Meet Lalbanu, a feisty, humorous, spitfire of a Bangladeshi woman whom I had the honor of befriending on my first day “in the field.” Although she didn’t speak a word of English, and my Bangla was quite minimal, I felt comfortable with her right away. We smiled largely at each other, and she immediately handed me the baby she had been holding in her arms. Later that day I would hear her story, a triumphant one that I will never forget
This first trip was to Mymensingh, a rural district about a two to ten hour bus ride from Dhaka, depending on traffic. Yes, the traffic in and around Dhaka city can be that crazy. Bright and early my first morning in Mymensingh, we headed out on rickshaws to a nearby village. We were to attend the Village Organization (VO) meeting. The VO is a creation of BRAC, and is the backbone of their many programs. Each VO is composed of only women, an approach BRAC has taken in recognition of both the great need for women’s empowerment and their amazing potential to impact village-wide changes. Recent statistics count 303,616 BRAC VOs throughout Bangladesh—wow.
As soon as I entered the village and approached the VO circle, I was warmly welcomed and included. Thirty beautiful Muslim women dressed in traditional sari dresses, smiling at me. Lalbanu stood up and directed the other women to do the same, a sign of respect and hospitality. Lalbanu shined as the clear leader of the group. As I sat down next to her, she placed the baby in my lap and the meeting continued. We were off to a great start.
I noticed just one man in the circle: the BRAC program officer. He attends the weekly meetings, where he takes attendance, recites the “18 Promises” with the women, and receives their weekly loan repayments. The “18 Promises” are an ingenious aspect of these meetings, and serve to spread awareness regarding a variety of healthy practices. So, the women of the villages who have joined the VO for the purpose of receiving a small loan end up learning and spreading much needed lessons well beyond just finances. These promises include “We will send all our children to school,” “We will adopt family planning,” “We will treat our boys and girls equally,” and “We will always drink clean water.” Such statements address the needs and social injustices most common to the rural areas, and the women have become pioneers sparking great changes.
After the promises, loan repayment collection, and discussion of any current issues, the women look towards me, eager to ask me questions and happy to answer mine. I am undoubtedly the whitest person they have ever seen, but to be fair, I am very pale and often whitest person in any setting. The first question is always whether or not I am married, so I quickly learned to respond, “Ami bibohita na” (I am not married). Most village women are accustomed to the practice of marrying very young, often in an arranged marriage. BRAC and other organizations have done great work in shifting respect and prestige for women away from early marriage and onto continued education. This recent effort to curb early marriage and dowry practice has successfully contributed to a nationwide trend towards further education for girls (more on that in a future blog!). Regardless, I greatly enjoyed having my translator explain that I am 26, very happily unmarried, and plan to continue my studies until I am 30. The women always found this quite hysterical.
Lalbanu was especially amused by my ramblings and we planned to meet back up in the afternoon to talk more. She had been involved with BRAC for over 20 years, and she happily agreed to share her story with us. We learned that like many women of her generation, she was married off at a very young age (13, she believes) to a much older man. As is still the practice for most Bangladeshi marriages of all socio-economic strata, she moved in with her new husband and in-laws. Though unsure of the reasons, she recalls being harassed and beaten by her new “family.” At some point she realized that she was the man’s second wife. When they realized that Lalbanu was unable to bear children, the abuse worsened. She remembers the entire village calling her names and continually disrespecting her. When things were at their worst, she found the courage to do the unthinkable and leave her in-laws home. Her husband chose to stand by her and come along. Though culturally discouraged, they moved elsewhere on their village and tried to make it on their own. This is when she found BRAC.
Lalbanu’s first involvement with BRAC was in microfinance. She chose to take a small loan, and thereby joined the VO. Her husband supported this decision, and they decided to use the 900 taka loan ($12 USD) to buy poultry. BRAC then gave them free training on raising these chickens and hens, including how to check their health and keep them productive. They also received training on planting and raising healthy plants on their small property. Later, BRAC began a program that gives day-old chicks to poor families, and Lalbanu and her husband received these as well.
Lalbanu had managed to escape a horrible situation and bravely started from scratch. She successfully managed to get herself and her husband on their own feet, but her road to a better life did not stop there. Her village had finally begun to respect her, even though she was a second wife and had no children of her own. About seven years after taking her first loan, BRAC officers had become well aware of her noteworthy strength and feisty spirit. BRAC chose her to become a “Shasthya shebika”– a health volunteer. She accepted this challenge and honor, and began receiving trainings from BRAC on veterinary skills, midwifery, infant care, sanitation, and curable disease detection and treatment. She has now been working as a shasta shebeika for her village for over 12 years.
So, in addition to raising her livestock for food and income, she dedicates her time to the health of her fellow villagers. She explained that yes, some of her village members are the same who tormented her years ago, but she is a woman of forgiveness and love. With this health position, she makes a very meager income (300 taka ($4 US) per month) from the medicines she sells. Moreover, she is a true saint of a volunteer, visiting households for four hours, six days a week. In total, she covers 176 households. The seventh day each week she travels to town to collect medicines to bring back and distribute. She regularly diagnoses and treats TB, a once common cause of death in her village. She teaches mothers a simple oral rehydration therapy to treat diarrhea, a condition that previously took the lives of over half the village’s babies.
Her work has not gone unnoticed. Her dedication has earned her adoration, respect, and appreciation from the very same village that once tormented her. When she speaks of the work she does as a health volunteer, she completely lights up. It is clear that this woman has truly found empowerment, confidence, and esteem though this work. She proudly notes that whenever anyone has a problem, she is the first person they call. Hard to believe this is the same timid 13 year old girl married off, shunned by her family, and disrespected by her neighbors. She rocks.
She tells us (and our video camera) her story with confidence and pizzazz, completely comfortable in the large crowd that has gathered around her in adoration and curiosity. We ask Lalbanu how many babies she has delivered, and she says too many to count, but at least seventy. Wow, we think, what an amazing accomplishment. Previously, due to very treatable but undetected and misunderstood birth complications, an absurd amount of mothers and babies were dying in childbirth in her village. As I sit listening in amazement, with this content and chubby (healthy!) baby in my lap, I wonder, did Lalbanu help deliver this baby?
So we have our translator ask: did she help deliver this baby? Yes, she casually replies, and that one, that one, that one…and so on. She points to over twenty babies and children, newborns to teenagers, in the crowd who she helped bring into this world. The mothers beam with pride for their children, and obvious affection and appreciation for Lalbanu’s amazing service. We ask to take a picture of Lalbanu with the children she has delivered, and she efficiently starts organizing the crowd. She takes our request very seriously and does not allow any child in the picture that does not belong! None of these kids have ever had their photo taken, so naturally we promise a long, fun photo shoot for all after our official Lalbanu-and-her-babies-only shot has been captured.
By now we are all in love with Lalbanu, her village, and her story. At a time and place when women had little say in the direction and quality of their lives, she dictated her own path and has become a heroine in her own time. She may have a dirt floor, just barely enough food to eat, and only a handful of possessions, but she is happy.
When we ask her what she is most proud of, she casually and quickly mentions the changes her work has brought to her village, the health of the children, the empowerment she feels, blah, blah, blah, and then proudly and slowly announces that BRAC once “picked her up in a car!” The crowd behind her beams with pride at their feisty and dynamic leader: so amazing she has even been given a ride in a car. And she is that amazing.