Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world with 110 million people on a land mass the size of England and Wales. Over 65% of the population are illiterate (78% of females). The government aims to reduce this to 38% by the year 2000 and has placed a particular priority on women's education.
In 1995 a new Directorate of Non-Formal Education is being established with Asian Development Bank/ World Bank funding. An early priority for the DNFE is going to be targeting young adults (15-24), particularly females. Within this, support to the piloting of different implementation models is also to be emphasised. This provides a strong context for piloting new approaches to literacy such as REFLECT.
The project area for the REFLECT pilot was on Bhola, a delta island in the Bay of Bengal, in the extreme south of Bangladesh. It is a remote area (a 13 hour overnight launch journey from Dhaka) which has remained isolated from most processes of social change and development. The island is in a geographically vulnerable area under threat from severe cyclones. In a cyclone in 1971 it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of islanders died, though a similar cyclone in 1991 was less devastating.
The ACTIONAID programme was established on Char Fassion, Bhola Island in 1983. Over 12 years it has built up a large savings and credit programme targeted particularly at women. This programme is run through "Shomitis", community groups with about 15 members each. There are now 24, 000 members of this programme who access small loans (800 taka each, with up to three loans at any one time). The Shomitis meet regularly and act as a focus for discussion.
Establishing the shomiti programme was a major undertaking. At first women refused to leave their houses when ACTIONAID representatives entered the village. After some time they agreed to come out, but would do so only with a veil and two umbrellas to hide behind. Overtime the umbrellas were discarded and more recently the veils have been lifted as women gain more confidence through the regular contact with Shomiti assistants. The Shomiti members receive 12 week training courses on a range of health and development issues. Some Shomitis have decided to start up Children's Learning Centres - particularly in areas where the nearest primary school is too far away for their children to reach. They contribute towards paying for a teacher and receive some help from ACTIONAID. Adult Literacy Centres are also started up where Shomitis request support.
Although women are the main point of contact for the Shomiti programme it has been documented over some time that most women hand over the
credit they receive to their husbands and do not participate much in deciding how the loans should be spent. Indeed, it seems that some men only tolerate women's involvement because the Shomiti is a source of credit for themselves.
In 1993 ACTIONAID started to develop concrete plans to phase out of the Bhola project. It had never been ACTIONAID's intention to continue indefinitely, but the decision that phase out should be completed by 2000 raised a number of key issues. It was realised that if the Shomitis were to have a life after ACTIONAID's support they would need to become self-managing with each woman being able to keep her own Savings and Credit records. The literacy centres to date had not been very successful and there had been almost no focus on numeracy. Over 85% of women remained illiterate. In July 1993 a review of the education programme on Bhola Island recommended that the adult literacy programme needed to:
In January 1995 a new Project Director started and in recent months has developed with local staff a new vision for the future. It is now intended that a Peoples Organisation should be established to continue in the area after ACTIONAID's departure. For this to succeed the shomiti programme needs to be put on a more rigorous financial footing. Shomitis will increase from the present size of 15 to a minimum of 30 members. Interest rates will rise to cover operational costs and larger loans are to be made available in various categories from general credit to seasonal credit, poultry credits, credit in kind (eg for a rickshaw or boat) and collective credit. The use of loans will be supervised with training and support offered. Shomiti member representatives will gradually be brought in to the management of the entire programme. Local marketing will be promoted.
Strengthening the Shomiti members' capacities to manage their own programme will be vital for the success of this strategy over the next five years.
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