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Indigenous alumni from Bangladesh use grants to support their communities

Posted: 3 August 2023

Bangladesh, Alumni, Gender Equality, Grants,

By providing Australia Awards Scholarships and Fellowships, Australia Awards – Bangladesh has supported many indigenous people to enhance their knowledge and skills. Since returning to Bangladesh, these Australia Awards alumni have used their leadership skills and technical knowledge to make a difference in their local indigenous communities.

In 2022, Australia Awards – Bangladesh offered Alumni Support Grants under the theme From Theory to Practice: Establishing a Community of Practice to support Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI). The grants aimed to support innovative practices that promote the application of GEDSI at workplaces in the public, private and non-governmental organisation sectors. The overall purpose of the grants was to encourage alumni to commit, connect and collaborate through the practice of GEDSI.

To mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we highlight the accomplishments of three indigenous Alumni Support Grant recipients from Bangladesh: Elsie Hasdak from the Santal people, Shohel Chandra Hajang from the Hajong people and Margret Sumer from the Khasi people. They have all used their grant to successfully implement innovative projects to assist vulnerable groups.

Australia Awards alumna Elsie Hasdak, who completed a Master of Public Health from Flinders University in 2014, is a community health practitioner. She recently piloted course materials in Bangla about building much needed skills in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in order to help marginalised adolescents improve their mental health and develop a healthy lifestyle.

Elsie conducting a COPE session with adolescent girls in Tilai Nodi village, Bangladesh.

Elsie and the mental health program team at the World Mission Prayer League’s LAMB Hospital wanted to develop resources to address some of the social, mental and emotional factors necessary to transform the lives of children in vulnerable communities. These children are deprived of basic necessities and social development and are neglected by mainstream society. Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment (COPE) is a recognised intervention program developed by Dr Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, the founder of COPE2Thrive, to address the high prevalence of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. Using the Alumni Support Grant provided by Australia Awards, Elsie, together with partner organisation World Mission Prayer League (LAMB Hospital), translated the COPE model manual into Bangla and incorporated simpler language, metaphors and visual aids to suit the local context. Elsie and the team also trained adolescent peer facilitators.

This intervention program incorporated key concepts from CBT into a skills building program that can be delivered in seven brief sessions of 45-60 minutes each. The trainers of LAMB Hospital assessed each session and the flipcharts used as teaching aids. Based on the results of the assessment and trainer/participant feedback, the implementing team revised the sessions and made necessary changes to make the flipcharts more user-friendly and easier to understand. Through this activity, Elsie and her mental health program team also built a relationship with COPE2Thrive founder Dr Melnyk.

Students showcasing material from a COPE session conducted by Elsie.

With support from the mental health program team at LAMB Hospital, Elsie has successfully taught cognitive behavioural skills to 62 adolescents (33 boys and 29 girls) from the villages of Chakla Bazaar and Tilai Nodi in Parbatipur sub-district in northern Bangladesh.

“Australia Awards supported me to develop my strengths as a public health professional, particularly in the field of community health and development,” says Elsie. “The knowledge I gained in global public health and multicultural competence helped me to field test this COPE Bangla modules that aims to work on improving adolescents’ self-esteem, self-control, emotional self-regulation, coping skills and emotional awareness during this critical developmental stage.”

The communities are now aware of the importance of adolescents developing a healthy lifestyle, receiving emotional support, looking after their mental health, and engaging in regular exercise. The communities are also conscious of the need to obtain birth certificates as a legal proof of identity to help protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation.

“I hope that my small efforts in implementing CBT-based intervention programs in Bangla language will help teenagers become more cognitively equipped to think more positively about themselves and behave positively, by identifying, interpreting and evaluating their thoughts, feelings and behavioural reactions to negative experiences,” Elsie says.

To promote healthy lives and human rights for plain-land indigenous communities, Margret Sumer (who completed a Master of Education from Flinders University in 2020) and Shohel Chandra Hajang (who completed a Master of Development Practice from James Cook University in 2016) successfully applied for an Alumni Support Grant in 2022. They used this grant from Australia Awards to implement a project to enhance awareness in indigenous Khasi and Hajong communities about accessing public social safety net services and supporting indigenous people with disability.

Australia Awards alumni Shohel Chandra Hajang (on the left) and Margret Sumer (on the right).

This activity aligns with Margret’s role as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for Indigenous Peoples Development Service and Shohel’s role as a Human Rights Program Officer for Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

Social safety net programs are initiatives established by the Government of Bangladesh to reduce poverty. However, many indigenous communities are unaware of the benefits these initiatives offer, including cash, in-kind transfers, social pensions, public works, health and nutrition programs for mothers and children, and school meal programs aimed at poor and vulnerable households.

To promote access to social safety net programs, Margret and Shohel liaised with stakeholders to arrange advocacy meetings between local government bodies, community leaders and women leaders from Khasi communities in the Moulvibazar district. They also organised similar events for Hajong communities in the Sherpur district. These meetings were targeted at women, the elderly, people with disability and widows. More than 60 beneficiaries attended these workshops and learnt about different government allowances for the elderly, people with disability, widows, mothers facing poverty and lactating mothers who are working. They also learnt about the eligibility requirements, application process and other aspects of applying for these allowances.

“We introduced them to different safety net benefits introduced by the government, such as the Mother and Child Benefit Programme, which ensures that newborns and young children receive adequate nutrition during the most critical stage of their lives. We also demonstrated how eligible applicants can apply for this program to receive monthly cash transfers,” says Margret.

Margret Sumer shares information with indigenous community members.

The project brought together women, community leaders, and upazila (sub-district) government officers. This connection will promote easier access by indigenous people to the social safety net. Another result is that women know more about the social safety net and how to communicate with government officials to seek government support. The indigenous women who attended also felt a bond among themselves and will be able to support each other in the future.

“My Australia Awards Scholarship has helped me to develop skills relating to indigenous views and approaches to development. It was great to see how the project beneficiaries were able to learn about the application process and seek a Vulnerable Group Development Card. Such platforms will empower indigenous women by providing training on income-generating activities and education about nutrition, primary health, human rights, AIDS, reproductive health, gender and environmental issues,” Shohel says.