Life in the ‘desh
It’s been six weeks since I’ve returned to the “desh,” and life has been moving fast and furiously (or as fast and furious as you can get in South Asia) ever since. Traveling between Dhaka and Barisal makes the time fly, and I am easily sucked into a routine with Parendi whereby we spend most of our time talking about Safe Spaces and Field Trainers. I know that most of these terms mean nothing to most of you, and there are days when even I lose track of who and what it is I’m talking about (Where is Bauphal again? Which one is Harun and which one is Aminur?). But because these people, places, and things will define my everyday thoughts and communications, I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw together a guide—a cheat sheet, if you will, for understanding what the heck I’ll be talking about for the next ten months of my life.
Parendi—My colleague and partner in crime. Though she also attended Brown and worked closely with the same two professors whom I worked with, we never met during college. Now we not only work together, but we live together, take morning
Woman collecting water from the river
which has overflown and flooded her village (fairly standard during monsoon season).
walks together, share hotel rooms together, and generally eat breathe and sleep the same existence. Some of the people we work with still haven’t managed to sort out which of us is Parendi and which is Libby.
Despite all the things we share now, we are in fact very different people, and I am distinctly aware of the fact that I have a lot to learn from Parendi. Not only is she a data expert (we were hired as a complementary team—she does the quantitative, I do the qualitative), but she is probably the most thorough human being I have ever met. She can spend an hour scrutinizing a document that I could finish looking at in five minutes. She also happens to be a really slow eater and a dedicated yoga practitioner, and I’m hoping that all of these qualities will rub off on me over the course of our time here.
JPAL/IPA—Poverty Action Lab/Innovations for Poverty Action is the name of the MIT-based research lab that we work for. JPAL is technically the research lab, and IPA is the affiliated NGO that sends research assistants (RAs) like Parendi and I to run their research. JPAL specializes
in randomized evaluations (if you really want to know more about how these work, check out the website http://www.povertyactionlab.com/) of development projects around the world. These methods, which are still new and unusual in their application to development, allow policy makers and program designers to better understand exactly what it is that makes a program work and what kinds of results can be directly attributed to program effect. By applying rigorous scientific methods to social sciences/development, JPAL is considered a major innovator in the field of evidence-based decisions about development.
SCUSA/Save the Children USA—SCUSA is the major international non-governmental organization (INGO) that runs the project that we study. Although Parendi and I are technically research partners and not directly employed by SCUSA, we sit in their offices in Dhaka and Barisal and benefit from some of the perks of being associated with an INGO (like having a car and driver when we need it or having a tea boy in the office who knows exactly how much milk and sugar each of us likes). JPAL usually works with national NGOs or smaller organizations, so this partnership with SCUSA is considered particularly high profile.
Kishoree Kontha (KK)—This literally translates
as “adolescent girl’s voice,” and is the name of the adolescent girl empowerment project that SCUSA runs and JPAL evaluates. The aim of the KK project is to “reduce the poverty level of girls aged 10-19 by providing better health, educational, and economic opportunities and improving social well-being.” Over the course of 3 years of program implementation the project will reach over 40,000 adolescent girls. The project is funded by NIKE (in a clear effort to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and commitment to youth development around the world).
Safe Space (SS)—The KK project essentially runs on a “Safe Space” model. SSs are peer groups ideally composed of 20-22 adolescent girls aged 10-19; more realistically, the average enrolment is probably around 18 (we’re still waiting for data from this cycle to confirm) and SS members do not always represent the full age range. It can be particularly difficult to involve girls ages 16-19, as these girls are more likely to be married and are often not allowed to attend the SS program. Even if they are not married, it is often more challenging to convince parents to let their elder (and soon to be married) girls out of the house
to participate in an empowerment program. The idea of the “safe space,” however, is to provide precisely those kinds of vulnerable girls with a space where they are free to build social networks, interact with peers, and learn skills that can help them in their everyday lives. Although boys can often be seen socializing in public and playing games after school, often for girls there truly is no socially sanctioned place to gather and socialize.
Peer Educators—The crux of the SS model is that the SS sessions are always run by Peer Educators (PEs), adolescent girls aged 10-19. SSs always have 4-6 PEs (I know—a lot of acronyms), depending on which package they are assigned (see below). The only criteria for PEs is that they must come from the village where the SS is operating, their parents must approve of their participation in the program, and they must be literate and educated beyond Class 5 (yes, fifth grade). PEs receive training in facilitation and leadership skills at the beginning of their 6 month SS cycle, as well as occasional refresher trainings and “on the spot” counseling from field level supervisors. Otherwise, however, PEs are pretty much left on their
One of our oil beneficiaries receives her two 2L bottles of Rupchanda cooking oil. Hopefully this incentive will prevent her from being married before she turns 18.
own to lead 2 hour sessions. Although the quality and leadership skills of PEs clearly vary, the model is surprisingly effective. One of my favorite things about my job is walking into a SS and watching a 14 year old girl lead a discussion about the rights of children, or run a study session as if she were a teacher with years of experience. I am always particularly happy when we come across the rare case of a married PE (aged anywhere from 15-19 years old), who is clearly benefiting from the opportunity to leave behind the responsibilities of being a teen wife and trade them in for the chance to be a peer leader in an adolescent empowerment program.
Basic, Livelihoods, Full and Delayed—SS groups operate for 6 months and they meet either 5 or 6 times a week, depending on what “package” they have been assigned. As I mentioned earlier, this study is a randomized field evaluation, which means that the project has been divided into various “treatment arms” so that we can isolate different components of the program and ultimately compare and contrast their effects on adolescent empowerment. All of the packages follow a “module” (or
instructional book) created by SCUSA.
Our first package (or treatment arm) is “basic.” SSs which operate in basic villages sit 5 times a week; they spend three of their days doing the Literacy module and two days doing the Social Competency module. The Literacy module is essentially a study group; the idea is that school going girls use the time to help each other with homework, non-school going girls read supplementary texts and story books provided by SCUSA, and illiterate girls work on building basic literacy and numeracy through a workbook designed by SCUSA. An ideal Literacy session includes small group work and large group discussions about story content (though SCUSA is still struggling to improve the quality of the Literacy sessions and make them more participatory). The Social Competency module covers a great variety of issues, from menstrual hygiene to depression and domestic violence. Social Competency is usually the most popular of the sessions among adolescent girls and even mothers (whom we find are like secondary beneficiaries of the program, as they often learn about things like maternal health and hygiene through their daughters in the SSs).
The second package is “livelihoods.” Girls in the livelihoods groups
sit for 6 days a week and follow the same 5 day schedule of the basic package, with one additional day dedicated to the Financial Competency module. The Financial Competency module exposes girls to basic vocational training and teaches them about budgeting, long term financial planning, and general money management. This cycle we are introducing a “Safe Savings” program for girls in livelihoods villages. The “Safe Savings” program will allow girls to participate in small savings groups, where over the course of 3-6 months they sit weekly and each girl contributes a small amount of her savings to a safety deposit box. At the end of the 3-6 month period the girl will receive all of her saved money back, and hopefully either invest it again (in another round of “Safe Savings”, use it for school-related fees, or begin some small entrepreneurial venture . Other programs in Bangladesh have started adolescent savings groups and had success with adolescent girls using their savings to buy cows to sell milk or chickens to sell eggs. Empowering girls to be financially independent is still quite innovative and important in a country where women are raised to be financially dependent on their husbands.
With its dense forests, and rickety brick lanes weaving through ponds, Bhola sometimes looks like something out of a Muslim Midsummer Night's Dream.
The third package is called “full,” and it contains everything that the livelihoods package contains plus an oil incentive program for unmarried girls aged 15-17. These girls receive 4 Liters of cooking oil every four months that they remain unmarried until they turn 18 (the legal age of marriage). The quantity of oil (4 L) was calculated to offset the “cost” that a family incurs by keeping an adolescent girl unmarried and in their household, and is therefore supposed to act as an “incentive” to keep girls unmarried until the legal age.
The final package is called “delayed,” because it is designed to measure only the oil incentive program and its effect on delaying adolescent age of marriage until the legal age of 18. Girls in delayed villages do not participate in SSs; they only receive the oil component. Ultimately the empowerment outcomes of these girls will be compared against the empowerment outcomes of girls in basic, full and livelihoods villages to determine whether educational programs (basic and livelihoods), financial incentives (delayed), or some combination of the two (livelihoods) is more effective in delaying adolescent age of marriage.
Barisal—This is the name of the Division where all of this
adolescent empowerment magic takes place. Parendi and I typically spend 10-15 days of each month in Barisal to conduct monitoring visits and deal with field-level issues, so it’s a place that will feature prominently in my Bangladeshi life. The KK project runs in three Districts in Barisal (Bhola, Patuakhali and Barisal), so although we are based in Barisal town itself when we are down here, we do a lot of traveling to the various districts, sub-districts, and field sites. We travel to Barisal on an overnight launch from Dhaka (see my blog in June for pictures and a description of the overnight launch experience), and once we are here we travel by car and by ferry to the various sites. Because Barisal is located in the Southern delta portion of Bangladesh, we are almost always crossing various bodies of water. Some of our SSs are located up to 6 hours from Barisal town and can only be reached by combinations of cars, ferries, small motorboats, rickshaws, and sometimes up to an hour or an hour and a half of walking.
Jewel—Pronounced “Jew-elle,” this is the name of our primary contact and colleague at SCUSA. In person we call him
We inevitably end up with our own group of curious observers whenever we arrive in a Safe Session for a mointoring visit.
Jewel Bhai (which means brother) to indicate our respect for him as an elder (though he is not much older than us and his wife is our age) and colleague. Based in Barisal, Jewel is the Deputy Project Manager (DPM) of the KK Project and is pretty much in charge of making sure the project runs smoothly. He is super laid-back and Parendi and I are extremely fortunate to have an excellent working relationship with him. He puts up with our never-ending list of Bangla words that we need translated, and he is also tolerant of our constant need to stop the car so that we can go to the bathroom or buy fruit from road side stalls. He is pretty much the man, and I can’t imagine working on this project without someone has helpful and easy to work with as him.
What is your mother—The title of this blog and a perhaps otherwise seemingly irrelevant sentence. The context: When Parendi and I conduct field visits, we often end up spending several hours in a community, just sitting back and observing how the field staff are working, how the girls are conducting their sessions, etc. Inevitably we (the
observers) become the observed, and its quite standard for us to amass a crowd of onlookers and curious village folk. The braver ones sit and talk with us, while others just mill about in our general vicinity, straining their ears to listen to us speak in Bangla. In a recent village we were in the middle of a conversation with the local teacher. His English was pretty good and two of his daughters were in the SS, so we had a more in-depth than usual conversation going on about girls empowerment, education, etc. Suddenly, out of nowhere a kid came streaming across the open courtyard of the bari (cluster of houses) and ran past the porch we were sitting on, yelling “What is your mother?!” It was more of a statement than a question, and it took us awhile to realize that what he meant to ask was “What is your mother land?” But in the meantime the two of us, the elder teacher, and all of the 40 or so villagers who were hanging out around the house burst into absolute laughter as the kid went and hid in a neighboring house. To me it’s the perfect illustration of
what it is that we do with most of our time: we walk through remote villages, we attempt to converse with people, we observe them and they observe us, and we all try to manage the awkwardness as best as possible.
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