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Wheels of Change

By Cathy Shufro

“Shorbanash! [the world is coming to an end!], ” the old man cried as he watched Bloomberg School research associate Sucheta Mehra pass by on her bicycle. “If women start riding bikes, you won’t have children!”

JiVitA interviewer Rownok Jahan has heard similar warnings. Bicycling will damage your uterus, people told her. Staff coordinator Habib-ara was told, “It will interfere with finding a husband.”

Mehra, MSc, explains resistance to bike riding this way: In rural Bangladeshi society, women have traditionally remained largely inside their homes. Therefore, “a woman who is visible in the community in a culture of purdah is bold—the kind of woman the husband might not easily control.”

For nine years, the project’s 112 female interviewers and team leaders have all been bold enough to ride bikes. And two dozen women working as staff coordinators and managers have ridden motorcycles. “Now it’s treated as an honor,” says Habib-ara, who uses a motorcycle as she oversees 60 field staff in several villages. “It’s a status indicator.” 

The change in attitudes is a sign of the cultural impact of the decade-long JiVitA Project on the people of Rajshahi Division. The project is also changing the region’s socioeconomic landscape by providing women with salaried jobs where such jobs are scarce.

When the study was established, 2,300 women applied to fill 650 positions. Rashid describes those hired as “the cream of Gaibandha.”

“JiVitA is for women, by women,” says Rashid. Eighty-five percent of the 850 employees are women. Before the project, nearly all were housewives. “Now they are coming into offices, they are earning cash money,” says Rashid. “When someone works, dresses well and sends their children to good schools, they are respected in their communities.”

Rashid believes that these women have gained confidence to speak up more within families that are generally dominated by males and mothers-in-law. To find out if this is true, Mehra is analyzing data from a study comparing JiVitA women to other women. The study, established by Alain Labrique, nutritionist Abu Ahmed Shamim, MSc, and Keith West, began in 2001 with interviews of applicants for JiVitA field distributor positions. Four years later, researchers re-interviewed 570 women who got the jobs and 366 women who were not hired. The three-hour interviews incorporated what Mehra calls “empowerment proxy questions”—for example, whether the woman is permitted to go to the village market un-chaperoned; if she voted in the last election, and whether she chose whom to vote for; how much power she has in budgeting family income; what she spends on clothes for herself and for her children; who decides when to seek health care for a child; and who chooses whether to use contraception.

Along with a similar study by the Hopkins team in Nepal, Mehra says that this “is one of the very, very few studies that I know of where we have been able to track long-term employment of women and therefore had the capacity to look at women’s empowerment over the long term.”

Staff coordinator Habib-ara likes to think she serves as a role model for women in Jivitaland. “We may inspire them. They will give their children a proper education.” A dozen JiVitA mothers have honored her by naming their daughters Habib-ara. “They named their children after me with the expectation that their daughters will serve society and ride a motorcycle like me.”