‘To educate a girl is to educate a nation’


by Kulsoom Rizvi

14-year-old Maimouna is from the small village of Ngoumi in the northern region of Cameroon. She’s at that age where most fathers begin searching husbands for their daughters.

Maimouna’s father already had one picked out for her. With limited access to food, he needed an extra hand in feeding his fifteen other children.

But when Maimouna started to bring her monthly take-home ration of 10 kg rice from school through Counterpart International’s Food for Education Program, her father had a change of heart.

Counterpart’s Food for Education program in Northern Cameroon (FFE), funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with local schools and organizations to help lift families out of poverty and improve education among children through capacity building initiatives, especially among girls’ in 150 communities.

So far, girls’ attendance rate in all 150 communities went from 6 per cent in 2012-2013 school year to 13 per cent in 2013-2014 school year.

In one of these communities, only 150 girls were going to school. Bibemi is a remote village in Cameroon that faces widespread poverty and limited access to primary education. By the 2013-2014 school year, EP Tam primary school in Bibemi saw a 250 per cent increase in enrollment with now 500 girls attending school.

Community-led campaigns and schools gardens

Maimouna is just one of the almost 14,300 girls and 57,200 family members in Cameroon who receives take-home rations when she attends school regularly. Girls who keep at least a 90 percent attendance rate are offered 10kg of rice per month. Take-home rations are an additional source of income for families and particularly useful during the lean season when food is expensive and scarce.

Counterpart’s local partner RECAMEF (National Network for the Education of the Girl Child) initiated door to door campaigns, mass media campaigns and focus group discussions to inform religious and traditional local leaders on how significant girls are to the development of their family, village and country. 

“Beyond the economic benefit of sending girls to schools in order to receive the ration, we have begun to see changes in parents’ perceptions of education especially traditional rulers and religious leaders. We also noticed that the Student Mother Association leaders (SMA) take leadership and accountability roles in the distribution of take-home ration,” Desire Yameogo, Country Director said.

School gardening is a cornerstone strategy to ensure the sustainability of girls staying in school. Counterpart helped build the capacity of more than 1,000 Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and SMA members in setting up and running 146 school farms. Members received trainings on crop production, storage and harvest management to help them in running the school gardens. Crops include groundnut, maize, cowpea and rice.

March 12th, 2014 | Tags: Cameroon, community engagement, girls' education, health, nutrition, school feeding, school gardens | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Connecting rural leaders in Bangladesh

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Counterpart International in Bangladesh decided to organize another virtual hangout, this time, between 45 women leaders from two villages over 100 miles away from each other via Skype.  

By Kulsoom Rizvi

Last year's Social Good Summit showed us how technology and new media is increasingly allowing people to connect and collaborate in their real-time, local communities. The Social Good Summit in September brought together youth leaders from both Bangladesh and Armenia via Skype for a two-hour cross-border virtual hangout.

The youth problem solvers exchanged tools and ideas, shared personal experiences on using social media to create sustainable development, and together laid the groundwork for future global connectivity. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Counterpart International in Bangladesh decided to organize another virtual hangout, this time, between 45 women leaders from two villages over 100 miles away from each other via Skype.  

“We observed how the Social Good Summit had such a great impact for the youth leaders, we wanted to launch something similar in honor of International Women’s Day to not only bring awareness about this day, but build capacity on information and communication technology to meet the government’s 2012 vision of a digital Bangladesh,” Rakib Ahsan, Deputy Chief of Party said. 

Youth and community leaders from the Mymnesingh and Rajshahi villages came together virtually in a small room to learn and share about each other’s community initiatives and projects.  Here are some highlights of the live video Skype conversation between the women leaders:

