BRAC Community Health
Rohima is part of a network of 33,000 trained women shasto shebikas, or grassroots community health workers, who make up BRAC (formerly known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). Rohima (women in Bangladesh frequently use just one name) never finished primary school, but today she can diagnose and treat simple illnesses.
Born nearly 40 years ago in a village 60 miles from the capital Dhaka, Rohima was married off before she reached puberty. When her husband was killed in Bangladesh's war for independence in 1971, a pregnant Rohima was thrown out by her in-laws. After giving birth to a son, she survived by growing vegetables on a small plot and begging food from neighbors. "It was so hard trying to raise my son," she recalls. "I was just a poor woman, with no husband. I was lower than a dog."
In the 1980s, Rohima learned about BRAC's training program for community health workers and signed up; she considers that moment the turning point of her life.
"When I was young and alone, I had no hope, but everything is different now," she says. "I can walk through my village and hold my head high. That is worth everything to me. In my life, everything good came to me first from God, and then from BRAC."
BRAC, a non-governmental organization founded two decades ago by international donors, has become so successful that it is now largely self-supporting. It focuses its efforts on helping the poor, especially by empowering women to take charge of their families' health, to start small businesses seeded by microcredit, and to make sure that children are educated.
Today Rohima monitors the health of 300 households, visiting 15 homes a day and dispensing advice about nutrition, sanitation, and family planning. She teaches mothers to treat their children's diarrheal dehydration by giving them homemade oral-rehydration therapy: half a liter of water, a pinch of salt, and a fistful of sugar. She can also make preliminary diagnoses of illnesses like tuberculosis, referring her patients to BRAC clinics for tests and treatment. As a volunteer, she receives no salary, but earns a living off commissions she makes on health products. She and her son run a tiny pharmacy, which she started with a small loan from BRAC.
Rohima is so respected in the community that she was recently elected to her village council. "When I walk through my village, people stop me all the time. They seek my advice, ask me how I'm doing. I see how things are improving, and I feel very happy."
Rohima's journey represents a life few people would have believed possible 20 years ago for a woman in Bangladesh. Now she is a front-line provider of public health.