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Sarwashati Barman: Riding the winds of change

 

Sarwashati Barman, a widow of about 45 years, runs a grocery shop in Kholachanpur, a remote village in Bishwampur Upzilla/Sunamganj. Some 120 fisher families live in the village, and they struggle to survive as the village is cut off from the mainland for months during the rainy season. Sarwashati lives there with her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandson. She has a different reality because of her shop, which is the only one in the village. During the flooding, everyone depends on her grocery shop for their daily needs, and she maintains her family with the earnings from her sales. During the dry season she produces fishing nets and goes from door to door in nearby villages to sell of her commodities.

But it was not always like this for Sarwashati. Debendra, her husband, had been suffering from tuberculosis, and she had to sell their house and land to pay for his treatment. But all her efforts were futile. When her husband died 20 years ago, she found herself with no earnings and no food to feed her and her two children. She started working as housemaid to try to make ends meet but the income was just never enough.

In 2006, she became a member of the Abhawa beel user group, an organization of fishers. The group was formed under the Sunamganj Community Based Resource Management Project (SCBRMP), an IFAD-supported project implemented by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). SCBRMP enables groups of poor fishermen to gain secure access to leased public waterbodies (beel). While women are traditionally not considered fishers (although they perform many of the upstream (repair of nets) and downstream (sorting and drying of fish) activities), the project has specifically involved women in its work. This provides them with some income (from fish sorting and a share of beel user group profits), and also gives them status as legal users of the beel. Currently SCBRMP has 229 BUG with 5717 members, among them 1463 are women like Sarwashati.

Sarwashati invested BDT 1100 (USD 14) that she had saved from her earnings as a housemaid to lease a water body along with the other members of the user group. In the first season, she made a profit of BDT 3000 (USD 37). With her profit, she decided to set up the grocery shop. It was a big challenge for Sarwashati, since women are rarely found outside their home in the evening. The other villagers reacted to her initiative with curiosity and scepticism, but she did not let that stop her. Three years ago, she spent her savings on her daughter’s wedding. Now Sarwashati has one dream to fulfil: building a house on her own land. Her son, a young fisherman, is now supporting his mother. Sarwashati could not send her son to school but now she is determined to educate her grandson.

In addition to ensuring women’s access to waterbodies, SCBRMP has been implementing a number of activities to create employment opportunities for women for example by involving them in building block roads, tree plantation, etc. The project is also providing micro credit services and trainings to a significant number of women. 

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