Meet the women saving young lives in Bangladesh
Take a trip to the ponds of Bangladesh’s rural south to discover the powerful interventions that are tackling child drowning tragedies - and how selfless, courageous women are at the heart of the change.
Motorbikes surge past honking vans, which overtake a trickle of tuktuks that swerve cyclists balancing bamboo poles, fresh fruit and clattering pans destined for a market stall. Those making their way on foot continue at the roadside, not giving the passing wave of wheels a second glance.
A belligerent cow tugs its owner along with a rope. A stray dog trots alone, sporting a vivid spray of pink on his newly-vaccinated neck. Children caper.
This is the road south out of Barishal city, heading into Bangladesh’s rural southern district – an area hit especially hard by the country’s drowning epidemic.
Half-built multi-storey buildings give way to shacks and shopfronts: sunbleached wood and rusting corrugated metal contrasts with a rainbow of signs advertising sweets, drinks and election promises. They tumble away as the countryside takes over, the road now ploughing past hand-dug ponds, palms, rice fields. The occasional murky square of water is surrounded by fences, there to protect fish, rather than children.
A tight turn down a muddy track leads to a settlement of simple buildings shaded by coconut trees. Chicks attempt to reach a scatter of dried rice on a raised bank, fluttering tiny wings to no avail.
It’s mid-morning - a time when most local mothers are racing through a list of essential household chores while fathers work in fields. Each parent battles daily to provide for their family, while young daughters and sons spend mornings by themselves or with other children.
As the chicks flock back to their mother, excited laughter can be heard over at the community pond, away from the shaded houses.
Most homes and communities have their own dedicated ponds like this one. A place for people to wash, fish, and collect water. So these pools of water give life - but they also destroy it on a daily basis. A survey carried out by Bangladesh’s pioneering safety charity, the CIPRB, found that 40 children were drowning a day. The majority of cases saw young lives lost in inland ponds. Children who had limited adult supervision. Children with no swimming skills and little knowledge of what to do when in difficulty.
Tackling the problem that takes 40 young lives daily
This pond is different, though. Geese and cows watch on as an instructor leads a warm up before children gingerly step onto a bamboo structure that sits in the water. They ease themselves onto a submerged platform that creates a shallow pool. For the more accomplished swimmers, bamboo poles mark a surrounding deeper area. The children in this pond are taught today, protected tomorrow. They will not be part of the tragic drowning statistics.
Known as SwimSafe, the project is one of several interventions designed to tackle the horrifying loss of young lives here. The CIPRB research pinpoints where most deaths are recorded, and suitable ponds in those communities are found for the portable bamboo structure that provides a safe training environment. Then local people are asked to step forward as community swimming instructors - most are women these days in the Barishal division, performing roles once unthinkable in such traditional, conservative communities.
It makes me so proud when they learn to swim – and when they show that they can rescue someone else
They receive a week of intensive training before starting regular sessions with the children. It all leads towards an assessment where each child must show they can swim 25m and float for 30 seconds. They also learn how to help others in difficulty without putting themselves in danger. ‘I felt the urge to do something for the children because drowning is such a big risk here,’ says Mosad Mala Akhter – she’s one of the community swimming instructors. ‘It makes me so proud when they learn to swim – and when they show that they can rescue someone else.’
Saving one of your own
Pre-school children are too small for these sessions though. So, to keep them safe in the mornings until they are ready to build their aquatic life skills, CIPRB have led on setting up community crèches, known as anchals. They’re run by ‘Maas’ – women from each community trained and dedicated to protect and educate local infants. Anchal Ma Jhorna Begum knows only too well how easily a young life could be lost to the water here.
Jhorna’s son Robiul was staying home with his younger brother Yasin one day when Yasin went missing. After a frantic search, Yasin’s shoe was spotted in a nearby pond. Jhorna’s husband jumped in and pulled the unconscious child onto land.
That’s when Jhorna recalled the vital training she had received as part of her involvement with the Anchal project.
‘I checked but there was no sign of breathing,’ she recalls. ‘I lay him down and breathed through the mouth. After three attempts at breathing through the mouth, the child showed a small move in the body. When I kept doing the same, the child regained conscious. I saved my child. The only reason I could save my child as I was working with CIPRB. I say thank you to everyone.’
I saved my child ... I say thank you to everyone
Jhorna’s first responder training was provided at a small regional CIPRB office in the nearby town of Kalapara. The smile of hard-working trainer Shamsun Nahar is familiar to thousands – in fact, she has trained more than 19,000 people in first aid.
‘I have given training to people all over Bangladesh,’ she explains. ‘After receiving the training, they benefited their family [by sharing it] as well as the surrounding community. I feel proud about this fact. When I hear that an Anchal Ma took training from me and was able to save someone’s life, I get emotional. I can feel I contributed something good for society.’
When I hear that an Anchal Ma took training from me and was able to save someone’s life, I get emotional. I can feel I contributed something good for society.
The team behind the lives saved
Now the CIPRB team are confident that, the next time drowning rates are researched in Bangladesh, the figures will be much lower. Still desperately tragic – but decreasing.
Thousands of children who might never have even reached their teens without these interventions will live on.
It’s thanks to the organisations who have worked together to support the charity’s interventions – including the Isle of Man Government, UK Aid Match, The Lifeboat Fund, the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, and the RNLI. And none of it would have been possible without people like Mala, Jhorna and Nahar: women determined to make a lifesaving difference in their own communities.
The RNLI is working with global leaders, public health organisations and at-risk communities to help turn the tide on global drowning problem. Together, we can make a difference.Learn more about our international work