On International Women’s Day CARE charts big improvements in Bangladesh

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Measuring a child's height in Dhaka, Bangladesh
A Bangladeshi child being measured for their height is part of the SHOUHARDO Program in Dhaka. This program, started in 2006 by CARE, USAID and the government of Bangladesh has worked strongly to slow down child 'stunting,' known as slow growth in children due to malnutrition that prevents them from reaching a normal height for their age. To reach the goal improvement in nutrition and child health has been promoted widely among Bangladeshi mothers suffering from severe poverty. Image: CARE International

(WNN/CARE) Dhaka, BANGLADESH: Once prohibited from leaving her home without a male escort, Bangladesh native Rina Begum blossomed into a member of three school committees as she became the leader of something in Bangladesh known as an EKATA group that, among other things, stopped four child marriages. “This room was not the only destination in my life,” she said from the building where her group meets. “I had to explore beyond it.”

Economists and nutrition experts were shocked at the data coming out of SHOUHARDO, a $126 million project designed to fight  malnutrition in Bangladesh and improve the lives of more than 2 million of the country’s poorest people.

Stunting, a measure showing the shortfall in a child’s growth due to malnutrition, has plummeted 28 percent from February 2006 to November 2009, even as Bangladesh suffered a crop-crushing cyclone and food-price spikes caused by global grain shortages.

The annual stunting decrease was nearly double the average for U.S. government food security projects of this kind.

Designed and implemented by the poverty-fighting organization CARE, the SHOUHARDO project included a wide array of interventions, from child feeding and sustainable agriculture to sanitation and climate change adaptation. But researchers discovered that another force had actually produced the greatest independent impact on stunting.

The game-changer? Women’s empowerment. Efforts to combat the deeply entrenched disparities between women and men had reduced stunting even more than giving women and their children food.

This idea — that women’s empowerment can have a transformative effect on families and communities — is not new. Every day, the people who work on the front lines of the fight against poverty see what happens when you remove economic, political and social barriers holding back women and girls. But too often we lack even the basic tools for measuring that progress. The lack of data broken down by gender makes it hard to know how many businesses are owned by women in a given region, for example, or how many women have title to land.

SHOUHARDO (which stands for “Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities” and also means “friendship” in the Bangla language) had promoted female entrepreneurship, encouraged greater participation by mothers in their children’s education and supported self-help groups where women and girls could address taboo subjects such as early marriage, dowry and violence against women. Once reluctant to leave their homes, the women of SHOUHARDO started traveling to markets to buy and sell goods. Detailed surveys revealed that their influence over household decisions — from the use of savings to what foods to buy — increased too. At the same time, the children were growing healthier — and taller.

This is the kind of empowerment you can measure with a yard stick.

“What we saw was a clear pattern,” said Lisa Smith, a senior economist at TANGO International, the firm hired to evaluate the project. “Women who participated in the empowerment interventions were getting better antenatal care, eating more nutritious food and getting more rest during pregnancy. They and their children also had better diets in term of the variety of foods.”

Back in the poorest parts of Bangladesh, SHOUHARDO has demonstrated the value of taking a tape measure to women’s empowerment. Detailed surveys conducted before, during and after the project showed that a score measuring women’s overall decision-making power increased by 23 percent.

“There’s an old saying: What gets measured, gets noticed,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in November 2011, as she called on the world to fill the information gap. “So that means we must collect data so we are constantly focused on how better to integrate women into our economies, and using this evidence, build gender-inclusive development policies that work.” Clinton then announced the Evidence for Data on Gender Equality initiative, or EDGE, which is led by the United Nations and will attempt to harmonize gender data kept across nations.

The women of SHOUHARDO also had more say about women’s empowerment in business, the use of loans and savings and the selling of major household assets and expenditures for personal items for themselves and their children. Also noteworthy was the jump in women’s contribution to decision making about expenses for family planning. Women grew more active in local village courts too.

Among the most effective interventions was the formation of EKATA (Empowerment, Knowledge and Transformative Action) groups in 408 of the 2,342 villages, including the Dhaka slums that have been part of the SHOUHARDO program. These groups of 20 women and 10 teenage girls met regularly, analyzing their own circumstances and generating solutions to the problems they face.

Girls learned from the women’s life experience and the women committed to protecting the girls from violence and abuse.

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