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Milking it: How dairy farming is transforming lives for flood-hit women in Bangladesh

Posted by Norul Amin Economic and Private Sector Coordinator

10th Jul 2013

Following on from Saturday's International Day of Cooperatives, Norul Amin writes on how forming a producer group transformed the lives of women dairy farmers in a remote village  in Bangladesh.

Panjar Bhanga is a village tucked beside a bridge over the Teesta river, which flows into Bangladesh from neighbouring India. It is a sleepy, peaceful place, where life revolves around the river, and it is easy to forget that every year the flimsy-looking, corrugated iron homes are inundated by floodwater.
 
Every year, vulnerable river communities like Panjar Bhanga are hit hard by extreme weather conditions. In the dry months before the monsoon season, there is very little work and people go hungry, while during the monsoon families survive on meagre portions of dried food, and their land and homes are often washed away. After the floods, these families have to start all over again, getting into debt as they do so. There are few opportunities to earn a basic income, and many men earn as little as £1 a day as labourers. When there is no work, many families sell their only assets - their cows - or their labour in advance at a reduced rate so that they can buy food, pushing them further into poverty.

Women have always reared cows in Panjar Bhanga, but are not always able to earn a reliable income from dairy production. Women in these communities are particularly vulnerable and marginalised. Social norms and husbands' restrictions mean that they have to stay at home, and are not recognised as wage-earners. Despite men often leaving their wives in charge of running the household while they work away from home, women are not seen as capable of contributing to or managing their household income. Many women suffer emotional and physical abuse from their husbands, who are also less likely to spend their earnings on the family. Child marriage is an additional problem for girls, who can be exposed to abuse from the age of 12.
 
Women have always reared cows in Panjar Bhanga, but are not always able to earn a reliable income from dairy production. It is considered inappropriate for women travel to market, so they have to pay considerable transport costs and fees to middlemen, or rely on husbands - who may spend the money on themselves rather than the family. Women also have limited knowledge of fair market prices and higher-quality production methods, while cows often get ill, especially during the floods, producing only small amounts of low quality milk.

Collective dairy farming - to empower women and prepare for floods

Oxfam and its partner Social Equality for Effective Development (SEED) are helping women in Panjar Bhanga to earn a reliable, year-round income by rearing dairy cows and selling the milk collectively.
  Three years ago, Oxfam and SEED facilitated a gendered-market selection process with the local community to explore marketing opportunities for marginalized women. Community members identified potential income sources to help vulnerable families earn and save money, and be better prepared for flooding. 

From these discussions, the community made the decision to focus on producing and selling milk. Dairy production has the advantage of requiring limited land, which most people in the area do not own, or have lost to flooding. Cows are also 'mobile', and can be moved to a safe place during the floods, as well as being low-maintenance, and only requiring cleaning and feeding once a day, so that families can fit these tasks around their other work. In addition, cow rearing is seen as a traditional role for a woman, and women's involvement therefore meets little resistance in the community.
 
Oxfam and its partner have:

  • Provided cows to the most vulnerable families, as well as providing training on keeping them healthy and productive.
  • Helped women smallholders to form a producer group, so that they can share knowledge and resources and sell their milk collectively.
  • Set up links between producers and a dairy processing company, Rangpur Dairy. Producers now sell their milk directly to the company, giving them a guaranteed price and removing the need for middlemen.
  • Provided financial support, such as helping producers invest in their own transport to save on costs.
  • Helped the community access services from local government and extension service providers. This includes veterinary services, 40-day employment schemes, support to repair roads, and grants to build sturdy cow sheds with concrete floors.
  • Provided training on disaster preparation (e.g. by storing food, taking cattle to a safe place, or setting up a food bank for vulnerable families),
  • Provided training on women's rights, including preventing domestic violence and child marriage.

As part of the contract with Rangpur Dairy, producers get training on producing and collecting high-quality milk, as well as access to affordable veterinary support and cattle fodder. Milk collection, sale and transport of milk to Rangpur Dairy is organised by an 'enterprise group', consisting of elected representatives of dairy producers. The milk is then processed into packets of UHT milk, flavoured milk and sweets which are sold across the country.

Transformative change for women dairy producers

Women dairy producers are now producing more milk of a higher quality, and the price they receive per litre has gone up by 50% on average. With this increased income, women are buying more nutritious food for their families, paying for their children's education and strengthening their homes against flooding. They are also able to save money so they can buy and store food for the floods, and don't have to sell their assets following the monsoon.
 
In addition, the status of women in the community has been transformed - nearly every woman we spoke to said she felt more confident now she is contributing equally to her household income. Women are discussing their concerns with people outside their village including government officials, and now have a say over the issues that affect their lives.

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First posted on Grow.Sell.Thrive Oxfam's community of practice for livelihoods practitioners.

Blog post written by Norul Amin

Economic and Private Sector Coordinator

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Norul Amin