The #SmartDevelopmentFund’s involvement in the project began with providing digital medical services for COVID relief. In the end, the project delivered so much more by creating a space for women to be heard and treated like they had never been before. Thanks to the human-centered design and critical engagement of local implementing partners United Purpose and mPower, Rural Women Entrepreneurs has changed the lives of women and transformed communities in rural Bangladesh.

The project was borne from large challenges facing rural communities during strict COVID-19 lockdowns. During these periods, medical services, information and supplies were severely limited, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in rural communities. As a response, the project supported the training of telemedicine services and production of masks within pre-existing networks of Women’s Business Centres.

The project has developed further to include a wide range of digital and skills training, which now includes tele-veterinarian services. The centres have enabled women to sell their produce, clothes, arts & crafts, seeds, hygiene products and more. Some have even taught themselves how to cultivate mushrooms thanks to a growing confidence in their digital literacy and strong networks of skills sharing.

The decision to address power imbalances within the community by prioritizing women and equipping them with digital tools have led to an unmistakable positive change within the community.  The hub and spoke construction of the Women’s business centres fosters an environment of strong female ally-ship in order to provide support and overcome the barriers women often face.

Our #SmartDevelopmentFund colleague Christina, recently visited the GIZ supported Women’s Business Centres (WBCs) to see how the project has developed since it was first piloted in 2020.  During her visit, Christina interviewed numerous entrepreneurs to see just how much individual lives have been impacted by access to training, networking, capital and mentorship.

Social norms within the Khagrachari hill, Khulna, Jamalpur, Noakhali districts have traditionally informed certain ideas around women in business, reproductive & maternal health, and digitalization. These regions are ethnically and linguistically diverse, however what they have in common is their limited access to medical services. Cities are often five to six hours away, and towns one hour by car. This is problematic for most people who live in rural areas, where rickshaw is the only viable, albeit costly, means of transport.

The telemedicine aspect of the program has created greater access and affordability to health care within these communities. With women directly supporting health services, conversations around previously taboo subjects on reproductive and maternal health have changed. Practices as simple as use of sanitary items were able to be discussed openly for the first time, according to the women in the community. Telemedicine has been instrumental in encouraging woman to share sex-specific health problems and acquire better maternal and infant health practices.

Some of the entrepreneurs mentioned feeling initial pushback, as many community members expressed doubts about women having greater access to the digital domain, as well as their ability to run a successful business.

After joining her local WBC, Anowara Begum spent 10 years being ostracized from her extended family for choosing to work outside the home. Things have changed now, she explains to Christina, as her family recognizes her great success, her new position as a United Purpose Project Officer, and the large contribution she has made to her local community.

Another one of the entrepreneurs, Ms. Bandana Roy, is a great example of how the program has transformed these initial limiting beliefs around women. Ms Roy is now regularly called upon by service representatives and prominent community members when any action needs to be taken within the area of health. The local government representative making it clear that they “need more people like her”.

Ms. Roy understands the great privilege and responsibility of being an entrepreneur, stating aptly

“We are the warriors, frontline warriors, to be an inspiration for other women…. Before we were just women, now we are women entrepreneurs”

Ms. Roy is one of many women who are now equipped with new digital skills, a smart phone, support networks and commercial opportunities. Moreover, the project has created remarkable intangible results as women gain greater confidence, independence and determination to write their own futures.

Their unique contributions to the community, especially during harsh lockdown months, has given the women greater visibility. Recognition and appreciation by key (male) leaders has thus enabled entrepreneurs to secure their place as integral assets within the community, and ultimately, turn the tide on how women are perceived in their social and cultural settings.

Rural Women Entrepreneurs (RWE) is a project with real-life impact for the local people in rural Bangladesh. Moreover, the project demonstrates how human-centred design and critically engaging with local structures of power can turn any project into a gender transformative endeavor.  Placing tools in hands of those who previously had little to no access to them enables transformative development, and in this case of RWE, has benefited entire communities.


Photos © United Purpose