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Coping strategies of destitute women in Bangladesh


Judit Katona-Apte


This article provides a description of the survival strategies of very poor women in Bangladesh, including networking, buying and selling goods, preparing foods for sale, bartering, selling their own and their children's labour, fishing and gathering food and fuel, and money lending. Katona-Apte stresses that programmes can build on successful coping strategies and provides examples of how this might work, including extending women credit for income-generating schemes. Like Rogers and Youssef, she mentions the experience of the Grameen Bank in lending to poor women to demonstrate that they are good credit risks.

The article outlines the cultural and economic reasons why so many women are destitute in Bangladesh. It also describes the disproportionate and oppressive social burden they carry in their patriarchal society.



Studies of low-income women tend to emphasize their poverty, their marginality in society, and their general lack of ability to cope with the vicissitudes of existence. There is little available information, however, on the strategies employed by such women to support their children and themselves. Societies that have been ravaged by war or that have easy divorce and marital separation customs contain large numbers of low-income women who barely cope from day to day. They have no visible income. Some of them do not survive, and those who do are destitute. The purpose of this paper is to examine the coping mechanisms of destitute women in Bangladesh.

How many women are considered to be destitute in Bangladesh? One researcher [1] estimates that 30% of rural women over the age of ten in Bangladesh are destitute; if urban dwellers are added to this estimate, such women number in the tens of millions. Yunus [2], in the preface to the English edition of his book, claims, "There are millions of [destitute women] . . . in Bangladesh who continue to be deprived of any ray of hope."

It is useful to know what survival strategies are successfully used by these women so that projects can build on what they are already familiar with. This kind of information may enable development projects to extend coverage by targeting aid more cost effectively.


Who are destitute women?

A destitute woman is defined here as a female without adequate means of support. In a patriarchal society such as Bangladesh, a female depends on her husband, father, brother, or other male relative for her own support and that of her children. She is considered destitute if she (1) either is widowed or abandoned or has only a disabled husband and (2) is functionally landless (owning less than 0.4 acre [0.16 ha] of cultivable land) and without any assets. Destitute women survive at precarious income levels because they are underemployed. They receive the lowest hourly cash earnings of any group-1.76 take versus 2.68 take average for all poor, according to one recent study [3] . *

Low-income women in Bangladesh are often destined to a life of difficulty and undernourishment. From birth, a female child receives less food than her male siblings because she is viewed as an economic liability to the household. Her marriage will cost a dowry and she is not traditionally expected to support her parents in old age. Yet she contributes more labour to the household than her male siblings because she is working around the house while they are often at home waiting for remunerative employment. Thus, if she is to survive, she must develop means of coping from very early on.

As she is perceived to be a liability, she is married early, usually without any choice. In exchange for being a burden on someone else, she is provided with a dowry. Many of the life histories of women specifically state that daughters are married off so that someone else can be responsible for them [2]. Once married, she has to adjust to patrilocal residence and endure additional wives or mistresses, heavy work, and mental and physical abuse. The latter may include starvation while the rest of the household eats. This treatment often results when the promised dowry is not paid in full.

When the husband gets ill, she has to support him, herself, and their children and try to pay his medical expenses. If she leaves the husband or if he leaves her, she becomes the sole support of her children. Such separations are not uncommon. If the husband becomes disabled, she also has to support him. She will provide for her children and her disabled husband even if it means depriving herself, though she may be the only wage earner in the household. If the husband dies, she has the additional burden of widowhood, which deprives her of status. As a result of her situation, she may have to change residences, which frequently results in the potential loss of any possible patronage in her village and much mental stress.

The emphasis in this paper will be on the strategies and mechanisms employed by such women to contend with adverse conditions. The major motivating factor for survival is the need for food. Before examining the venous strategies used for coping, a discussion of the nutritional intake of destitute families would be useful.


