Marzina Begum had only Tk377 in her Almirah. She counted the money again, perhaps for the fourth time, but the amount remained the same.
She was at a loss on where to spend the money: pay off the debt, buy groceries, or pay for her son's college tuition.
Right then, a recruitment announcement over a PA system snapped her back to reality.
She heard that in her area, Lalmonirhat, the local government division's SWAPNO (Strengthening Women's Ability for Productive New Opportunities) project was looking for public asset maintenance employees. She immediately went to the Union Parishad and enrolled in the local government's public works programme.
SWAPNO is a social transfer project for ultra-poor women that looks after the local government's public works programme to engage them in different jobs. It aims to improve the economic and social lives of women in rural communities, as well as to eliminate poverty from their lives.
While promoting employment, it focuses on future employability and creates abundant employment opportunities for extremely poor rural women.
The partners of this 'social transfer' project are Marico Bangladesh, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, and Sverige-Sweden, who basically finance the project. The government, on the other hand, executes, and local NGOs assist in monitoring the training and programme.
It has so far been implemented in 22 districts of Bangladesh, benefiting 64,980 people.
"My husband died three years ago, leaving three children. If I avoid working in public, who will feed me during this pandemic? I attempted to open a small grocery store at home, but I lacked the necessary capital. Hence, I joined SWAPNO and began working for Tk200 per day," says Marzina.
Since 2020, she has not had to look back. For 15 months, she received Tk150 in cash every day, with Tk50 going to ROSCA (Rotating Savings and Credit Associations), an informal savings mechanism of SWAPNO, as savings in her name. In one and a half years, she saved Tk18,300 against her name.
With this money, she purchased two goats and began rearing them. The projects typically last 12 to 18 months, resulting in significant savings in the end.
She also received training on leadership, women's rights, health, and nutrition.
"I did both – training and working. It gave me a new lease of life, to my business, and to other women like me. There is a little corner in my grocery store now known as SWAPNO corner, where other SWAPNO members and villagers sell their grown vegetables at wholesale prices to me," voiced a confident Marzina.
Marico Bangladesh is proud of being connected to SWAPNO and assisting in the growth of people like Marzina. SWAPNO began as a pilot project in 2014, but because it has the potential to change the lives of rural women, Marico Bangladesh decided to join its main project in 2018.
"We joined because it is aligned with our corporate philosophy 'creating a difference'," said Christabel Randolph, Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Marico Bangladesh Limited.
Marico Bangladesh is one of the top three fastest-growing FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies in Bangladesh, with a multi-product brand portfolio spanning haircare, skincare, baby care, male grooming, hygiene, and food categories. It was established in 1999 as a subsidiary of Marico Limited.
"It is part of our business ideology. When we run a CSR project, we focus on a specific area such as gender, education, and community sustainability, and SWAPNO meets our criteria," Christabel explained.
She continued, "When we learned about SWAPNO, it immediately piqued our interest, and we wanted to contribute to this programme. Marico Bangladesh has committed to investing 1 percent of its profits in corporate social responsibility initiatives. And we are glad that it has empowered so many women."
Irani, another beneficiary of the project, recalled her days in Jamalpur, "My husband used to beat me every night when he came home drunk. He was an addict who always left me alone with our three children. I had to go through a lot for the sake of my children, but now I am independent."
She decided to divorce her husband and set up her own vermicompost production centre after attending SWAPNO's training. She owns a nursery as well.
Usually, she uses organic fertiliser in her nursery and sells the remainder to local markets. She now earns around Tk15,000 per month.
Marico Bangladesh hopes to continue working with this programme for as long as the scope is there.
"More or less, every company at present is engaged in CSRs and is working to solve social issues. However, we believe that organising CSR programmes with the government can solve more problems in the long run, and we are on the right track. Also, we have been working with the government to tackle the ongoing pandemic by contributing BDT 5 million to the Prime Minister's Welfare Fund," Christabel concluded.