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Empowering girls in Bangladesh through karate, climate-smart gardening, & more

“It is normal now to do what boys would do, and we girls are good at it,” says Unmi Roy, 14, Bangladesh. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

“It is normal now to do what boys would do, and we girls are good at it,” says Unmi Roy, 14, Bangladesh. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

“As a girl, I feel I have more options now and can voice my hopes and dreams," says Unmi, a 14-year old girl in north Bangladesh.

The school Unmi attends is one of the 331 partner schools working with CARE’s Joint Action for Nutrition Outcome (JANO) program. One of the key objectives of JANO, which is financed through the European Union and the Austrian Development Agency, is to address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls like Unmi and her peers.

This is especially important in Bangladesh, where 40 million people are food insecure, with 11 million suffering from acute hunger.

CARE’s recent Growth is Not Enough report showed some of the ways gender inequality can make these types of food crises worse, and that focusing on gender can help lessen some of the worst effects of hunger.

That’s one reason why the JANO schools in Bangladesh focus on health, nutrition, and gender equity in line with the country’s Nutrition Action Plan.

JANO works with around 300,000 students to promote positive nutrition practices. Unmi is just one of the girls whose life has already started to change.

“We have classes, we have games, and we also watch videos. I learned about how to calculate my classmates’ BMI (Body Mass Index) and what a balanced diet is.”

Unmi in
“We have the school garden where we grow vegetables and learn how to wash, cut, and cook them properly.” – Unmi. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

“The karate classes teach us – girls – self-confidence. So, we learn a lot at school. We also have a theater group where we teach the community about healthy lifestyles and misconceptions [around health and nutrition],” Unmi continues.

The program has reached 287,420 adolescents (65 percent girls) from 331 schools, and over 75,000 students have received orientation on gender issues.

A different kind of game

JANO has introduced different innovative learning approaches to the communities where the staff works, including customized board games like Monopoly and Snakes & Ladders to help teach health and nutrition.

For instance, instead of collecting properties or hotels in JANO Monopoly, players collect messages about washing vegetables correctly.

“It also has the prison field like the original game,” Unmi says, pointing it out on the board as she plays. “But here we have other reasons to end up there. For example, when we draw a card that says we married too early, took unhygienic food, or we did not finish our education, we must skip a round waiting at the prison.”

For JANO Snakes & Ladders, if a player lands on a board square that says, “continuing your education,” they can climb up the ladder to a higher level leading to a brighter future. On the other hand, if the player decides to stop their education, they would slide down to a lower level, where the square says “early pregnancy,” which can pose major health risks in the real world.

In their free time at school, Unmi and her friends play customized board games to learn about health and nutrition issues. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

When asked what Unmi’s most favorite school activity was, she mentioned the school garden.

The JANO program also works with farmers, and carries that information through to the schools.

About 17000 farmers received training on climate-smart gardening, and there has been a 12.8 percent increase in the number of households practicing climate-smart techniques.

“I learned a lot about how to grow vegetables, different farming seasons,” Unmi says about the school garden where she works. “I even have my own garden at home now and grow vegetables for the family.”

Following in her father’s footsteps

Unmi’s father Swapan Kumar Roy, 43, is a farmer who also works as a village doctor. Last year, heavy rain and floods ravaged his paddy fields.

“It has impacted my family a lot. I lost a lot of money, time, and food for my family. So, I am delighted that Unmi helps us with her garden,” he says.

Swapan treats people going from door-to-door, and he says he’s noticed the changes in the community since the JANO programs began.

“Earlier, most people preferred herbal solutions for illnesses or tried religious approaches and other misbeliefs. Now they reach out to me more frequently or visit nearby health facilities,” he says.

“Not only that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many visited me for vaccination, which would not have been the case in the past. Now there is growing awareness as to how important it is to see a doctor. They have become more knowledgeable.”

86.6 percent of women and girls from the project working area managed to claim services from the local community clinics.

Such multi-faceted changes have been possible due to the unique interventions by JANO that are benefiting thousands. JANO has already reached over one million people, 61 percent of which are women.

Unmi now wishes to give something back to the local community, following in her father’s footsteps.

“I want to become a doctor. My favorite school subject is biology because I love learning about different bacteria and how the body works. I want to do what he [father] does and support my neighbors.”

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