Savings groups support women’s financial independence during COVID-19 in Bangladesh

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Already suffering from climate disasters and persistent floods, Bangladesh’s coastal communities were sorely impacted by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. Lockdown restrictions halted fishing activities, which are the main source of income, nutrition, and livelihoods in many rural areas.

Already suffering from climate disasters and persistent floods, Bangladesh’s coastal communities were sorely impacted by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. Lockdown restrictions halted fishing activities, which are the main source of income, nutrition, and livelihoods in many rural areas.

Capacity development in financial management and alternative livelihoods through formal training delivered by WorldFish’s USAID-funded ECOFISH II project is empowering women to pursue diverse sources of income amidst this economic upheaval.

Low literacy rates, coupled with conservative social and religious norms, leads to a lack of opportunity for women in Bangladesh’s rural fishing communities. Women have limited access to the formal economy and are often excluded from social groups. Men are solely responsible for all economic and social activities. This social structure, where households depend solely on men for income-generation, heightens financial risks at a time of disruption to aquatic food value chains.

To financially empower fisher women, ECOFISH established village-based Community Saving Groups that support women entrepreneurs and diversify income generation. The project conducts training programs on basic literacy, savings and loans, and bank account management through business literacy schools.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide lockdown, fisher women’s new financial literacy became a vital lifeline for their families. During the three-month lockdown, fishing and mobility was restricted, and few fishers could continue work in the Bay of Bengal. Factory closures led to ice shortages, and there were no transport facilities operating—harvested fish could neither be preserved or sold. Without other sources of income, fishers were pressured to take high-interest loans from informal money lenders known as mohajans.

As households faced growing economic burdens and financial instability, researchers working on the ECOFISH project provided additional support through savings groups. Women procured collateral-free loans from the community-savings groups to invest in alternative income-generating activities and contribute financially to their households. Women were encouraged to invest in developing their own small businesses, through purchasing sustainable sources of income including goats, chickens, and sewing machines.

Strengthening women’s financial independence

Strengthening women’s financial independence
Community savings group member Jesmin Begum from Uttar Bolua Village, Haimchar, Chandpur district. Photo by Tasnuva Zaman.

Jesmin Begum, a mother of four children from the Chandpur District, south of Dhaka, was living in extreme poverty. After joining the North Bogula Community Savings Group in 2016, she received a goat and a cow to start an agriculture business. Begum invested money in the savings group and tended to her livestock, eventually expanding her business from one goat to eighteen.

“Since I became a member of the savings group in ECOFISH, my life changed positively. I earned enough money from my goat business to take care of my family. I also invested to buy ducks and chickens,” said Begum.

Following lockdown restrictions, her husband lost his job as a fisherman. Begum was able to use her financial skills and savviness to support her family, becoming the sole benefactor of her household.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, I managed to save my family from the economic crisis by selling my goats as well as eggs and milk. I earned a good amount of money to contribute to my family expenditure from my poultry and livestock,” said Begum.

She earned over 100,000 BDT, or 1,198 USD, by selling her goats, and she was able to provide three nutritious meals a day for her family. Supporting women’s capacity to feed their families is crucial in Bangladesh, where more than 30 percent of children suffer from undernourishment.

Like Begum, ECOFISH beneficiary Taslima Begum learned to provide financially for her household, after her husband was unable to work as a fisherman. She compensated for the loss of household income by sewing dresses for village women and then contributed 60,000 BDT, or 719 USD, to purchase a new fishing boat for her husband.

“During the COVID- 19 crisis, I played a strong role in mitigating my family’s economic crisis by sewing dresses. I had received the sewing machine from the ECOFISH project. Now, I am more confident than ever that I can support my family financially if necessary,” said Taslima.

Currently, 5,983 women are members of 177 community savings groups for a total savings of 15,472,216 BDT or 185,296 USD. The fishing households recognize community-savings groups as the best way to guarantee their financial security.

Valuing women’s contributions

Valuing women’s contributions
Khadija Begum stands with her her family in Uttar Bogula, Haimchar, Chandpur district. She received a cow and a goat from ECOFISH and expends her earnings on nutritious food and education for her children. Photo by Kingkar Chandra Saha.

With the support of ECOFISH, women are contributing financially to the household and actively supplementing their husband’s income; they are now more valued and respected in the household and other social groups. They can participate in the decision-making process and voice opinions in their households and communities.

The community savings group members provide examples of women in leadership—how women can assume financial responsibility and mitigate crisis. Their efforts and contribution are widely recognized in the community; women from neighboring areas come to the members for advice and express enthusiasm in joining the saving groups. Furthermore, the wider fishing community has accepted women’s participation in different forums, and barriers to their mobility have decreased.

“When my wife joined the community savings group and started saving money, I was not sure if I should support her. Eventually, I understood that these savings can be security for us during crisis. She also learned about business skills, and I often discuss with her how we can increase our income. This improved our relationship and reduced conflicts in the household,” said Md. Babul Dalal, husband of savings member Khadija Begum, from Chandpur District.

Men’s perceptions of women are changing; they now see women as partners rather than a liability. Women’s active participation in income-generation and decision-making has also reduced household conflicts – the rate of domestic violence has reportedly decreased.

By supporting the women of Bangladesh’s fishing communities, ECOFISH strengthens livelihood resilience in vulnerable coastal communities—a crucial objective as the nation confronts rising tides and the impacts of a changing climate.

Tasnuva Zaman