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On 20 May, 2020, super cyclone Amphan tore through the coastal regions of southern Bangladesh. Sufia Begum emerged from the safety of a cyclone shelter with her husband only to find their home destroyed by a fallen tree. Seeing the damage, she broke down in tears. “We were already struggling to manage food,” she said. “Where do we live now? Where will we get the money to repair the house?”
Sufia Begum and her husband Golam Hosain live in a remote village in Satkhira in south-western Bangladesh – a hotspot of climate-related hazards such as cyclones, tidal surges, and salinity intrusion.
Married at 14, Sufia raised her four children on the income Hosain made as a day labourer, until he became ill and could no longer work. To support her family, Sufia began working as a househelp. Even as their children married and moved out of the house, there was barely enough income to survive.
In 2019, Sufia was selected as a participant in BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) Programme. The programme provided Sufia with rigorous mentorship and an asset transfer of cattle to jumpstart her path out of poverty.
By February 2020, Sufia had sold two cows and diversified her income sources to include raising chickens, tailoring, renting a piece of cultivable land, and Hosain was selling items from a van.
“Things were going smooth for the first time in our life,” Sufia said. “We were not worried about managing everyday food anymore”.
In March 2020, the Government of Bangladesh declared a nationwide lockdown to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. People living in extreme poverty were hit especially hard, due to the loss of work and sharp drops in the market value of assets. Sufia and Hosain were no exception.
No one placed tailoring orders with Sufia, and Hosain had to stop pulling his van due to movement restrictions on the roads. The market prices had dropped so low that they could not sell their cattle. After a year of growth and developing a steady, sustainable livelihood, Sufia and Hosain were once again struggling to earn enough to survive.
This time though, Sufia and Hosain were not alone. They were connected with BRAC staff of the Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme and received timely information on hygienic practices and COVID-19 prevention strategies that helped prevent them from falling ill.
The programme also helped Sufia connect with community and government relief services. After the Super Cyclone Amphan tore through her village, the relief services provided food and hygiene supplies, as well as a food stipend and assistance to repair Sufia’s home.
When the lockdown was lifted, Hosain was able to resume his work pulling the van and Sufia started using her multiple sources of income to support their household. As market prices began to increase, she sold her cow and used the money to buy another cow and handle household expenses. She has also taken a loan from BRAC Microfinance Programme to purchase a battery for Hosain’s van to improve that income stream.
“We started with empty hands, but now we are dreaming of a life free from poverty and hunger,” says Sufia.
While the future ahead is uncertain for everyone globally at the moment, people like Sufia and Hosain are taking gradual steps towards building resilience against falling back into ultra poverty, to ensure that future economic shocks will affect them less and less.
Md Akram Hosain is Branch Manager, Kazirhat, Satkhira, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme. Upoma Mahbub is Advocacy Manager, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Programme. Elaina Conrad is Associate, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative.