Building community organizations to promote women empowerment and address gender based violence
BRAC invented Polli Shomaj (grassroots women-led organization) model as an integral part of its Community Empowerment Programme in 2000 and gradually scaled-up nationwide. The current model initiated in 2016 and is now passing its 3rd phase. Formed of 50-55 rural women per branch, the Polli Shomaj comprise of grassroots poor, local leaders, violence survivors, artisans, elected local government members etc. There is a total of 12,487 Polli Shomaj forums translate into a grassroots membership of more than 700,000 women. Polli Shomaj members are actively engaged in advancing women's empowerment and addressing violence against women.
The objectives of the Polli Shomaj (the women-led organization) are - promote democratic practices and participation of the poor in rural decision-making processes; engage in collective action to ensure accountable local government; support women who have faced violence in the home or in public places; inform and build awareness among the rural poor. From 2021, to ensure systematic changes and local level advocacy, the Polli Shomaj is essentially envisioned as a democratic federation of grassroots women at the sub-national level. Along with the economic empowerment of women by creating amplified access to assets and services, the model also increasing voice, influence, and agency as well as a change in systems and structures in favor of the marginalized.
Though there was a remarkable achievement for MDG in Bangladesh, the poor women are still facing discrimination and violence, and the governance mechanisms are not accountable and pro-poor. The Polli Shomaj has so far sought to address these issues primarily following the SDG 5 on Gender Equality and SDG 16 on inclusive institutions. Polli Shomaj members are helping to create sustainable changes in the mindsets and attitudes of rural people with regard to gender discrimination, build social cohesion and address the growing intolerance and violence in society.
Polli Shomaj is working as platforms of women at the grass-roots level through which they can claim their rights collectively. It has 2 types of members, the General Members are approximately 50-55 women from the grass-roots community, and they elect the 11 members Executive Committee. Polli Shomaj meets once a month and acts as a platform for discussion, raising awareness, and planning and implementing initiatives. It is the executive committee that makes decisions, and this committee is normally elected for a term of three years. The key intervention includes - ensures that deserving candidates access government services; participates in local governance activities such as voter mobilization, contesting elections, allocation of public land and water bodies, and informal dispute resolution; engages in local social initiatives such as emergency support to any poorer person, prevention of and response to violence against women, protesting human rights abuses, and mobilize resources from different GO and NGOs for the poor people, etc. The Polli Shomaj members also supported gaining strength to effectively engage in all these areas, in order for women to develop individual and collective agency. A simple monitoring checklist maintained to understand how effective each Polli Shomaj is. Key monitoring indicators include - meeting frequency, local resource mobilization status, initiative to prevent & respond to violence against women, participation in the local power structure, etc. Interventions are mostly voluntary by the Polli Shomaj members, they mobilize resources to support the community by themselves. A minimum staff force engaged from BRAC (for example one staff for 50 Polli Shomaj) and BRAC only provide the capacity-building support.
Several research studies have illustrated numerous benefits and outcomes resulting from the Polli Shomaj. One key role has been their interaction with the local governance systems in rural areas, to improve targeting, resource allocation, and delivery of public services. For instance, in 2019, the Polli Shomaj played a role in securing 37,653 Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) and 623,096 Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) cards respectively, gaining 9,078 old age allowances and 4,463 widow allowances for the community members as social safety net support. Since 2016, the Polli Shomaj members prevented 561,954 VAWC incidents including 3943 Child marriages; and 303,190 members participate in the local power structure. The collective action under the aegis of the Polli Shomaj offers a better route for otherwise marginalized groups to engage with rural dynamics and political power structures at the local level and influence resource allocation and good governance.
Since the Polli Shomaj members are from vulnerable communities, steady but low financial support required from the facilitating organization, providentially BRAC prioritized to support the Polli Shomaj since 2000. On the other hand, the pressure for earning has increased in families, as a result, women have little time to devote to community activities. Further, as the Polli Shomaj involves social empowerment and less focus on the economic dimension, only highly motivated women are likely to be able to find the time for engaging regularly. Innovatively, the young members of Polli Shomaj being trained to report violence incidents.
The Polli Shomaj represents valuable social capital created by BRAC, now effective for the entire community. An important lesson about CBOs is, they need supervision and mentoring for long periods to be sustainable. After intensive support of the initial years, BRAC provides mostly distance/minimum support and helps Polli Shomaj to connect with different GO/NGO platforms including with other BRAC programs and like-minded networks for their sustainability. Some of them also registered with government authority (under Women Affairs or Social Welfare Ministry) to be an independent organization to work in their community. We experienced intensive support (capacity building) required for the first few years (i.e.3) and then insubstantial support (monitoring, mentoring) needed for a longer time to make it sustainable. Among the 12,487 Polli Shomaj, we strategies to declare a minimum of 50% as sustainable Polli Shomaj by 2022, and are preparing them to work independently in their community.
Due to COVID 19 pandemics, the physical meetings and other planned events couldn’t take place for a certain period. We have organised virtual training, orientations, and meetings instead of the physical ones during this time. An ensured and adequate supply of masks, hand sanitizers, and soaps were distributed to Polli Shomaj members and increased psychosocial support for the violence survivors. BRAC supported (cash) around 10,000 Polli Shomaj members to cope with the adverse economic hardship during the lockdown. Decisively, Polli Shomaj leaders found more proactive in taking a leadership role in preventing and resolving VAWC (especially domestic violence) incidents in their communities. They also focused on resource mobilization to support the poorest during the unconventional period.
SDGS & Targets
Deliverables & Timeline
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Covering 54 Districts of Bangladesh (out of 64)