  • Women leaders shared various income-generating initiatives they started in their communities. Lack of sufficient income prevents women to participate in the decision-making process. They talked about how the income-generating activities they launched gave them a sense of “economic empowerment” and “progress.”
  • In the group discussions, the leaders identified other topics to share such as early marriages, hygiene education and their role in the Union Parishad (UP), the rural local governance in Bangladesh.
  • Fatima Rupa is a UP member responsible for community development work and oversees budget allocations in health, women’s rights, education, elderly allowance, vulnerable groups’ development and infrastructure activities. Fatima shared her project in getting women sewing machines in her community to boost more jobs.
  • 25-year-old Rokshana Khatun from the Hujuripara village in Bangladesh found it difficult to get a job outside her community. Rokshana and a group of women pitched in $26 from their own pockets to start a small block batik (printing design) income-generating activity in their community, a very promising and popular trade in the country.
  • Rokshana said she was inspired to use local resources to start a small project after receiving LDP training. Rokshana and her group members take orders from their neighbors on printing designs for clothing, bedding and table cloths. 
  • “I never imagined I could stay in Mymensingh and speak to my sisters at Rajshahi,” community leaders Rokeya Begum.
  • “I had a dream of opening up a computer training center at my union for community use, but I didn’t have enough funds for it. But coming to this event and hearing about the success of others, I don’t think funding will stop me from reaching my dream,” youth leader Beauty Akter. 
  • Leaders exchanged mobile numbers to continue the conversation on community issues, wanting to share their progress with their neighbors and discuss other ways to use technology to for future activities. 

Leadership training continues to grow strong. Further opportunities will include vocational training, job creating, internship development and social entrepreneurship projects.     

March 11th, 2014 | Tags: Bangladesh, community leaders, income-generating activities, International Women's Day 2014, Skype, social media, women leaders, youth | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Cultivating a network of future leaders in Bangladesh

Mohammed Asadu Zzaman, Secretary of the Shahadul Union, addresses a group of community members in Kishoragonj during a ceremony to thank them for mobilizing local tax payers. © David Snyder/Counterpart International


By Kulsoom Rizvi

Community leaders are drivers of solving the most challenging problems in their communities and shaping future development. From rebuilding the global economy to peace-building and creating sustainable democracies, community leaders are at the forefront in furthering long-term stability and economic prosperity.

Under Counterpart International’s Leadership Development Program (LDP), Bangladesh’s rising community voices have united together to take control of their future and become agents for change.

The five-year program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) develops the leadership skills of 24,000 emerging leaders through civic education mentoring and service learning activities to support community and youth leaders in Bangladesh to become advocates for poverty alleviation, job creation, environmental protection, democracy and education.

The results of these trainings have led leaders to initiate several large to small-scale projects. These series of stories will showcase the community-led projects in Bangladesh such as educating individuals and organizations on tax collection, establishing a local school in a remote village to becoming entrepreneurial leaders in a fishery project.


Community and youth leaders in Bangladesh bridge the knowledge gap about tax collection

Union Parishads (UPs), the base of rural local governance in Bangladesh are responsible for coordinating many aspects of local social and economic development in Bangladesh including collection of tax, however, lack the necessary resources, capacity and transparency.

According to a baseline study conducted by Counterpart International in November, there was a broad information gap about local UP governments among LDP recruits. Just 14 per cent report substantial knowledge about the workings of their UP, peaking at 24 per cent among adult men and dropping as low as 4 per cent among female youth recruits.

These results suggested a clear need for greater information about the workings of the UP, initiating action among LDP community and youth leaders to promote UP-level awareness and advocacy.

Counterpart and its local partner Democracywatch, trained and supported 397 community and youth leaders on how to organize five tax fairs that helped increase earnings of the UPs and raised awareness amongst community members on the importance of submitting their taxes. LDP collected a total of $2,025 in taxes for the UPs from 1,312 participants – 47 percent of which were women.

So far, the money from the tax fair has already bought sewing machines for the women in the Kishoreganj district.

“This [tax fair] initiative showed the interest and involvement of community people in the local development. Their collaboration with the UPs built a sense of unity of the people with the local government. This success for LDP has inspired us greatly,” Community Leadership Manager Eklas Uddin said.

The tax fair was inspired by LDP’s counterparts in Armenia who had launched a similar initative to help local officials generate revenue. During last year’s Social Good Summit, a global gathering for the social good, Counterpart joined the worldwide conversation in three countries including Honduras, Armenia and Bangladesh. Participants in Bangladesh and Armenia held a Skype chat, tackling various issues their communities were facing with and ways to work with community and youth leaders to fix them. 

