Sitting at my desk on this International Women’s Day, I’m reminded of the opportunities I’ve been given to be educated and earn an income to support my family. I don’t take this for granted, especially when I read stories like that of Rashida Begum, who grew up in the overcrowded slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She never went to school and was forced into marriage at just 13 years old. By the time she was 18, she had five children.
Despite the odds against her, today, Rashida has a thriving business. She’s able to use the talents she learned as a child – embroidery and bead work – and has gained self-confidence from the growing list of customer orders she receives. Even though she’s illiterate and living in a male-dominated, oppressive society, Rashida is able to support her family with her income.
It all began with a small business loan, which she desperately needed. Unfortunately, in many countries, skill and incentive aren’t enough. The loan enabled her to buy materials and start selling things. It’s amazing to think how different her life is, simply because she’s able to work. She’s also able to pay for her kids to go to school, which means the benefits of her business will carry into the next generation.
Microlending is a simple concept that leads to independence for so many women around the world. In honor of International Women’s Day, take a minute to learn more about it. For a small investment, you could change a life in a developing country.
World Concern Director of International Health Programs Dr. Paul Robinson began his new position with a trip to Bangladesh, his native country. He visited World Concern’s programs there and shares some of his experiences below.
Meet Doctor Ragib
At a World Concern sponsored elementary school in Bangladesh, I met a young boy named Rajib. I asked him what he hopes to become when he grows up. Rajib looked straight at me and matter-of-factly, with great confidence in his voice, told me without batting eye, “I will be a doctor.”
This short encounter reminded me of another young boy in Bangladesh, who some decades ago dreamt of becoming a doctor. He had very little chance on his own and his family had no resources for his medical education. But only thru God’s grace and His provision that young school boy not only earned his medical degree in Bangladesh, but also became a seminary graduate, and a public health professional in the U.S.
I know this story of God’s miracle very well because I am that boy. And I know He can do the same for Ragib.
With World Concern support, Ragib is well on his way to becoming an accomplished physician as he continues to come to school every day with his dad giving him a ride on his bicycle.
Completing the circle
Her bright eyes, warm smile and gentle spirit connect this young teacher, Jhoomoor Roy, to her elementary students at a World Concern sponsored school in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Watching her in the classroom, it was hard for me to believe that Jhoomoor used to sit on these same benches in this same school just a few years ago, herself a young, student whose education was sponsored by World Concern.
With stellar results, she passed her school and college finals. As she continues her studies at the university, Jhoomoor teaches at this school, completing a full circle from being a student here herself to helping children who, like her, are now being educated.
Donations to World Concern have not only brought blessings to one, but to successive generations as well.
I knew we were on our way to a Dhaka slum, but on the way, the slum wafted into the car. The sour, stomach-turning odor matched what I began seeing: fly-covered piles of trash lining the sides of this Bangladeshi road. Crows and cows picked through the festering debris, hunting for food. Plastic bags and chicken bones emerged from the piles, all cooking in the sticky 100 degree heat. And on top of the mess: a couple of barefoot, shirtless kids.
The boys wandered through the piles, looking for something to eat. My van stopped nearby, and I popped open the door, holding my breath, which only works for so long. I watched one boy, maybe five years old, as he held a piece of scrap metal and poked at the garbage. He would head in one direction, then change routes, scanning the ground.
At one point, the tan, black-haired boy picked up what looked like half of a rotten melon. He brought it to his face, took a whiff, dropped it, then silently kept on moving. He eventually disappeared from view behind a shack, near where a woman (his mother?) was prodding at another pile of trash. It was almost as if they were thinking, “surely, this is not all there is for me.”
Across the street I saw row after row of ramshackle homes. Waterfront shanties, with front lawns of blowing trash. The nearby lake was red with pollution. Who knows what chemicals had been dumped in there to make that unnatural color. Later in my trip across Bangladesh, I saw a river that was black with grime, and saw a barge pump something grey directly into a lake. I am not sure if the fishermen nearby even noticed.
Without a doubt, this experience is depressing. Still, I know that World Concern is doing something to change this situation. A few minutes after we drove away from the slum, we visited a woman now able to provide for her family because of a small business loan. After that, I met another woman who has a growing screen-printing business because of World Concern.
We can’t take care of all of the problems in this slum, but we are doing what we can to change the picture of poverty here, one person at a time.