Nutritional intake of destitute women's households

Famines and starvation are a constant reality in Bangladesh. They are attributable to a combination of underdevelopment, maldistribution of goods, and frequent natural disasters as the country is subject to floods, cyclones, and droughts. The most pressing need is for food. Life histories and interview records abound with questions and comments such as "How will I feed my children?" "Where will we get food?" "I had no food to give my children." Dietary data and observations reveal that destitute women and their children in Bangladesh are greatly undernourished; they are extremely thin, wasted, and small for their age.

The World Bank estimates that the availability of food energy in Bangladesh is 1,899 kilocalories per day [4]. But for poor people, Hossain [3] found it to range from 1,118 to 2,102, with an average of 1,333, far short of the 2,020 claimed by the World Food Programme to be the requirement [5]. According to Hossain, protein intakes are equally deficient, ranging from 30.1 to 41.7 g, the source being almost exclusively cereal [3].

Members of the destitute population consume two cooked meals per day, when they can afford it, and leftover foods from the day before in the morning. This is more the norm than reality, as most have a total of two meals and many only one. The food priorities for meals are rice (Oryza saliva), cooking oil, and green chilies (Capsicum annuum). Fish are sometimes caught by family members and either sold or consumed, and vegetables are used when available, often gathered or acquired from neighbours or through begging.

Rice is associated with a high income-elasticity of demand; daily per capita consumption ranges from 933 g for well-to-do households to 224 g for poor ones [3]. About 20% of the time, rice is replaced by wheat, a less expensive staple [6]. The fact that so little of the cheaper staple is purchased indicates that the tradition of rice consumption is very strong; in fact, people would rather go hungry than consume wheat. Most of the food energy is obtained from cereals. Areca nuts (Areca catechu) and betel leaves (Piper betel) are chewed by adults as anorectics.

During the reproductive years, a woman may be in a constant state of pregnancy and lactation during which she is poorly nourished. Birth rate, pregnancy wastage, and infant mortality are all high;* for each live child, a woman may have to go through several pregnancies. This pattern produces a vicious cycle for nutritional status. Since the infant is likely to receive all of its nourishment from the mother during its first year of life, the demands of pregnancy and lactation on the already-emaciated mother lead to further ill health. The mother's health status, in turn, causes pregnancy wastage and low-birth-weight infants, and the mother becomes wasted and anaemic.

Intra-household food dispensation favours the male and children over six years of age [3]. The population of Bangladesh, as a whole, is extremely undernourished. Many are at the starvation level, and many do not survive childhood. Given the conditions, one can conjecture that the inadequate nourishment received by low-income males engaged in heavy physical labour serves ultimately to increase the number of women who become destitute.

According to 1981 census figures tabulated by Hossain [3], there are more males than females at every age level in Bangladesh. This pattern could indicate neglect of female infants as well as a heavy toll on women's lives during the childbearing years.


Priorities other than food

After food, the next level of need is shelter and clothing (and by clothing I refer here to just the minimum needed to cover the body). After these priorities are the husband's health and the children's education. Health for children or for the women themselves in terms of purchasing care or medication does not appear to be a priority, but education does. Many destitute women see education as a necessity for their children and will attempt to provide it at great sacrifice [1, 2]. Children's education appears to take precedence over repairs and improvement of dwellings [2].


Types of coping mechanisms employed

Low-income women possess many means for generating income either in cash or in kind. The women acquire these skills without any formal training or education. As Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, a cooperative credit source, has observed, " Nobody needed any special training. They had already received this training as part of the household chores or had acquired the necessary skill in their field of work" [2, p. 3]. It is interesting to note that many who engage in selling and bartering manage their business profitably without any formal training in accounting. It would appear that lack of skills is not the limiting factor for income generation. Lavador [7] lists a total of 331 potential means of income generation for women under the following categories: processing and manufacturing, 98; agriculture and forestry, 28; livestock and fisheries, 9; services, 18; trading, 105; peddling, 22; shop keeping, 14; and collective enterprises, 37.

Destitute households spend considerably more than they earn [3]. These households, therefore, must have access to non-earned receipts that enable them to function. As is discussed in detail later in this article, women in Bangladesh appear to have means of coping with their immediate needs, and income-generating activities are only one kind of the many strategies employed.

