Text: Teresa Grøtan
Photo: RDRS/Strømme Foundation
Many children among the aboriginal inhabitants in Dinajpur district drop out of school because they do not speak Bengali. Their parents are generally unaware of the importance of an education, and girls often get married off very young.
Many people in this community are denied the same opportunities as the majority ethnic group in Bangladesh, where the political climate is also becoming increasingly radicalised.
Violence, discrimination and mistrust at the local level present barriers to development.
The Socio-Economic Empowerment with Dignity and Sustainability (Seeds) project seeks to address all these challenges and help families to lift themselves out of poverty and illiteracy.
While the Strømme Foundation is the Norwegian partner, Rangpur-Dinajpur Rural Services (RDRS) does the work at local level.
RDRS has been the Norwegian foundation’s partner in Bangladesh for many years, and provides extensive support for almost two million people.
“We apply a decentralised model to make the best possible contribution to effective development work,” explains Rune Mørland at the Strømme Foundation.
“Since our aim is for people to participate in their own development, we depend on locally entrenched knowledge and experience from such partners on the spot as RDRS.
“The Seeds programme is a well-developed model based on local knowledge and long aid experience. It generates change, and wouldn’t have been possible without the Kavli Trust.”
Recipients have created their own family development plans (FDP) to visualise how they want their own future to be, and most start with small initiatives. These include beginning to save, raising chickens and establishing a vegetable garden.
The year after the project was launched, 16 per cent of the families involved reported that they had doubled their earnings after pursuing their own FDPs.
A number of the families have organised themselves in groups, allowing them to overcome common challenges. One group, for example, decided to form a cooperative to buy such goods as soup, oil and salt at cheaper prices.
Another got to grips with alcoholism in its village, and has managed to reduce excessive drinking by discussing the problem and agreeing to halt alcohol sales.
According to RDRS, these groups have proved effective watchdogs against discrimination and provide a good link between the local community and the government.
They have also played a positive role in encouraging people to pursue commercial activities and build cohesion at local level. And the groups have helped to raise political awareness.
“I was actively involved in our local group, and was given the role of community service provider,” reports Mokul Rani Prahan. “That gave me the chance to help the poorest in the village.
“My whole group urged me to stand in the local elections. I was elected a member of Union Parishad with many votes from my village. That would never have been possible without the backing from the group.”
These support groups have also become involved in the public schools, and almost 4 000 children from poor families are receiving extra follow-up.
In addition, the groups are helping to improve the school day for the pupils through better teaching.
Twenty-three preschools have been established during this period for 465 five-year-old children, who are taught in their native language.
Eleven “bridge” schools have also been created to help pupils who have dropped out of regular education catch up so that they can resume normal schooling.
A number of “Shonglap” groups provide girls with an arena where they discuss issues related to being young females, improving their own position, and promoting their rights in society and the home.
“Ignorance caused me to drop out of school when I was 12,” says Rajani Hasda. “Now I’m back again, thanks to what I learnt from my Shonglap group.”