To prepare for the tax fair, Counterpart conducted training sessions focused on the knowledge, skills and values essential for responsible citizenship in tackling community development issues. This allowed leaders to identify the problem of tax collection, research related issues and propose a solution. The fair was attended by several media outlets and key government officials who applauded LDP’s initiative. 

“LDP has motivated me to know about the tax issues and how important it is. I realized that with this tax money we could develop our community further and fulfill the needs of many,” Abdus Sattar, Community Leader from Democracywatch said.

January 30th, 2014 | Tags: Bangladesh, community leaders, emerging leaders, tax collection, transparency, youth leaders | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Breaking the cycle of poverty: Credit unions empower citizens in remote areas of Mauritania

Women participating in trainings on the credit cooperatives in the rural regions of Mauritania. © Counterpart International

By Kulsoom Rizvi

Villagers in the southern areas of Mauritania live in the most remote part of the country that is vulnerable to even the smallest changes in food prices brought on by  the onset of droughts.

These remote regions lacked access to financial services, essential for small scale agriculture production, storage, distribution and other income generating activities. Existing lending institutions based in Mauritania were hesitant in making investments in programs  to provide loans to community members, because of the high lending risk associated with extreme poverty and their lack of experience in rural areas.

Farmers and entrepreneurs in these villages were without capital needed to invest in the robust market-driven local food system and invest in income generating activities.

Communities were trapped in a cycle of poverty. 

Through the Community Action, Nutrition and Livelihoods program (CANAL) funded by the U.S. Agency of International Development, Counterpart International built the institutional and technical capacity of its partner Caisse d’Epargne et Credit Djikké-Mutuel (CECD-M) to deliver microfinance services in sevenrural municipalities of Mauritania.

CECD-M delivered a total of 1,416 microloans worth $515,000, with the support of Counterpart. Beneficiaries included 6,259 women and 394 associations and groups. 94 percent of borrowers have kept up on payments. 

The success of CECD-M resulted in the establishment of four new rural savings and credit cooperatives; providing services to communities in Gorgol, Guidmaka, Assaba and Hodh El Gharbi.

The four new institutions allowed the management of CECD-M to extend their lending services to a larger customer base by expanding from four to eleven credit cooperatives serving 120,000 people.

“This partnership between Counterpart International and CECD-M and the introduction of microfinance services to rural communities, brought about real change in the fight against poverty, improving household wealth and developing economic independence of communities,” Chief of Party Romain Kenfack said.

Starting from scratch

Hiring staff for the credit cooperatives proved to be a challenge. Most qualified personnel were reluctant to work in the isolated regions.

Counterpart helped CECD-M conduct several training sessions each year, including a coaching program that included practical hands-on training and monitoring. 

“During the coaching sessions, we reviewed some selected loan applications that were already approved and found that only ten percent of the application met our new standards. We are now equipped to improve our work in reviewing loan applications,” Hadjiratou Samaba Sow, credit committee president of Foumgleita Saving and Credit Cooperative, said.

Kenfack said that the presence of savings and credit cooperatives in the rural areas improved living conditions through enabling population to save money, take out loans, and receive remittances.

“This is a critical factor for the sustainability of microfinance activities in the regions and illustrates the quality of services and interest of people in accessing microfinance services.”

Investing in women-led activities

Chaya Mint Mahamed is the president of the Emel Women Group in the village of Touil. Most of the women in the group are heads of their households, mothers who want something better for their children and families. 

“We wanted to develop a business, but we needed money to start. There was no harvest because of the drought and we sold all our livestock. With the credit service, we were able to start our dying and dress making activity. We can now better provide for our families and the traders now trust in us as we are able to pay our debts,” Chaya Mint Mahamed said.

The credit services allows both men and women to initiate various income-generating activities and have new weekly markets to sell their products.

One of the most successful activities was the milling machine where a group of women received a loan to buy a milling machine and hired two others to manage it. They paid back  their loan and were able to open a shop and butchery.

Easy access to food during the lean period and drought are crucial in these communities. Mame Mint Hamoud who runs a small shop In Hel Abeidallah community doubled her capital in five months.

“We used to sell only small items in our shop. Now we are able to stock and sell any kind of good that is needed in the village. With these commodities, prices are stable in the village even during the raining season when prices usually increase. We do no longer depend on seasonal traders,” she said. “There is also more solidarity among the women in the village.”

