Symbiosis – Bangladesh

Jamuna River Development Project

The Jamuna River is one of the largest rivers in the world and divides Bangladesh into east and west. In the middle of the river there are two sandbars, home to around 30,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers who try to grow some rice, vegetables or wheat before the wet season comes and the river becomes a torrent which floods the islands. River erosion is gradually shifting the sandbars downstream, and the communities who live there must shift with them. In this area there are no towns, large schools, colleges, hospitals or any other infrastructure, and the transient nature of the environment makes it very difficult for the government to invest there. The main form of transport is by small boat.

The project started with the building of a four-room primary school on land donated by a local man. In 2012, Partners in Aid funded a second primary school. A pre-school class is now operating. Having schools on the island removes a major barrier to attendance as these younger children do not have to take a long boat trip to the mainland, meaning they are more likely to complete their primary education and move on to secondary school. Finding teachers is an ongoing challenge; Partners in Aid provides funds for skills development for the teachers to help ensure that the children can get the most from their classes. Both of the school buildings are portable and will ‘leap-frog’ down the island as the island shifts downstream due to erosion from monsoonal flooding, although the newer school is of a more substantial structure to better withstand cyclones.

The existence of the primary schools underpins the broader community development work undertaken by Symbiosis. This work encompasses a range of activities including:

  • Functional education (adult literacy and numeracy) – acquiring these basic skills increases people’s ability to earn an income, builds confidence and self-reliance, and also helps them get involved in their children’s learning.
  • Food production – tree planting and kitchen gardening are helping to provide healthy food to families as well as generating income from selling the produce. An added benefit of planting trees is that they stabilise the soil and help prevent erosion.
  • Arsenic testing – there is no mains water on the island and the ground water the community relies upon is often contaminated with arsenic. The testing of tube wells identifies if the water is safe to drink, and where it is not, the community are taught appropriate methods of treatment and filtration.
  • Hygienic latrines and sanitation – a practical way to reduce disease. The materials are provided jointly by Symbiosis and the community, and the community provides all the labour.
  • Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA) training – maternal and infant mortality rates remain high in rural areas due to the lack of suitable healthcare. Properly trained TBAs provide an essential service and help reduce some of the risks associated with home deliveries.
  • Health workshops – these cover a range of topics including disease prevention, nutrition, and HIV/AIDS awareness, as well as providing opportunities to monitor child health as mothers bring their babies with them.
  • Social and environmental issues workshops – these cover topics such as child marriage, women’s rights, democratic rights, and environmental awareness. The workshops are usually run as a follow-on from the savings group meetings, with larger seminars being run for the whole community.
  • Savings groups – members contribute small sums of money and can access loans to buy equipment, materials or livestock which will then enable them to generate income and repay the loan. The groups are run by the community members (supported by Symbiosis), which helps them learn money management skills, record keeping and cooperation. This is a very local version of the microfinance model which originated in Bangladesh.

Community participation in the project activities has exceeded expectations and the project continues to make a real and sustainable positive impact in the locality.

Bangladesh Technical Training Program (TTIS)

This well-established program provides vocational training, empowerment and improved socio-economic status and health to women (and a few men) over a wide area of northern Bangladesh although it is centred in Mymensingh. The focus of the project is to equip participants with vocational skills in sewing and related skills such as block batik and hand printing, which enables them to earn an income at home or working in the garment factories.

Each year around 400 trainees receive training in basic (village level) sewing, and a number of these progress further to graduate in block batik and hand printing techniques. The skills gained enable the participants to earn an income as well as make clothes for their families. As with the JRDP, the TTIS project is holistic, with the participants being members of savings groups and taking part in workshops on women’s rights, health education, child nutrition and related topics. Many have taken small loans through the savings groups to buy sewing machines and materials.