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There is more to poverty than we see. Living below the poverty line does not only mean lack of food and money. It also encompasses lack of agency, absence of social integration, capacity deficiency in accessing essential services. To eradicate extreme poverty, approaching poverty’s multidimensional aspects is key.
Rahila Begum, a participant of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) programme, stays alone in her tin-roofed hut. Rain pouring through the old corrugated roof during the rainy season has been an usual sight for her for many years. She had tried to improve her living conditions a few times, but could not.
A staff from the programme realised that if not repaired immediately, Rahila’s hut would entirely blow away in the upcoming rainy season. He talked with the village social solidarity committee (VSSC), the local voluntary committee established by BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme, to help Rahila repair her house. Within a few days, the committee mobilised BDT 20,000 and rebuilt her house. Today, Rahila is no longer worried about rain water leaking through her roof, and anticipates a safe monsoon.
People living in ultra-poverty often remain invisible, even in their own communities. They often live on other people’s land and have little voice to ensure their rights. Rahila’s case is one of the many examples of the ways the village committees work to bring about social integration.
The Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme and its village solidarity committees help participants to increase their confidence and get reintegrated into their communities. At the beginning of the 24-months programme cycle, the programme forms a committee with the village elites, selected through the recommendations of UPG participants’ and local people.
A total of 1,851 village social solidarity committees were formed by the UPG programme in 2020. Among them, for the first time, 44 committees were created with 100% women members. Some women were passionate and proactive about making the lives of people better. They are also well regarded within the community. Those women, in their own capacities, have already been working for women’s empowerment, financial improvement, women’s rights and eradication of harmful superstitions.
These committees sit with the Graduation programme’s participants once a month, with the option to call an emergency meeting if needed. One of their goals is to foster an enabling environment which bridges the gap between the participants and the people from the community.
The meetings take place throughout the year, and have pre-scheduled agendas. Some of the topics they cover include resource mobilisation for various needs (for example, to repurchase a cow for a participant if their cow dies, post-disaster management, winter cloth distribution, house repairing etc.), creating linkages with the government to access social safety net programmes, linking participants with local hospitals to ensure better treatment, providing life-skills training and jobs for family members of the participants, and raising awareness on important social and health issues.
Read more: Understanding the many faces of poverty
The committee is one of the strongest support systems for the participants paving their way out of poverty. For instance, at the onset of COVID-19, when most of the people living in ultra-poverty lost their jobs, a total of 2,681 village solidarity committees got to work.
The committees mobilised resources, resulting in 83,400 participants receiving hygiene kits, 50,100 participants receiving dry rations, 5,400 participants receiving cash support, 29,600 participants receiving fodder and treatment support for their livestock, and 6,000 participants receiving medical support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Relationships which are based upon trust and reciprocity are the essence of social capital. For the participants of the Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme, social capital is gained through community mobilisation. Women living in poverty are routinely silenced in public dialogues, and are often not vocal in their communities. We have learnt that participants gain courage after working with the village solidarity committees, which is reflected in how eloquently they voice their opinions in public forums.
More all-women village social solidarity committees are being formed across Bangladesh, creating more community leaders who step up for those who are so often left behind.
Anita Rani, chairperson of an all-women committee said, “I was a little scared in the beginning, but now I am confident. My co-workers and I know how to tackle societal adversities surrounding women living in vulnerability. We believe in the power of ourselves”.
Syeda Sadia Hasan is Head, Resource Mobilisation, M&E and Learning, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation programme. Tania Tasnin is Manager, Knowledge Management and Communications, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation programme.