Who would have guessed, that the world-wide-web would make it possible to empower a little extremely poor girl in Rampal, a remote corner of Bangladesh?
I work at shiree, as the advocacy advisor of a livelihood programme that aims to help 300,000 families climb out of extreme poverty. In plain words, we give assets to very poor families to help them earn money. These families, our ‘beneficiaries’, then have a chance to make a transformational change in their lives and break the inter-generational transfer of poverty.
Around the world, the burden of poverty falls on mothers, and in Bangladesh this is also the case. Many of the families I work with are female-headed, as husbands often abandon their wives and young children to escape the desperate conditions of poverty and eke out a living on their own. Child marriage is common, domestic abuse is prevalent and dowries are the norm here. This is a sad situation but the good news is that the internet has helped me empower these marginalized women in many ways.
CMS is an innovative, digital monitoring tool that focuses on beneficiary self-assessment of change and voice recordings. It is administered by the field staff using software-equipped mobile phones that automatically transmit beneficiary data to shiree’s central program database. This database is online and available to all for monitoring and checking. This makes it possible to customize and target support when and where necessary. This also helps us identify trends, preempt troubles and manage efficiently the design of supplementary packages.
This is particularly helpful for women who are the main bearers of extreme poverty. Also, we have special indicators within our system that address gender specific vulnerabilities such as child marriage, dowry, domestic abuse, pregnancy, etc. With this online tool, I am able to keep track of, for example, a family with a sixteen year old girl who might be married off if they run into hard times. I draw this example not from theory but practice.
To test how effectively CMS 2 could be used to empower women and prevent child marriages, I looked at the data, picked a village with particularly high rates of child marriage (Rampal, Khulna) and selected 3 female-headed households with adolescent girls aged 16. I then traveled to Khulna and met these three girls to see what their real stories were like, had I correctly identified vulnerabilities from the graph on the web?
The three girls I met were indeed in terrible situations. All were in school, doing very well, but due to scarcity of funds and lack of male guardianship, were facing pressure from their mothers to get married. I spoke to the mothers and offered counsel, related to the dangers of child marriage, but their replies showed me the stark reality. “What else can we do,” they explained teary-eyed. “Our daughters are attracting the attention of good-for-nothing local boys and we cannot protect them for much longer. We cannot afford to keep them at home very well either nor can we afford to continue their schooling as it gets more expensive after SSC (gr 10).”
The direst of the lot was a girl named Fatima, who had scored an A+ in school, but who, for lack of funds and vulnerability, had not been allowed to enroll for further studies. Both Fatima and her mother were heart-broken. Fatima had no desire to get married but she and her mother lived in her grandmother’s home, with her two uncles, who both felt she was an unnecessary burden.
Disheartened, I wondered what use this monitoring tool was if I had no options to offer vulnerable beneficiaries once I had identified them. As a writer, my weapon is my pen, so I decided to battle this demon with a story. I wrote about Fatima’s dilemma in Daily Star a few months ago.
Luckily a kind reader was moved to action and has offered to pay for the remaining few years of Fatima’s education! This compassion was unexpected and beautiful. Fatima was thrilled.
However, as far as my pilot goes, on empowering women through CMS 2, I am still searching for some sustainable options. One idea that we will be playing with is to offer vocational skills training and then jobs to girls who are 16, vulnerable to child marriage, and searching for an escape. Again, we have used CMS 2 to identify these girls, and we will soon approach them to see if this is a suitable solution for them. I will keep you posted as we watch the results.
In the meantime, I encourage you, my readers, to explore the statistics. CMS 2 data are available to everyone online. If you have some bright ideas of how we may help extremely poor girls, or families, please let me know!