Village WASH committees empowering rural women

August 4, 2013

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One of the core strategies of the BRAC Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Programme in Bangladesh is to put special emphasis on involving rural women in decision-making processes, alongside efforts to improve menstrual hygiene and access to water and sanitation.

One of the core strategies of the BRAC Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Programme in Bangladesh is to put special emphasis on involving rural women in decision-making processes, alongside efforts to improve menstrual hygiene and access to water and sanitation.

Women’s empowerment is a huge challenge in all BRAC programmes, and participation and inclusion in programme-related activities is often taken as an indicator of gender equality. BRAC WASH addresses gender issues in the water and sanitation sector in a number of ways, including helping women to access water and sanitation hardware. The programme provides loans and grants and monitors how they reach this target group. BRAC WASH also engages women through forums and meetings, collectively known as women’s conventions.

Women’s convention followed by rally organised by BRAC WASH, Netrokona

Women’s convention followed by rally organised by BRAC WASH, Netrokona

Women’s access to basic services including WASH infrastructure and subsidies are discussed in the conventions as women representatives from the community, the Union Executive Officer, the District Commissioner and other local community leaders discuss ways to overcome existing challenges.

VWC meeting and hygiene promotion

VWC meeting and hygiene promotion

In the Village WASH Committees (VWC) six out of eleven members are women. They have been helping to mobilise facilities and entitlements for communities in rural Bangladesh since 2006, especially for the poor and ultra poor. There are currently 44,445 VWCs in 248 sub-districts bringing the community together and meeting every two months to ensure proper management of the programme in their areas. VWCs build capacity of communities, network with local government and other stakeholders to ensure sustainability, proper use of facilities as well as long-term behaviour change. The committees use participatory methods to draw up village maps marking households, water points and latrines. In this way they are able to keep track of WASH implementation in each household and to monitor safe water sources and sanitary latrines and identify locations needing repairs or new installations. This promotes a sense of community in such a way that people rediscover the inner strength to bring changes in the lives of other people. Eventually this confidence leads them to contribute to the community even if they have limited resources.

VWC members are dedicated to spreading WASH messages and motivating people from their neighbourhoods to adopt good hygiene practices. Young girls and boys also feel encouraged to join the committee. Maria, a tenth grade student in Hobirbari, Bhaluka, joined the committee as a representative of the adolescent girls group. “Being a VWC member gives me the feeling of being someone who people will listen to,” she said. “I enjoy the leadership role even though I am a young person.”

Ismat Ara Begum is currently the member secretary of the VWC in Bhaluka sub-district

Ismat Ara Begum is currently the member secretary of the VWC in Bhaluka sub-district

Ismat Ara Begum, VWC member secretary in Bhaluka sub-district, Mymensing, is a housewife living with her in-laws and her four year old child. Her husband, the family bread-earner, is currently working abroad. Ismat studied till grade 8 and has been a member of the committee since 2006. So far she has mobilised funds from various sources for the community. With the help of the community and committee members, she has been able to balance her family responsibilities and her role as member secretary. Indeed, as part of the VWC, she feels she has a second family supporting her to achieve her goals.

Ismat finds it amazing how the overall situation has changed in her area over the past seven years, and how people have become more concerned about proper sanitation and hygiene. Sanitation coverage in Bhaluka is currently at 90%, and she is very optimistic that 100% sanitation can soon be achieved. Her confidence during our interview showed how women in these villages are developing and helping others do the same.

Mobasshera Akhter Rumi is from the same area as Ismat and was member secretary of the same WVC from 2006 to 2011. She is now an elected Union representative, serving on the local authority body above village level, and she still acts as an advisor to the Village WASH Committee. Both Ismat and Mobasshera attended a three-day BRAC leadership training course. Mobasshera, a mother of two children, became a very regular member of the VWC. As member secretary, she has became very popular in her area and enjoys keeping close contact with her neighbours and community and is always keen on helping them with their troubles.

Mobasshera Akhter Rumi is now an elected Union representative

Mobasshera Akhter Rumi is now an elected Union representative

Before standing for election as Union representative, she had never considered a political role. When asked about her decision to stand for election, she replied with a smile, “The committee members really insisted that I join the election, and it gave me confidence. After that, I conducted a personal census to evaluate the chances of me winning the election.” She acknowledged the support from the VWC members during the election campaign. When she won the election her family and well-wishers were very happy. Now she is more engaged with the community and she feels an obligation to work more closely with them. In her eyes, people’s perceptions towards WASH issues have changed a lot. She believes that even if the programme comes to an end in her area, the healthy practices they have learnt will continue. She also believes that women, by taking up leadership roles alongside men, will continue to build a better society.

Sabrina Shahidullah is a Senior Communications Specialist at BRAC, Dhaka. She is documenting stories from the BRAC WASH Programme in Bangladesh.

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