Food banks have empowered some 5,000 women from mostly minority communities in 90 villages across Naogaon district
Women members of a food bank in Bangladesh weigh their week’s rice collection. (Photo from YouTube)
Sumati Hasdak has made a habit of setting aside a Musti Chal or fistful of rice as she cooks the meals three times a day.
The 34-year-old indigenous Santal Catholic from Bangladesh's northern Naogaon district knows that saving rice is her ticket to becoming self-reliant while also securing the future of her three children.
Sumati is among some 5,000 women, mostly from the minority communities, seeking self-sufficiency through this unique food bank initiative launched in March 2020.
She and her husband are day laborers. Like the others of their lot, they too were resigned to their fate – sleeping on an empty stomach – with the severe food crisis caused by the pandemic-imposed closures.
That was until she joined the first food bank that opened in her native Kawapara village in wake of the nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19.
The initiative was launched with the support and supervision of some national and international organizations. It required the poor women who could afford it to set aside a fist-sized portion of rice every day.
Today, this Musti Chal practice is helping out thousands of women across 90 villages in sub-districts under Naogaon — Sahapar and Niamatpur.
After they’ve saved enough rice, the women are free to sell it and use the money for income-generating activities like buying cattle, cultivating fish, or running a small household business.
But more importantly, as Sumati told UCA News: “We gave food from our food bank to those who did not have enough to eat at home.”
“The main purpose of our initiative is to put food on the plates of poor people and we did it very well during the pandemic,” she said.
This way the entire village was rid of hunger as everyone who benefitted from the food bank made sure they replenished its rice stock so that someone else could benefit in time of trouble.
Her village group has 50 women members who no longer need to borrow rice. Yet they continue to collect their fistfuls, pool them together and sell them for a good price in the market. The money is utilized to become economically self-sufficient through small income-generating initiatives.
“We want to develop together through the food bank without being burdened with debt by borrowing from other financial institutions at high-interest rates,” Sumati said.
There are other groups like Malati Murmu’s who managed to save around 26,268 taka (some US$300) and are planning to buy cows. “We will sell the cows and keep growing our business,” Malati told UCA News.
The women were trained to run food banks by the Borendro Development Organization (BDO) and funded by the Manusher Jonno Foundation (Foundation for the people), which works for the welfare of indigenous communities in the region.
Mohammad Anwar Hossain, the project coordinator of BDO, said they’ve been running the food bank initiative since 2015 but it really took off during the Covid-19 lockdown period.
“We have trained them and continue to discuss with them the possibilities of becoming self-sufficient through regular incomes,” Hossain told UCA News.
BDO has plans to expand the food banks network to other villages too. All it requires to start a women’s group is for 20-30 women to band together and set aside a fistful of rice whenever they cook a meal during a given week. The rice is kept in pots, which are then gathered inside a big drum at the end of the week.
The women’s group is then free to sell the rice and use the money to fund their income-generating activities of choice, which may include purchasing land, shops or even starting a business of their choice.
Economic empowerment is further helping the women grow in confidence. Their word now carries weight in the villages unlike in the past when they were too shy or afraid to speak publicly, women leaders said.
Caritas Bangladesh, the Catholic Church’s social service arm, was the first to start rice banks in the 1980s. They were named Rakshagola (rice storage) and the income was utilized to develop a microcredit project.
“We ran it for several years,” recalled Sukleash George Costa, regional director of Caritas Rajshahi region, while appreciating the food bank project.
“I wish this program will make the village women self-sufficient,” he said.
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