Back to Bangladesh -- Day 5

On our final day in Bangladesh, we set out to visit a Grameen Village Bank north of Dhaka city in Dhaladia, Rajendrupur. Grameen Bank was created by Bangladesh's legendary Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Mohamed Yunnus in 1976 who set out to become, as the title of the book about his life's work refers to him, "Banker to the Poor." While he did not invent the concept of microlending, he is responsible for elevating its level substantially and providing poor women the opportunity to lift themselves from poverty. Why women, specifically? Well, they are more likely to spend their earnings responsibly and just so happen to have a 98% repayment rate.

Having visited a Grameen Bank program on my previous trip, I thought that my travel companions, who are also business owners (and women), would also enjoy seeing and meeting some of these promising entrepreneurs while in Bangladesh.

We arrived into the picturesque setting of Dhaladia in time to see the community meeting in session. The members meet weekly under a tin-roofed space (which is also used for other meetings or sometimes as schools). Both a male "loan officer" and a female "chief of center" who are elected by the community members each year conduct the meetings. This particular center has been running for 25 years. We met several women whose memberships varied from entry-level to 27 years. We had the good fortune of meeting Afia, who received her first loan of 5,000 thaka (t) to start a pharmacy that she still runs today with the help of her son, Rajib. We also spoke to a woman named Nasareen, who bought a cow with her 10,000t loan. She now earns 250t a day selling its milk. She pays 250t back each week and is able to save approximately 500t on top of her living expenses. Most of the women in the meeting had one to two children each, and three had completed their studies. In data from 2009, 60% of Grameen's borrowers had lifted themselves from below the poverty line. Before leaving, Afia proudly invited us to her home for a tour and introduced us to her son.

We left just before a heavy rain set in and inched our way back to Dhaka for a meeting at the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB), which is a member of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

FBAB was established in 1953 in an attempt to control population growth in this densely populated part of the world and has been providing family planning and maternity care ever since. After a thorough tour of the facility we met with a group of community outreach volunteers who enthusiastically shared how satisfying the work they do is because the demand for information and services in Bangladesh is so great. When I asked why they do the work they do without compensation, they all agreed that the services they provide are essential. They are all mothers themselves and serve as mentors as much as anything else, as most model 'safer family sizes' to the community, as they all have small families.

Our last visit on this trip slightly strayed from the topic of maternal and child health, though it has an enormous effect on women and children. I'm so thankful that we had this unique opportunity after I heard so much about the Acid Survivors Foundation (established 12 years ago) from my friends at DFID. After all, it's a tragedy that is caused by a direct result of violence against girls and women.

Acid violence is a heinous act of burning, deformation and destruction of the face and other parts of the body of the victims, often causing disabilities and deaths by throwing acid as a means of revenge for resisting sexual harassment, refusing marriage proposal, or failure to pay dowry, etc. Acid violence is a form of vengeance for other types of social conflicts like disputes over land or other properties between families, neighborhood conflicts or even political rivalry. In most cases the women, young and adolescent girls and girl children are the victims. It is a criminal act, having a huge psychological and moral breakdown, as well as causing a deep sense of insecurity in the survivors.

We met Hasina, a 24-year-old woman who was attacked in 2004. Most attacks happen at night when it is difficult to see the attacker, making it hard to prosecute the offender. However, Hasina happened to know the identity of her attacker. He had worked as a house servant in her home and was infatuated with her. Following her attack, she was taken to Dhaka Medical College's burn center where she stayed for four months. Hasina describes her time in the hospital as scary, with bad treatment and painful dressing changes. She had two operations prior to arriving at ASF (where the care was profoundly better). In total, she has endured nine operations and was treated, rehabilitated and eventually sent home. Her time at home lasted two years before she returned to ASF begging for a job as there was too much stigma to bear in her village. With a little legal training, Hasina now helps as a caseworker at the foundation. She also authored an op-ed in one of the local newspapers giving her the opportunity to meet the police commissioner in Dhaka, whom she asked why her perpetrator had not been caught. The next day, her attacker was arrested and is now serving a life sentence. Before ASF's prevention campaign started in 2002, there were almost 500 recorded survivors. By 2010 the number had come down to roughly 153.

ASF is the only hospital in Bangladesh that specializes in acid burns, and so many cases are referred here, but there is not enough room or funding to treat everyone who suffers. After treatment here, there is vocational training so that the victims can find a way to provide for themselves. But there is still so much stigma and always an incredible amount of discomfort. The foundation is struggling to stay afloat and in need of more support. Hasina is a positive model to the children and young women who work with her here at ASF. As she shared her story with me, others made drawings as they quietly listened to her retell her tragic story.

Hasina is continuing her studies and hopes to have a career in the future. We exchanged contact information so we can keep in touch. I was also thrilled to hear that she is on Facebook!

Read Day 4 here.