Establishing 700 Self-Help Groups across North Bangladesh
TLM Bangladesh (TLMIB) began organising self-help groups (SHGs) in North Bangladesh in 2007. In the early days of the project there were 56 staff members who were dedicated to facilitating the SHGs. Their hard work means that today there are 700 SHGs that are running almost entirely self-sufficiently, with the support of just seven support workers.
These SHGs provide members with support for a range of crucial things, such as ulcer care, financial and livelihoods support, leaders capacity building, advocacy opportunities, and more.
Prior to 2007 there were a number of challenges that persons affected by leprosy and persons with disability were struggling with in North Bangladesh. Extreme poverty, access to food, and limited livelihoods opportunities play a big role in the region. Many persons affected by leprosy had experience with discrimination in their community. As well as this, many people would struggle to maintain their self-care routines or find solutions when they faced problems with their rehabilitation. This meant that hospital services were relied on for situations that could have been prevented.
TLMIB began to set up SHGs in 2007 with the support of as many as 56 support workers. These groups would meet every two weeks at first, before transitioning to once a month. The meetings would be an opportunity for members to discuss the challenges they have faced and the successes they have had. They might ask each other about ulcers or protective footwear. Through this, they would encourage each other to maintain their self-care and hopefully avoid the need for hospital care.
At each meeting, every group member deposits savings into the group’s bank account, which allows for collective saving. In the beginning, TLMIB also provided seed funding for the groups and supported the groups to set up their own bank accounts. They worked with them on financial training, so that their finances could be maintained without support from TLM. Members of the group could access seed funding to build their livelihoods and through the SHGs, members were encouraged to develop a pattern of regular saving.
As well as health support and livelihoods support, TLMIB ensured that the SHGs would have the skills to run their own meetings and would have self-advocacy skills so that they could advocate for their own rights. Through TLMIB facilitation, SHGs formed sub-district associations and registered as Disabled Peoples’ Organisations (DPOs) with the Government’s Social Service Ministry so that they would have greater access to government officials and entitlements.
The sub-district association leaders who headed up the new DPOs have received training on leadership, supervision and monitoring of SHGs and their own associations, networking with duty bearers, conflict management, and gender equality.
Registration has also been important for their legal identity and formal networking with other organisations. The groups would be registered at a sub-district level, which meant a number of SHGs would partner together and register as one DPO, thereby strengthening their powers of collective advocacy. Relationships with local government officials were facilitated and SHG members took ownership of these relationships.
Sub-district associations have taken full responsibility for looking after their own SHGs and district associations have become parent organisations for the sub-district associations, supporting them to ensure their sustainability.
There have been a number of challenges across the decade and a half of this project.
The first challenge came because a mind-set change was needed for both TLM and the people who would form the first SHGs. Prior to 2007, TLM would support vulnerable individuals through welfare, such as grants for food and livestock. At the start of the project, all parties had to move from a welfare to rights-based mind-set, which was not always easy.
Other challenges have surrounded the finance and governance elements of the SHGs. When TLMIB started training group members to be responsible for their own finances, they discovered that a lack of literacy skills was a major problem and required a lot of patience and training. The process of registering the groups as DPOs was important for ensuring they could conduct effective self-advocacy, but this has been a challenging activity. The team are glad to now have 22 of the 28 sub-district associations registered.
Lastly, there are challenges with corruption in Bangladesh and some groups have found this difficult to handle at points.
When the groups were first set up TLMIB asked what support they needed most and the answer was always that they did not have enough money. Fifteen years later, this is not a concern they hear anymore; the SHGs have provided members with opportunities to access a sustainable living.
As well as this, group members are reporting that they are seeing a greater acceptance within mainstream society, with less stigma. Previously, if they had shown up to speak with a government official, they would have been perceived and treated like beggars. Now, however, they are welcomed by officials, they are invited to sit around a table with tea and given the opportunity to have their voices heard. In the past, the government officials would have been likely to go to TLM or other NGOs for insights into vulnerable groups, but now the government officials go straight to the members of the sub-district associations.
This acceptance and engagement with government officials has proved to be a big victory for groups who wish to access their entitlements through the government. Having these existing relationships in place prior to the pandemic meant that groups were able to access the support they needed to get through the long periods of lockdown in Bangladesh.
Registered sub-district associations are receiving small grants from the Social Service Ministry and local government. These funds go to supporting the SHG members and are a sign of how the Government is taking ownership of this partnership relationship.
Perhaps the greatest success, however, is that these groups now operate self-sufficiently. There are 700 SHGs who operate with the support of seven support staff. At the end of 2022, TLM’s support for the groups will be phased out and the groups will be entirely self-sufficient.
The TLM Bangladesh team hope that the groups will in fact become partners in TLM’s future projects. An upcoming TLM project will focus on strengthening leprosy services in North Bangladesh and the SHGs can play a crucial role in advocating towards the government to achieve this goal.