Destitute women usually are not part of the system of patronage that exists in Bangladesh where the poor depend on well-to-do members of the community for labour opportunities and credit. This exclusion is attributable partly to the fact that destitute women lack stability in residence and income-generating potential, and partly to the fact that they lack status in any community they reside in. A man may have bad luck, but a woman is seen as being responsible for her own misfortune.

On the other hand, destitute women have an advantage over other women as most of the time they control both their own and their children's labour and the returns from that labour. As is discussed later, they are often also in control of their means of production. They do not depend on men for credit, as the credit system is sexually segregated: women borrow from women and men from men [8]. Purdah, the isolation of women from outsiders, especially males, is a symbol of respectability and high status, so that destitute women do not have to adhere to it. Some of the restrictions are, therefore, removed from destitute women, but not all. They are still not able to trade at a market, although they can peddle from house to house, or attend religious gatherings.

The following coping mechanisms employed by destitute women in Bangladesh are discussed in the sections that follow: (1) gaining access to government bureaucracy, (2) networking, (3) buying and selling small quantities of goods, (4) preparing goods for sale, (S) bartering, (6) selling their own and their children's labour, (7) fishing and gathering food and fuel, and (8) money lending.

Each women uses several types of mechanisms, often at the same time, in order to cope. For example, she could buy and sell food items, work one or two days per month in wage employment, have one of her sons receive free room and board in exchange for labour, and collect and sell firewood. A woman named Moyfal, for example, recounted as part of her life history that she had engaged in the following activities: selling land, weaving fish nets, husking rice, selling her son's labour, using her son's skill as pottery seller, working as a domestic, tending goats, keeping poultry, gathering vegetables, and receiving help from neighbours, relatives, and the government [2].


Gaining access to government bureaucracy

Destitute individuals cannot manage without help from the community and the government. The more capable a person is in gaining access to the "system" or bureaucracy, the more likely she is to receive goods and services. These may include free or low-cost food, such as food aid or food-ration entitlement, medical services, educational opportunities, skill training, or credit. In a study of six poor villages, Hossain [3] found that government institutions, union councils, political leaders, and various charitable organizations provided a large portion of all cash relief.

In Bangladesh, local officials are elected, and they are likely to do favours before elections. Poor women are able at these times to sign up for government relief programmes, as local officials decide who qualifies to receive aid. Participating in government-sponsored programmes often includes attending meetings and seminars, forming groups, and other similar activities that may provide women with self-confidence and a sense of belonging.



In many societies women survive through networking, employing a support system which they build up and maintain at great cost in both time and goods but which they consider essential. Networking involves providing goods, favours, and services for others so that these individuals will "owe" the provider goods and favours in return. When a women has extra food, she will share it with members of her network, and they in turn will share with her their additional goods whenever they have them. Women usually create reciprocal relationships with other women, though political officials and other individuals of power are also included. It is important to note that neither status nor wealth are necessary for successful networking.

Networking is important in many ways. For example, destitute women often do not own even a single outfit to wear and thus have to borrow one in order to leave their compound. Those who work in construction or agriculture, which are seasonally available opportunities, need to know where workers are required, and this is also a matter of networking. A worker also has to be hired and, as there is a surplus of labour, a good relationship with foremen is essential.

Family and kin support is also treated as networking in this context because family members may not supply help when needed.

While a woman's husband and his family are supposed to provide for her and her children, they often shirk this responsibility. Fathers and brothers have no obligation to a woman after she marries. The extent of help a woman receives from both her families of orientation and procreation depends on her networking skills. Adult women with children will often settle near their mothers to receive both moral and financial support. Many old women will beg in order to provide for their destitute daughter and her children.

