As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve globally, countries across the world continue to grapple with the secondary and tertiary impacts of the pandemic on their lives and livelihoods. For Bangladesh’s large remote & rural population, the pandemic has exacerbated widespread poverty, set back gains in nutrition promotion, and further entrenched gender inequalities in healthcare, resulting in new and compounding adversity for people within these communities and women in particular. Extended disruptions in global supply chains and overwhelmed health services have made it impossible for those most vulnerable to access information, preventative care, or treatment for even minor ailments.
In response to this growing demand, the Mobilizing Rural Women Entrepreneurs for COVID-19 Response and Recovery (RWE) project was launched in November 2020 in partnership with United Purpose and mPower Social Enterprise as a market-driven, community-led response to these gaps in resource and service delivery. Placing digital tools in the hands of women entrepreneurs with established cooperative social enterprise structures, the project has used COVID-19 awareness and outreach as a social marketing tool to build local economies around facilitated telemedicine services, nutrition promotion, and local women-led enterprise.
Now in its second phase, the project is working with local government and healthcare providers to cement this structure as a last-mile stop gap service that will strengthen the existing healthcare system and increase its resilience to future stressors. The project has also opened new opportunities for self-guided learning for women entrepreneurs to expand their businesses into new areas that support safe food, healthy living, and a sustainable planet. Whilst providing a wide array of relevant health products and services has been a mainstay of the project, themes of WASH & nutrition, women’s empowerment & gender-based violence, agroecology, and veterinary health have now been incorporated to support growing Women’s Business Centres and respond to new challenges.
Over 58 Women’s Business Centres out of a total network of 400 across Bangladesh are now offering these digital services fulltime, supporting a network of over 200 entrepreneurs and 3 district-level enterprise networks. The impact created by the WBCs benefits more than just the women directly involved, but also serves the entire community and fills certain gaps in the market. To date, more than 19,000 patients have been served via the “Shurokha” facilitated teleconsultations, more than 55,000 masks have been sold to help prevent the spread of infectious disease, around 1,700 people are utilizing nutrition monitoring services and some 1,000 mothers received counselling on childcare nutrition.
In Bangladesh, and in rural, remote areas specifically, RWE is changing the way people see and understand digital technology and the role of women. The project has been recognised by government agencies like the Department of Women’s Affairs and the Department of Public Health Engineering as offering great potential for sustainable outreach and programme implementation through the enterprise model. Furthermore, it has been repositioned as a hub for women to access resources, skills development and new value enhancing practices. With great thanks to our partners in Bangladesh, United Purpose and mPower, combined BMZ, EU Funding contributions and implementation by the GIZ, Rural Women Entrepreneurs has been made possible, turning the tide on a pandemic marked by disconnect and hardship.