“One of the reasons why population grows very rapidly in Bangladesh is women get married very early and have children very early,” the Population Council’s Sajeda Amin told ECSP in a recent interview. “So even though they are only having two children, they are having them at an average age of around 20. As demographers would say, women ‘replace’ themselves very rapidly.”
Largely through the promotion of contraceptive use, family planning programs implemented over the past 35 years by the Bangladeshi government and a variety of NGOs have helped lower the country’s total fertility rate to 2.7 from 6.5 in the mid-1970s. To build on this progress, the Population Council has joined a consortium of other organizations – including the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Marie Stopes International, and We Can End All Violence Against Women – to launch the Growing Up Safe and Healthy (SAFE) project in Amin’s native Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities.
Currently nearing the completion of its first year, the four-year initiative has several aims, among them increasing access to reproductive healthcare services for adolescent girls and young women and bolstering social services to protect those populations from (and offer treatment for) gender-based violence. The project also looks to strengthen laws designed to reduce the prevalence of child marriage – a long-standing Bangladeshi institution that keeps population growth rates high while denying many young women the opportunity to pursue economic and educational advancement.
A Focus on Gender and Climate
Amin says the SAFE project boasts several qualities that collectively set the initiative apart from similar-minded programs in Bangladesh dealing with gender and poverty. These include a strong research component incorporating quantitative and qualitative analysis; the holistic nature of the program, which incorporates educational outreach, livelihood development, and legal empowerment; a commitment to working with both male and female populations; and an emphasis on interventions targeting young people, with the hope that such efforts will allow adolescents to make better-informed decisions about future relationships and reproductive health, thus reducing the likelihood of gender-based violence.
Finally, while many existing gender-based programs focus exclusively on rural communities, Amin points out that the SAFE project also stands apart because of its focus on the country’s rapidly expanding urban areas. To date, the initiative is focusing many of its early interventions in a Dhaka slum that has seen an influx of rural migrants in recent years due to climate-change impacts in the country’s low-lying coastal areas.
“A lot of the big problems in Bangladesh now are climate-driven in the sense of creating mass movements out of areas that are particularly vulnerable or have been hit by a major storm,” Amin said. “Usually these are people who, once they lose their homes and their livelihoods, will have no choice but to move to urban areas, and that’s a process that is kind of a big outstanding issue in Bangladesh now.”
By building programming around girls and young women in such communities, the SAFE project is looking to spark change from the bottom up, prioritizing the unmet health and social needs of some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable populations.