Women use many different members of their network in order to survive. Relatives, neighbours, and friends often provide loans and other goods, such as small quantities of food, shelter, milk for infants, labour, and money without interest. Networking also enables them to form groups to qualify for loans from the Grameen Bank. (The bank is a specialized credit institution for the rural poor in Bangladesh started as a cooperative credit society. Potential borrowers have to form groups as the loans are provided on the principle of shared responsibility. Individual loans tend to be small and are related to the borrowers' income levels.)


Buying and selling small quantities of goods

Women often make small amounts of profit by buying in one market, usually far away, and either selling at a slightly higher price closer to a settlement or village or peddling from house to house. As women in Bangladesh cannot buy or sell at regular markets, they rely on their male children or pay a commission to other males to purchase goods for them. Women also sell their own produce, e.g. one or two eggs if they own a couple of chickens or ducks, milk if they own a goat or cow, or small quantities of produce grown near their dwelling.


Preparing goods for sale

Women often prepare goods for sale using such skills as cooking, sewing, crocheting, or weaving fish nets, mats, or baskets. Food preparation is a major income producing activity and includes husking paddy, processing wild roots into flour for biscuits (hoti), baking sweet potatoes, and bagging heated rice (puffed rice), spice mixtures, or snack foods. There is a great advantage to processing and peddling home-produced subsistence goods because the demand for them in any one neighbourhood does not necessarily decline.



Bartering is a very old custom and still occurs in many parts of the world, even where there is a cash economy. Women often barter their labour for food or housing, or their children's labour for the children's subsistence. They also barter one type of food for another or for any other available goods. It is not uncommon for a woman to raise someone else's goat or milch cow in order to acquire its first offspring.


Selling their own and their children's labour

Women work most often as daily labourers in jobs such as laundering clothes and doing agricultural and construction work or as servants in richer persons' homes for cash or goods. Begging-a form of labour- is engaged in more often by women than they men. Male children are frequently placed as servants in other families' households for their room and board. Families make a strong effort to marry off female children even though an expense is involved (i.e., a dowry) so that someone else can be responsible for their maintenance.


Fishing and gathering food and fuel

With the aid of their children, women will often succeed in catching fish and gathering leafy green vegetables, which they usually consume rather than sell. They also gather other vegetable and fruit products, as well as fuel (wood and leaves) which they can either sell or use themselves.


Money lending

A destitute woman may have a small amount of savings which she attempts to hold on to at any cost in order to lend the money out at high rates of interest. As this population lives from day to day, there are many occasions to borrow small sums for such necessities as food. As mentioned earlier, in the Muslim society of Bangladesh, women borrow only from women.



All the strategies discussed earlier barely enable destitute women to survive. In order to achieve an improved lifestyle through economic self-sufficiency, destitute women need access to credit. As this population lives at an extremely precarious income level, they are continuously in debt. Low-income populations borrow from (1) relatives, (2) merchants and moneylenders, (3) friends, and (4) government institutions, co-operatives, and banks, in that order [3]. They have two kinds of credit needs. One is for immediate "consumption" and is not used in any productive activity. The other is for capital so that the borrower can engage in some directly productive, income-generating activity.

The strategy of the destitute woman is to meet immediate needs; she cannot plan for the future. Income and goods are used up as they are acquired. There are many situations when she will have to borrow money in order to survive, either to actually pay for food or to pay off earlier debts incurred for meeting survival needs.

The interest rates charged on loans in Bangladesh vary greatly, partly depending on what the money is to be used for and partly on the relationship between borrower and lender. Interest rates are lower when borrowing from relatives or others with whom one has close ties than from strangers, but destitute women do not necesarily have people in their immediate network with available cash. When money is needed in an emergency, such as for an illness or death, relatives may lend it interest-free. When money is wanted for capital, however, interest rates as high as 25% per month are not uncommon, because destitute women have nothing to offer as collateral nor do they appear to have potential for generating income.

Credit appears to be the single most important need for destitute women [2, 9]. When they have access to credit they can usually manage because of their entrepreneurial skills. They also use their network for this purpose also; those who peddle goods, for example, often borrow from customers and repay in cash or kind. Most buy goods to sell on consignment or credit, rarely for cash.



