When her husband died in a road accident in Tangail, Shapla Begum, a homemaker from Islampur Upazila in Jamalpur district, braced herself for tougher times ahead. With two small children, she did not know how long she could sustain herself without an income.
The same person now is confident she can maintain a good life for herself and her young daughters. She has learned how to manoeuvre a power tiller – something not many female farmers have adapted to in the country.
"Women getting out of their comfort zones and working to help their families is not a bad thing, I now know what I am truly capable of," she said confidently. Her in-laws and neighbours are equally supportive of her achievements.
Few kilometres from Shapla's home, a group of women carry large steel bowls picked red and green chilis from a nearby field. They work swiftly, moving from one row to another as soon as the bowls are filled.
The early morning sun glimmered softly on the paddy seedlings as their green leaves swished and swayed to the rhythm of the spring breeze. Neatly planted across acres of land were: mustard, chili, potato and other seasonal vegetables.
These women farmers of Jamalpur district were part of World Vision Bangladesh's Nutrition Sensitive Value Chains for Smallholder Farmers (NSVC) project. Funded by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, the $4.75 million dollar project began in 2017.
The NSVC project impacts 20,000 smallholder farming households and has 90,000 direct beneficiaries from 21 unions of the Jamalpur district. Its main goal is to improve nutrition, increase gender equity and drive the economic empowerment of these farming households. Collection points – the term for small local markets under the NSVC project – are held twice every week and farmers sell their fresh produce there.
As of 2019, the project has been successful in establishing 800 producer groups – 64 male, 176 female, 560 mixed male and female – with 30 percent of mixed groups led by women.
Women farmers of these producer groups are also trained on how to improve farming, narrow nutrition gaps in the family and take better care of their infants.
In a place like Jamalpur, where 21.4 percent of the population live below the upper poverty line, increased participation of women in its development processes is vital.
Women working in the fields is not new in the country – more than fifty percent of the agricultural labour force in Bangladesh is women, according to FAO in 2016. Although they do not get paid, tasks such as seed sowing, paddy husking, and cattle rearing are largely done by rural women. Participation of women in agriculture increased by nearly 56 percent from the period of 1999-00 to 2016-2017, says one study in 2018.
Despite their contribution they tend to be undervalued. There are also social restrictions that hinder women from gaining control over finances or use of income.
Through the NSVC project, women farmers in Islampur are gradually earning money, because now they are able to directly get involved in the marketing process. They are communicating with seed dealers and wholesalers on their own, bringing the produce at the collection points, plus learning the tips and tricks of how markets run.
Clad in a black burkha, with a colourful dupatta carefully wrapped around her head, one might not be able to distinguish Mst Shapna from other women in the area. However, this season, she did something remarkable – cultivate eight maunds of mustard seeds on 1.25 bigha land. She was able to sell each maund of mustard at Tk1,600-1,700 to wholesalers, without the interference of intermediaries.
She also cultivated paddy, aubergine and chili – all of which she was able to sell after retaining some for her household.
Her face radiating in a smile, a confident Shapna said, "Now that we can come to the market in groups, things have become much easier. Transport costs have reduced, so has the cost of day labourers.
Wholesalers can no longer impose unfair prices on us. Most importantly, I am no longer in a dire situation."
Standing nearby, Morjina Begum, another farmer, was pouring out sacks of chilis and aubergines onto a straw mat. When we approached her, she shook off dust from her hands and feet.
"I sold dried chili at Tk1,200 per maund this season, and green chili at Tk1500-1600 per maund. I cannot say I am unsatisfied with the sales. I believe since we rural women do not hold office jobs, farming is our real job. I am happy with the earnings."
Her son is taking this year's SSC, her daughter is a student of class ten and her youngest son studies in class four.
We asked her, "Will your daughter grow up to be a farmer?"
"She will hold a job when she grows up, she can also do farming if she wants to. A woman can do anything, right?"