These inspiring women survived a flood, provided for their families, and claimed their equal rights, too

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Saleha Begum in her home in Panjar Bhanga, Bangladesh. Rachel Corner/Oxfam

In their own words, women from Bangladesh explain how they fought back in the face of disaster.

People in Panjar Bhanga, northern Bangladesh, were facing a crisis. During monsoon season, the nearby Teesta River overflowed its banks and washed away homes and crops, leaving families in the grip of poverty and hunger.

Saleha Begum, 35: When it floods, our whole land is under water and there is no work. There was one point where we couldn’t even eat one small meal a day. We used to starve for two or three days before borrowing money from other people to pay for food. Sometimes, the floods lasted for 10 to 15 days and it [was] difficult to find food. My son [age 7] couldn't go to school.

The village of Panjar Bhanga, Bangladesh, is vulnerable to flooding from a nearby river. Rachel Corner/Oxfam

Bankim Chandrashaha, project coordinator for Oxfam’s local partner organization, Social Equality for Effective Development (SEED): The main problem here is the flood intensifying each year because of climate change. The flood washes land away, so people can’t grow crops. And even if they have crops they don’t have a reliable market where they can sell them. … There’s also a lack of awareness of women’s rights – most women stay at home and don’t have any confidence to handle money, or even earn money.

Oxfam and SEED sat down with 30 local women to talk about possible solutions. After considering a number of options, the women decided to try raising cows and selling milk.

Bankim Chandrashaha: The main benefit of cows is that, unlike land, you can move your main asset easily, especially during the floods. There has always been a demand for milk in this area, which means families can always earn money to buy food, even during a period where is little work. …  [And] rearing cows is a women-friendly activity. Traditionally, it’s seen as a women’s role. It’s helped us to ensure that women can become leaders.

Oxfam and local partner organization SEED helped Saleha Begum purchase her dairy cows. Rachel Corner/Oxfam

Oxfam and SEED then helped families purchase cows and provided training on how to keep the animals healthy and productive. They also organized leadership workshops for women and helped the women identify ways to protect their families during floods.

Aklima Khatun, 40: After the project started in this village, we got training on different things, such as rearing cows to produce milk, how to deal with the floods, and leadership, and how to deal with life. …They’ve trained us how to look after and get milk from a cow, and how to treat [cattle] diseases. Without the training, I couldn’t have been a dairy farmer.

Renu Bala, 35: [Now] before the flood comes in, we keep the money and the deeds for our land in a safe place. We collect dry food, kerosene, and firewood. We send pregnant women, elderly people and children to a safe location, and cows and goats too. When the flood recedes, we clean the [well] and we drink boiled water.

Aklima Khatun, left, tests the quality of milk produced by Saleha Begum's cows. Rachel Corner/Oxfam

The 30 women formed a dairy producers’ group to share knowledge and resources and connect with buyers. Today, the group is thriving.

Renu Bala: I took the initiative to set up this collection center. I'm the unit manager. We collect all the milk together and sell it to Rangpur Dairy or a local market. Even at the market we still sell it at a high price. We earn a lot of money—we couldn't have made that money if we sold that milk independently. Now when we all sell it together we earn a lot more than we did before.

Saleha Begum: Because I’m producing milk and selling it, I don’t have to be dependent on my husband anymore. Even if my husband doesn’t have any income, I can save money from my milk and help pay for my son’s education. … Now, we eat three meals a day, and we eat fish every day, and meat at least once a week. It’s really good now, and my boy is much healthier. In the future, I want my son to carry on his studies and then to be well educated and have a good job so our life is better.

Renu Bala, head of the dairy producers' group, uses a tablet to contact buyers and keep track of market information. Abir Abdullah/Oxfam

The women told Oxfam that setting up their dairy business changed the role they played in their households—and the way they saw themselves.

Aklima Khatun: The women here are more outgoing now. They’re making money and saving money. Before, women couldn’t raise their voice, they couldn’t even talk with other people, but now we can go to the [local council], we can go to the medical center, we can go to different places and claim our rights. Even if they say no, we can raise our voice and say ‘This is our right and we should have it.’

Saleha Begum: Now I’m equal with my husband. It feels really good and I’m proud of myself. My husband is really happy about it too! He never thought that women could go out and make money, but after this he can see that they can. He’s very supportive now.

Renu Bala: Ten years ago I was only a woman in this village. But now I have moved forward a lot. I can go to meetings and hearings, and talk in front of a lot of people. After receiving the women’s leadership training, I give advice to women in the village so that they understand that child marriage is harmful, and so there is no domestic violence in households. … I'm an empowered woman now. I'm better than before.

Reported from Bangladesh by Ben Beaumont. Edited by Anna Kramer.

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