Development projects in Bangladesh frequently target destitute women into programmes that are supposed to make them self-sufficient [1, 2, 8, 10]. These women are seen both by the government and by society at large as economically marginal. Though the actual number of women being helped through such programmes may appear high-the World Food Programme's Vulnerable Development Project covers close to half a million women [5]-it is minuscule in comparison with the need. The number of destitute women in Bangladesh is likely to increase rather than decrease over time. It would be unrealistic. therefore, to expect that current development projects will be able to reach most women in need.

Development projects often provide training in income-generating skills in their attempts to help women become self-sufficient. Yet these women already have skills that could be channelled into productive employment. It is known, for example, that peddling small quantities of prepared or purchased goods is a frequently used strategy for coping. The women use up the small amounts of cash they have for daily necessities, leaving them without capital to invest in small-scale businesses. As a result, they often have to sell their merchandise at very low prices to traders who provide them with advances to buy the needed materials.

When financial support is available-and this may be a very small amount of cash; US$15-20 is often adequate-these women can manage quite well. Development projects may keep this in mind and attempt either to provide inexpensive credit rather than small monthly quantities of goods or to provide means of using the income transfer from those goods as capital [11]. Responses to a survey indicated that most low-income women preferred receiving aid in the form of cash loans they could use for productive activities so they could generate their own income [12].

With capital to acquire raw materials, stock, simple tools, and equipment, a woman could, for instance, buy paddy, husk, and sell it rather than husking it at a low cash wage for someone else; buy poultry and sell eggs rather than buying the eggs at a far-away market; or buy bamboo and cane so that all the profit from her labour would accrue to her. The list of possibilities is very long.

It is appropriate to mention here that women are good credit risks when the loan is used for income generating purposes. Defaulting on loans from the Grameen Bank, for example, has been about 1% [13].

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate that those destitute women who do cope have a number of strategies to help them survive. It should be obvious that these women have varied skills to manage in extremely adverse situations and that, under more favourable conditions, they could succeed in being self-sufficient. Of course, these remarks should not be interpreted to mean that destitute women do not need assistance. Studies of women often fail to use data that emphasize their potential. The more information becomes available about the means they use to survive, the more probable it becomes that development assistance could be structured in a manner most likely to achieve the desired results. After all, the objective of development is to eradicate poverty by enabling all to be economically self-sufficient.



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2. Yunus M. Jorimon of Beltoil village and others: in search of a future. Dhaka: Grameen Bank, 1984.

3. Hossain M. The assault that failed: a profile of absolute poverty in six villages of Bangladesh. Geneva: UNRISD, 1987.

4. World Bank. World development report. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

5. World Food Programme. Interim evaluation of WFP-assisted project Bangladesh 226 Exp. 3: feeding and rehabilitation of vulnerable groups, and appraisal of the request for a fourth expansion. WFP report. Rome, 1986.

6. World Food Programme. VGF Programme: final monitoring report for 1985/86 Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme assisted by WFP/Canada/Australia and the Government of Bangladesh. WFP report. Dhaka, 1986.

7. Lavador SF. The vulnerable group feeding (VGF) project: a programme of action for income generation. International Labour Organisation consultant s report to the World Food Programme/Dhaka. 1986.

8. Blanchet T. Rural women, savings and credit: an anthropological view. Monograph prepared for USAID/ Dhaka. 1986.

9. Hasan MY. Skill training programmes for women in Bangladesh: assessments and directions. Bangladesh: Center for Women and Development, 1985.

10. World Food Programme. Project Bangladesh 2226 (Exp. 4). WFP report. Rome, 1987.

11. Katona-Apte J. Women and food aid: a developmental perspective. Food Policy 1986;11(3):216-22.

12. Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). Peasant perceptions: famine, credit needs, sanitation. Rural study series. Dhaka: BRAC Prokashana. 1984.

13. Rahman A. Demand and marketing aspects of Grameen Bank: a closer look. Dhaka: The University Press, 1986.

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