Surely some of the excitement was just being able to hold the flopping carp for a moment. But the joy beaming across the face of a young fisherman was sincere. He and others had just pulled in their nets and revealed thousands of healthy fish, income for people who have struggled for so long. Once I learned the back-story behind this Bangladeshi fishing hole, and others like it, I was amazed to hear how it has come to be.
First, let me introduce you to Abdul. He lives in aBangladesh farming community where small village businesses are set on stilts above rice paddies, and watermelons are piled high on the sidewalks. Here, it’s just as likely to travel by canoe as by car. Charming in its own way, but still incredibly poor.
Abdul has a large family; his wife and four of his girls were home when I visited. He was unable to support them on his meager income as a rickshaw driver. No matter if he worked eight hours a day – or 15 – he was still coming up short, and was not always able to provide them with enough food. No education for the girls. No savings. Not even a mindset of a future.
But about six years ago, Abdul was interested in World Concern‘s offer to begin a fish farming business. He began receiving – and repaying – loans for fish farm nets, feed and other supplies. And he got busy, making sure the fish had a healthy pond. He stuck to the plan. And it worked.
The fish grew, along with his confidence. He eventually was able to buy land for his family, and build a home. He makes and mends nets by hand. He saves at least $500 US every year, which is a tremendous amount of money in Bangladesh. In addition to the money, World Concern has walked with him, teaching him about fish farming and how to ethically run his small business. Now, he is the driving force behind this fish pond, one of many ponds in the area now able to support families in significant ways.
That happy young fisherman I described at the beginning of this story is one of many who benefit from World Concern’s humanitarian work with Abdul and other entrepreneurs. Many men in the village now raise fish frys, providing the men with steady income. The wealth spreads. Good humanitarian aid works that way, in changing the lives of not only one person, but in working through that person to help others in the community.
Abdul is buying cows now, building wealth. Sitting in front of his home, with his family inside about ready to sit down for lunch, he grinned and told me he is blessed and grateful to have the chance to live a better life.
I arrived in Dhaka at the peak of the summertime, where my sweat-drenched shirt never dries in the near 100 degree heat, and the power seems to go out every few hours (like it did as I typed this sentence).
During my first five minutes in Bangladesh, beggars approached us as we walked to our vehicle at the airport, then more beggars asked for our help as we drove on the streets. Crammed among the cars are 3-wheeled rickshaws driven by thin chauffeurs. If they’re not waiting for a customer, they’re standing on the pedals, straining against a load.
Other countries where I have documented World Concern’s humanitarian work face more significant problems with infrastructure. In Haiti, some roads in the city are in such disrepair, it is like they had never been leveled or paved. In fact, it was simply years of neglect – coupled with some storms. Dhaka generally has nicely paved streets, and many homes and businesses have power, outside of the frequent blackouts. In Kenya, access to clean water seemed like a greater need than here, though I have not yet seen conditions in the poorest homes made of scrap wood and sheet metal.
This is not to say Bangladesh does not have great need. I can see it in the man without legs who instead walks with his hands. I see it in the older gentlemen crouched on the hot sidewalk, without eyes, who was hoping that somewhere in the blackness, people would provide him with coins for a bowl of rice. The average income here: $4 a day.
Outside the wall of a World Concern-sponsored school that was in session, I see the need in the children without shoes or uniforms, who play marbles in the dirt instead of learning how to read in a classroom. Like in many places where we work, schooling here is not guaranteed. It is usually only a privilege for the wealthy, or for those benefiting from an organization like ours. We give 5,000 children an opportunity they may not have otherwise had.
I was not able to find a guidebook about Bangladesh prior to my trip here to document programs. It is the least Western country I have visited, with no familiar stores or advertisements, and very little English on signs outside of on the primary thoroughfares. From what I’ve seen so far, I suspect there are very few people from the West who visit Dhaka, which means less foreign investment, both financially, and in awareness of the country. Did you know Bangladesh is more populated than Mexico or Russia?
So far I have visited a medical clinic and a school, both packed with people and highly regarded in the community. Once again I am pleased to see World Concern working in areas of intense poverty. Though Christians amount to about one half of one percent of the population, I see the hands of Christ working through our humanitarians, both employees and volunteers. They touch the lives of those in desperate need of compassion.