It’s hot and humid on the team’s second day in Bangladesh. Our home for the day is a small village in the Choto Kupot region only accessible by foot. The area is surrounded by water and prone to monsoon flooding with some parts covered in water for six months of the year. But it’s in this village that women like Momotaz are leading a change for their community, and for themselves.
Our water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in Bangladesh are our longest running projects. Funded through our impact partner Oxfam, the program’s aim is to reach the most remote regions in Bangladesh and provide safe water access, toilets and hygiene training. These programs not only provide solutions for the local community, they train women to build and maintain the water system - a role usually held by men.
Women are empowered to be leaders and change-makers, elevating them to a position of influence. So for women like Momotaz, these programs are not only providing new skills and a source of income – they are helping them find their voice.
We knew there was something special about Momotaz when we met her. She was warm, gentle and seemed to know everyone in the village - and we soon found out why. She’s been a proud member of the Women’s WASH Platform, a community group leading WASH changes, since 2010. When she’s not running the WASH training sessions at the local school, you’ll find her walking around the village, visiting families to see how changes have been implemented.
We sat down and spoke with Momotaz and as she reflected on her life before the program, we started to realise that she wasn’t just a change-maker, she was a rule breaker, too. She told us she didn’t leave her house before joining the WASH Platform and didn’t have a voice in her own home. She wasn’t allowed to speak to other men in the community either.
“Women were always lacking behind. Our opinions or suggestions were never considered. We weren’t allowed to do anything for the betterment of ourselves and our family.”
In parts of Bangladesh, women still have very traditional roles. It’s the men in the household who are the decision makers with women not viewed as having a voice, so as well as providing the hardware, these programs are a catalyst to change that. Not being one to let rules stand in her way, she joined the Women’s WASH Platform - without the permission of her husband. She’d attend WASH meetings in a neighbour’s courtyard, learning about things like storing safe water in her home and the right way to wash her hands. She took what she learnt and started to implement changes in her own home and noticed the health of her husband and children improving. With her passion for the program growing, she attended more meetings and started leading sessions and earning an income, still without the support of her husband.
“At first, he didn’t support me,” she said. “I had to make him understand that this is as important for me to work and bring income in the family.”
But as Momotaz became more involved with the program, her husband not only saw the positive changes in the home, he started to see the changes in her.
“My husband saw how I could speak well to others and provide knowledge in the sessions. His perspective about me working finally changed and he started supporting me rather than restricting me.”
As her confidence grew, and with the support of her family, Momotaz started leading training sessions at the local school. And what started with 20-30 mothers per session has since grown to 150 people per session – which now includes local fathers.
Outside of her training sessions, Momotaz visits 2-3 families every day to see how they are going with the new changes and what other learnings she can take back to the next WASH Platform meetings.
“I strongly believe, if we keep working together for the betterment of the community these unhealthy practices will vanish from here and no one would get sick any more.”
Now, with children in school, Momotaz is inspiring the next generation, with her children involved in school WASH programs proudly sharing with other students what they have learnt from their mum.
But she believes there is still more to do in the community to support the WASH program and wants to continue to empower women to lead the change - and find their voice.
“Women of our community have come to a level where we can proudly stand on our feet and communicate with others with our head held high. I hope that we keep moving forward like this and go beyond where we are now.”