I met Tania five weeks ago during a field visit to Barisal, a city in Southern Bangladesh. I had gone to collect stories from female entrepreneurs in a small sub-district and learn about their lives before and since they began generating an income. Tania clearly stood out as the youngest of all the women I met. Before I was even able to speak to her, the women around informed me that Tania was a widow with a child. I did not know what made me more uncomfortable: the idea that she looked too young to be married let alone a widowed mother, or the fact that the women around felt comfortable sharing this personal fact about her before I even got a chance to properly meet her.
Tania is a part of the 74% of women aged 20-49 married before age 18 in Bangladesh. Extreme poverty is one of the biggest drivers pushing parents to marry their daughters young, reducing their chances to complete their education as they typically drop out of school to work in the home of their husband’s parents. Although Tania wanted to continue on with her education, the pressure of maintaining the expenses of a large family meant that when she received a marriage proposal, her parents accepted.
Though everyone around had identified Tania as the young widow, she did not refer to herself in that way. Tania instead talked about her role as a Farm Business Advisor (FBA), a title coined and developed by iDE for independent micro-entrepreneurs trained by the international NGO. Tania was selected as an FBA by a group of farmers in recognition of her leadership abilities during a training conducted by an EU-funded food security project.
According to research conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2012, approximately 65% all employed women in Bangladesh are engaged in the agriculture sector yet close to 60% of them are treated as unpaid family labor. A recent report by the World Bank highlighted that women’s employment in Bangladesh and South Asia at large has been viewed mainly from a welfare perspective rather than a core growth issue focusing on small anti-poverty and micro-credit programs rather than on linking them to markets. iDE’s approach to improving the livelihoods of the poorest works to address this gap as it empowers the FBA, many of whom are women, to deepen the reach of the private sector into low-income segments of the rural population by acting as intermediaries and aligning agricultural production with market demand. FBAs are trained to encourage and equip the poorest farmers to grow market oriented crops by offering products and advice to farmers on reducing risk, improving productivity, using quality inputs and accessing market information. The model follows the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach which focuses on developing inclusive business strategies with lead firms from the ‘top down’ through product or business model development in order to meet the purchasing requirements of low-income consumers and profitably access BoP market spaces. The success of the model is based on the assumption that once links are formed between market actors and opportunities are identified, economic incentives will drive business between actors rather than project support. The model is sustained as FBAs make a small profit for the services they provide and because iDE’s role is limited to facilitating links between private sector actors and farmers.
For women in Bangladesh who are often dependent on their husbands, having their capacity built to serve as income earning leaders in their community has meant greater decision-making power in the household. And for single mothers like Tania, a livelihood has meant a life free from the threat of complete destitution. “I do not think about my husband’s passing much,” she said. “I know people think I should be more emotional but all I think about his how I am going to provide for my child. I do not want to be a burden on my parents and I want to live with dignity. When I am able to take care of myself and my child, I am able to do that.”