As a young girl, Rehena Begum was the brightest among her peers in school. Her parents had always encouraged and supported her dreams for an education, until they succumbed to traditional rural customs in Bangladesh and arranged for Rehena, at the age of 14, to marry a school teacher named Abdus Salam. Fortunately for Rehena, her new husband also encouraged her to pursue her studies. Despite this encouragement, Rehena dropped out of school. Within three years, she was mother to two children, a girl and a boy. When their older child was five years old, Salam set off for an overseas job in Brunei in order to increase his earnings and better support his family. The opportunity was a good one for Salam, and he was soon able to purchase new land on which he built a brick house with seven rooms. Tragically, after two years of working overseas, Salam died from a ruptured appendix.
Salam’s untimely death was the beginning of Rehena’s struggles. The house built with Salam’s money was registered in the name of two of his brothers. Additionally, Salam’s older brother was the recipient of all the money Salam sent home during his overseas job. Moreover, the land purchased by Salam was claimed by his brothers as their own after his death. Suddenly, Rehena found herself with nothing. Not even her father was in a position to support her due to his own financial hardships.
“It seems that all of my happy days were just gone. I had no idea what to do with my two children; how I would feed them; how I would ensure their needs. For the first couple of months after my husband’s death, I managed to pay for my expenses with my meager savings. But when that money was gone, I had no clue what to do next. It was really painful to beg money from my in-laws; their ill words were unbearable. My mother-in-law even tried to marry me off again. For the first time, I realized my mistake in not continuing my education. If I had had sufficient education, I could have secured a job.”
While her in-laws provided Rehena and her children with food, any additional needs or expenses went unmet. After a year of struggling and doing without, Rehena learned that the Shapla Rural Development Society (SRDS), a local nongovernment organization and partner of CARE, was looking for some women to be peer educators to adolescents participating in their social awareness program. Peer educators would receive a small stipend per month. Rehena seized that opportunity as a last hope to gain independence for herself.
Meanwhile, CARE and SRDS staff, familiar with Rehena’s story, facilitated another opportunity for her – a teaching position in an informal school operated by another local NGO. After more than a year in this job, Rehena was finally in a position to resume her education. Thus, she enrolled in the secondary school certificate program at Bangladesh Open University. Due to the number of years she had taken off from her studies, however, she struggled academically and was unable to pass the certificate program. What’s more, the funding for the project that supported Rehena’s teaching salary came to an end in 2011. Once again, Rehana was faced with the prospect of not being able to support herself or her children.
Soon, CARE launched another program called ACCESS and selected Rehena to be one of its community health workers (CHWs). When she joined the group of 73 CHWs to be trained under ACCESS at the beginning of 2012, she was at her lowest point: economically, socially and psychologically. She suffered from depression and malnutrition and had to go to hospital several times during the 21-day primary health care training session for the CHWs. The CARE team supported her and helped her to recover. She finally managed to complete the training and began taking care of pregnant women and children in her community, visiting them regularly. Moreover, she invested the honorarium she received during training to buy contraceptives, which she sold to community members as a secondary source of income.
At the end of 2012, using lessons learned from the ACCESS program, CARE came up with an innovative approach to create front line healthcare providers for hard-to-reach areas. Under this program, trainees were required to attend a government-accredited six-month long training course. One of the major criteria for this training is to have a secondary school certificate.
Rehena, who wanted to attend this training, knew that she had to succeed in obtaining her secondary school certificate. She said, “I was scared that I would fail the exam again, but it was the chance for me to do something better and useful and I knew I must try. By the grace of Allah, I passed. Immediately after receiving my passing test scores, I informed CARE staff and they selected for the training program.”
The training included six weeks of field training in addition to the clinical training. During this time, she completed five deliveries, 50 antenatal checkups, 10 postnatal checkups and referred two complicated cases of pregnancy. She was recognized both by doctors of the district hospital and by community members. Rehena is now deployed in her community as a private community-based skilled birth attendant. She is not only providing an important service to her community, but she is also providing a better life for her children.