Social welfare: a new dimension of women development
IN MAY 1976, when I joined as director of social welfare, I found that the directorate had a very promising programme for development of women and population activities. It was curiously called Rural Social Service, which tended to remind one of the not very well reputed extremist ‘Indian organisation, the Rashtriya Seba Sangstha.’ In Bangladesh in social welfare, it had a positive beneficial meaning. It aimed at organising the rural poor, especially the relatively younger mothers, for basic education, skills training and family planning in what was called Social Welfare Mothers’ Club. These were organised immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh under the inspiration of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of Bangladesh. By 1976, it had started operating in 40 thanas (upazilas) in different districts. Famous physicians and founder of BIRDEM Dr Muhammad Ibrahim told me that the mothers’ club project was a successful work of the social welfare directorate. He justly praised my predecessor Mozammel Huq, a senior officer of the erstwhile provincial civil service.
The RSS project in the Social Welfare Mothers Club, in particular, tied all skills training income earning and educational activities for women with population activities. As a result, members of the mothers’ club consciously and easily took to voluntary family planning much before the end of their training period. The scheme cost much less than similar other family planning or women development programmes in the village. These received sincere and consistent support and supervision from well trained social workers and officers in villages and rural headquarters and districts. Jowshan Ara Rahman as chief of the project at the headquarters in Dhaka ran and supervised it in close and effective cooperation with the World Bank, especially in the local office in Dhaka. She was not only a well trained social welfare worker but dedicated to her job. She and her colleagues in the headquarters and the rural areas worked hard day and night to improve the life of the poor women in the mothers’ club. They were given literacy, skills training and family child care and family welfare training within a short time at very low cost. As a result, family planning programme achieved a remarkable success in the mothers’ club areas.
When in 1970s World Bank president McNamara visited the mothers’ club centre in Sherpur, Bogura, he praised the club’s achievement in the multisectoral population project of the World Bank. Later in 1978, we at the directorate appealed to the government to increase the number of mothers’ club by 100 per cent. In the meeting, the then finance minister M Syeduzzaman, a seasoned civil servant and finance expert, objected to our proposal. He said that the money could be given to voluntary agencies and bought to government social welfare directorate as it would save the salary of officials and employees. It was a crafty move but then General Zia came to our rescue. He said, ‘No, that will not do. It is our programme, government programme and should remain so.’ After this decisive declaration, there was no way for the finance minister but to relent. The RSS and Social Welfare Mothers’ Club grew from strength to strength.
The Social Welfare Mothers’ Club Programme earned deep and widespread appreciation at home and abroad. Not only the World Bank president Robert McNamara and his associates were happy and satisfied with the success of the project but so also were high officials and the Bangladesh and foreign governments. The assistant minister for human rights of the government of president Jimmy Carter visited the Social Welfare Mothers’ Club in Gazipur, Dhaka in 1980. I accompanied her and found her extremely happy with the achievement of the club in difficult financial and organisation conditions. I was invited to the United States under the state department’s international visitors programme in March-April that year. There the protocol officer asked me which officers and persons I wanted to visit in Washington DC when I told him that I wanted to meet the US assistant minister for human resource. He was virtually sceptical and doubted the next four days of my stay in Washington. I persuaded him to try; he did and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was given appointment the very next day. The assistant minister discussed the Social Welfare Mothers’ Club programme and activities and praised its progress. I was at that time very proud of my country, the social welfare directorate and my colleagues there.
To be continued.
Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).
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