Champa, a young farmer, in her garden.
Lush and abundant with water resources and an endless growing season, Bangladesh is also rich in culture and history. The region of Bengal in the eastern Indian sub-continent, home of the Bengal culture, dates back over four millennia to the Copper Age. Once part of Pakistan, Bangladesh won independence in 1971.
Bangladesh has slowly been making economic progress. Today, the country still struggles with natural disasters, climate change, poverty and political turmoil. Disparities in entitlement to land and resources persist, as does pollution from the rising industrial sector. However, Bangladesh is making great progress in food security, and the economy has grown on average about six per cent over the last two decades.
Because land in Bangladesh is an extremely scarce resource, small-holder farmers must develop strategies to produce good and stable yields while using sustainable and locally accessible resources that preserve and enhance biodiversity and resilience.
Bangladesh remains one of the poorest, most densely populated countries in the world. There are 1,100 people per square kilometre, and more than 30 per cent of the population lives below the national poverty line. That is about 47 million people living in poverty and another 26 million people in extreme poverty. More than 60 per cent of the population is dependent on an agriculture-based rural economy. Vulnerable to soil degradation and increasingly extreme weather patterns, it is also one of the countries most threatened by rising sea levels.
Girls and young women are among the most vulnerable with limited social standing and access to land and livelihood opportunities. Poor rural young girls are often either married at a very young age or are sent to urban centres to work in very low paying jobs.
USC Canada in Bangladesh
USC Canada began working in Bangladesh in 1971 as it struggled to recover from a devastating war for independence. At the time, USC Canada founder, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, was on one of the first relief trains into the country, coming via neighbouring India to the northwest. By the late ‘70s, USC Canada had set up orphanages and programs for displaced women and children, and had started community work around them to build food gardens and provide skills training and education.
Recognizing a need, USC Canada began to specialize in livelihoods and life skills training among adolescent girls, becoming widely recognized for our Lifeskills and Education for Adolescent Development (LEAD) program that helped transform the lives of thousands of young women.
Our Local Partners: Samajik Kollan Songstha (SKS) and Udayankur Seba Sangstha (USS)
Our recent work has built on this success with young women, pairing it with the food and seeds work of our Seeds of Survival program. With two strong and innovative local community organizations, SKS in Thakurgaon and USS in Nilphamari, USC Canada now focuses the entire Bangladesh program on agricultural biodiversity activities with 10,000 young women, ages 15 to 30.
Where Do We Work? Thakurgaon and Nilphamari
The Seeds of Survival Bangladesh program aims to strengthen young women farmers' groups – and their communities to increase knowledge and skills in agricultural biodiversity. One of the key components is support for vegetable growing and seed saving for enhancing family nutrition and creating income generating opportunities. The program has initiated linkages with market actors to explore how to enhance opportunities for young farmers to sell their products.
The Seeds of Survival program in Bangladesh supports young girls in earning income from these newly developed Earth-friendly farming skills. Small parcels of land in their communities are being made accessible to them. Increasingly, young women are taking on leadership positions in their farmers' groups.
In the communities where we work, these young women are earning respect from their families and communities for their farming skills, and their ability to contribute to family incomes as they sell surpluses to local markets.
In 2013, some initial research was done on use of permaculture techniques as a way of maximizing use of homestead land for growing vegetables year round on land that would otherwise be left unused. Following the introduction of soil testing techniques, participating young women farmers started to use more organic fertilizers for improving soil conditions.
Economic Growth in Rural Communities
Home and communal gardens yield surpluses, but due to social and economic traditions, direct sale at most markets is outside the reach of young women. Our local partners, SKS and USS, have been testing out a unique tri-weekly pick up of vegetables from depot households associated with many of the groups. A pedal-powered rickshaw van picks a farmers' groups' produce at a central location - often the home of the group's leader. The rickshaw driver pays for the food up front and takes it to market. The group members are able to sell produce at a premium price because it is organic. And they can do so close to their homes.
Improving the value chain and the expansion of market opportunities for young women is a growing area of focus.