January 14th, 2014 | Tags: CANAL, capacity building, credit unions, gender, income-generating activities, Mauritania, microfinance, rural regions | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Youth take the front seat in shaping the future for girls’ education


Nargiza (left) and Munisa (right) took the skills they learned in a civic education course to promote gender equality in Tajikistan's rural schools. © Counterpart International

By Kulsoom Rizvi

Meet Nargiza Khojaeva and Munisa Sharifkhojaeva – two ambitious 15-year-old girls from the Gharm district of Tajikistan. Both girls spent most of their childhood in Rasht Valley, a traditional, rural community in Gharm located in the northeastern part of Tajikistan, which has the highest school dropout rates than the national average for both boys and girls – ranging from 11 per cent to 14 per cent.  

Much of rural Tajikistan carries a restrictive view of the role of women in society. Girls’ education continues to be a major concern in the country with enrollment rates in the upper grades low and dropout rates high.

“Many bright, young girls of Rasht Valley run into the cold cultural wall blocking them from higher education. Most cannot fight back and as a result, their educational growth is prematurely cut off after ninth grade as the only thing expected from them, is that they get married,” Nargiza said.

Munisa recalls many of her fellow female classmates are forced to drop out of school for early marriage.

“We are 14 girls in my class now. In less than a year, I am sure we will have only 8 girls in the class. My classmates will leave school at grade 10,’ Munisa says. Parents in our village do not want their daughters to continue education. My mother was a very bright student at school, but because of her early marriage she was forced to stop her studies. She dreams to see me educated.”

Marrying girls off early is a way for poverty-stricken families to conserve their own limited resources. Tajikistan has one of the lowest per capital GDPs among the former Soviet republics. Because of the lack of employment opportunities in the country, as many as a million Tajik citizens work abroad, almost all of them in Russia, supporting their families remotely.

Through Counterpart International’s Young Leaders Program (YLP), the girls saw a window of opportunity for  their future and shaping the future of other girls to come.

Nargiza and Munisa attended a 10-week civic education course organized by YLP that educated 222 youth participants from Rasht Valley on the core principles and values of volunteerism, civic participation and human rights. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program supports active, civically engaged, and socially conscious youth in Tajikistan, providing young people with the tools and experience to take ownership of their future.

Targeting the rural youth

Nargiza dreams to become a journalist. While taking the civic education course, she learned how to communicate her arguments. From the course, Munisa took away skills in analytical thinking. She would like to become a lawyer someday.

“I would like to deliver this course to 14 schools in my village,” says Munisa.” I want the girls from my village to know that there is nothing to fear about wanting to learn. Parents in my village should change their conservative view on educating women and accept education as a way for girls embrace knowledge. When a person is open to learning, a world of opportunities opens up.”

One of the program’s main activities is to educate and improve the skills of the rural youth in public speaking and debate techniques and methods.

“The goal of the civic education course is to promote understanding of the democratic process in Tajikistan. It emphasized the role of the individual and the family in Tajik society as well as citizens’ rights and responsibilities. It’s important for youth to have an active voice in a democratic society. We’re creating and supporting our future leaders,” Coordinator of YLP in Gharm Shamsullo Mirzoev says.

After completing the course, Nargiza and Munisa decided to participate in a regional debate to further promote their goal in making a difference for girls and education.

The debate, funded by the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, gathered around 50 participants from Rasht Pedagogical University and the Gharm Medical College. The girls were considered the youngest and most active participants at the regional debate tournaments – winning the debate on gender equality in education. Both girls were invited to participate in the “Voices of Youth” debate organized by Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia and the World Bank which gathered youth from all over the country.

“The award is an amazing opportunity to further youth leadership development, to make a tangible difference and inspire others. I am going to continue active participation to exercise my rights and democracy and to force for change in my community,” Nargis says.

Nargiza and Munisa hope to start a debate club for girls in their community, continuing to expand the dialogue on gender issues.

January 8th, 2014 | Tags: civic education, civil society, gender equality, girls’ education, Tajikistan, youth, Youth Leadership Program | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

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