A formerly quiet woman is leveraging a tiny investment of US foreign aid to enable women to speak loudly and powerfully to improve health and education in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
When you get up to speak in front of a group of people, does your stomach flip? Do you sweat more, get dry mouth, even heart palpitations? Many do. The dread of public speaking is one of the most common fears of people around the world.
Now imagine if you are a woman, brought up having to obey the family dictum and with a limited circle of interaction. You may be seen as a burden to an impoverished family, yet have to bear the weight of caring for its members.
Imagine now you have summoned the courage to step up before a panel of local officials, all older than you, all male, and perhaps of another class and caste. What will you say?
Majeda Begum Shiru says that in her community of Patiya in the south eastern Chittagong district of Bangladesh, her fellow citizens are not afraid to speak up.
"The women say, 'I am unable to send my child to school. How do you plan to solve that problem?' Because of these kinds of questions being asked, [the officials] must answer to the public directly."
It was not always this way. Shiru herself rarely used to go into government offices. "Even if I did, I felt uncomfortable," she says. A local NGO, Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS), with support from USAID, provided public speaking and leadership training to Shiru and many other women, strengthening their confidence and ability to engage in public.
Today Shiru has become one of the locally-elected officials she used to fear.
Shiru is a leader in the District Public Policy Forum, where citizens and civil society groups engage with local members of Parliament, departments of education and health, and local government officials to discuss issues of importance to the community. These forums in Bangladesh are supported by a USAID and Asia Foundation project called "Promoting Democratic Institutions and Practices", and in the Patiya District by USAID's local partner BNPS. The process of having regular forums such as these raises awareness of government's responsibilities among citizens, and can lead to reduced corruption or abuse of government funds when Parliamentarians are more connected to the issues the community faces on a day-to-day basis.
"Women can now speak out and voice out their problems directly. The MP [promises] his community that their concerns will be discussed in the house of Parliament," Shiru explains.
Strong women like Majeda Begum Shiru are using the forums to address the high rates of maternal mortality and primary school drop-outs in their area. Recently, during a District Public Policy Forum (DPPF) meeting in Patiya, the group Shiru leads to support the local hospital successfully advocated for adding an additional doctor to the gynecology ward and improvements to the ambulance. In response to calls from Shiru and the community to improve the education system, the local school will soon be providing breakfast and lunch for the students on a trial basis, in an effort to encourage better attendance.
"Whenever there is a school gathering, or any sort of general gathering in the area, there are a large number of women present. We speak out to make these pressing issues known," says Shiru. "It is only after I joined the DPPF that I found out new ways to empower women. I saw that to acquire [government] funds, we had to exert a lot of pressure to get it."
USAID invested in long-term skills development in women in the "Promoting Democratic Institutions and Practices" Project to ensure they can share their concerns and opinions regarding health and education needs for themselves and their families in public meetings well into the future.
At the Patiya District Public Policy Forum in July 2012, the convener Pankaj Chakroborti said, "Citizens, they are aware of their rights and thus can demand for better treatment, so the scenario is slowly changing. The authorities at all levels, in all sectors, are becoming more proactive."
Shiru believes this will continue. "BNPS has opened our eyes about our rights and place in the community, we have learned how to speak up for ourselves," she says. "We will continue to do so long after this project has expired."
In recent years, the US government launched policy reforms that make US foreign aid more accountable to you and local leaders like Majeda Begum Shiru.
Aid works best when it supports local actors to take action and change the circumstances which place or keep them or their fellow citizens in poverty—supporting them to build a dream, build a business, support their family, or help their community.
That's why Oxfam America is working to deepen the US government's commitment to making aid more effective. They can do so by putting more US aid dollars directly in the hands of people like Majeda Begum Shiru.
Note: Oxfam America doesn't take federal funds, but we do support effective development programs. In 2012, the Aid Effectiveness Team conducted research to highlight effective uses of the 1% of foreign aid the U.S. government spends on poverty reduction and other life-saving assistance. The people featured in this series are not necessarily receiving direct assistance from Oxfam.