

—Stephanie Tombari

The Road to Community Development

Imagine a small emergency clinic. It’s crowded, noisy, and chaotic. Your hands are shaky and damp as you walk aimlessly around the humid room, finally squeezing out a space against the wall to lean your weakened body.

Because you know how to read, you were able to reduce your fever by following the steps in a first-aid leaflet. Because you took a health class, you’ve been treating your condition with a proper diet. But because you are a woman, you might be the last to get help—and the first to die.

This is one reason why CRWRC offers a diverse repertoire of development programs within the same community—to ensure that those who benefit from one program also have access to programs of equal importance.

CRWRC tries to make its programs available in every community in which it maintains a presence. Those programs include training in literacy, health and nutrition, income generation, small-business development, agriculture (in rural areas), and justice, to name a few.

Consider these examples of the integrated approach in Bangladesh:

  • A Dhaka woman learns to cut and sew clothing, save for her own business, and keep her own financial records.
  • After participating in a gender-equality class, a husband cares for his three older children while his wife and baby go to their growth monitoring group.
  • A rural community development committee halts the marriage of two pre-teens by explaining legal rights to their parents.
  • A male committee chair encourages his apprehensive female vice-chair to deliver the bank deposit on her own simply because he “believes in her.”

Yes, “integrated approach” is a jargon-y term, which does nothing to foster any real understanding of what CRWRC does for the poor. But though the term is a bomb, the concept works, and the people it affects continue to work to make their lives better all the way around.

-—Stephanie Tombari

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