Feb 20, 2022

Rheeana lives in a small village in Bangladesh, where she’s achieved momentous change. She’s stopped dozens of child marriages in her area – in a country with one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. How? Thanks to the collaborative power of women and her training with The Hunger Project – an organisation committed to the sustainable end to world hunger. After learning that early marriage could be detrimental to society, Rheeana decided to take matters into her own hands – with an attempt to stop the marriage of her 12-year-old cousin.

“Rheeana went to her family first, but they ignored her,” says Manda Lakhani, Trustee and Acting CEO of The Hunger Project UK. “The Imam said he couldn’t do anything. So, she went straight to the police with women in her self-help group. Going to the police in Bangladesh is quite a serious business. But, Rheeana went with twelve women to the station and said ‘We won’t leave until you stop this’ – and they won their fight; the marriage did not go ahead. It was down to sheer perseverance and tenacity, thanks to a new sense of confidence that the women had discovered together. Over the following two years, Rheeana stopped dozens of child marriages.”

From marginalised to micro financiers

Rheeana and her cohort have been on an extraordinary journey. Like many women in poorer parts of the world, they’re fighting circumstance and history: two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are female. Of the millions of young children not in school, the majority are girls. Women bear almost all responsibility for meeting basic needs of the family, yet are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfil this responsibility.

With this in mind, a key strategy of The Hunger Project is to train women into leadership in Southeast Asia, Africa and South and Central America. And it does so with its Vision, Commitment & Action workshops. During these courses, Rheeana and her peers learnt about creating their own microfinance to build businesses.

“Each woman was asked to take a fist full of rice at a meal time each day,” explains Manda Lakhani. “It was a lot to give up, but these women were prepared to do that. At their weekly meetings, they’d put their rice into a bucket as a membership fee. Then they’d take it to sell at the market to create a fund that could be lent to each member. In this way, they built up their own microfinance, their own seed capital, so they could go on to start their own businesses. Rheeana bought two chickens and sold the eggs to repay the capital. Then she got a cow and a pig – and created a small livestock farm.”

Confidence and creativity, self-reliance and sufficiency

Empowerment, it seems, opens the floodgates to transformative change, with self-reliance being the pivotal abilities that Rheeana and her collective learnt. Not only that, but also an instilled confidence in themselves that fuelled creativity and entrepreneurship.

Self-sufficiency is at the core of The Hunger Project’s beliefs and is reflected in its work in 13 different countries. And it’s clearly a strategy that’s working, with an impressive 16 million people reached and counting during the charity’s forty year history. It’s Acting CEO emphasises that it’s not about outsiders swooping in and imposing change:

“We give people a hand up. That’s really critical, because it means no one is relying on the handouts of others, that may not always be there. We work with communities, where people have been born into adversity, to give them leadership skills so they can make the changes needed themselves. An empowered woman can have an impact on many, many people around her, not just her family.”

The power of many

A group of women, therefore, has the potential to change the lives of hundreds. The power of many at its best – moving from “I can’t” to a “We can” mindset. There are lessons for us all to learn here – from creating seed capital, to entrepreneurship and starting businesses, to working together collectively and collaboratively. And above all, understanding that we all are leaders of our own change.

If you’ve been inspired by Rheeana’s story, please do learn more about The Hunger Project and donate to its fantastic work empowering women and communities across the world.

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