The difference child sponsorship is making for one girl and her community in Bangladesh
As I walked through Penna’s courtyard, I couldn’t help notice that her family’s home was missing a toilet. Earlier that day, I discovered that a toilet is now the must-have piece of kit in almost every other home in her community.
Meeting sponsored child Penna
Penna is a wide-eyed 10-year-old girl with short cropped black hair. She wears a bindi between her eyebrows which is unusual in her community because she is one of the small percentage of Hindu’s living in Bangladesh. Penna is one of Plan International UK’s 1,309 sponsored children in her district. We met when I visited her village in the Dinajpur district in northern Bangladesh to observe our sponsorship programmes. As the new chair of Plan International UK and also a long-time sponsor, I was keen to look behind the scenes and see for myself what went on in our sponsored communities.
Penna led us along the lakeside path to her earth brick home, grouped round the extended family’s immaculate courtyard. Chicks were pecking the ground and cloves of garlic were drying between the pre-monsoon showers before being taken to market to sell for a dollar a kilo. Penna proudly showed me a collection of letters and cards that her sponsors have sent her over the years. She read aloud their Bangla translations surrounded by her giggling peers, good-naturedly pushing each other aside for a chance to view these exotic objects. Seeing the joy the letters brought Penna, made me determined to write to my sponsor child more frequently.
Ending open defecation thanks to child sponsorship
“Why no toilet?” I asked Binad, Penna’s grandfather. Open defecation is now a thing of the past in his village – until 1994, when Plan International arrived, open defecation was the norm for 99 per cent of the population. Shortly before meeting Penna several other families’ had proudly escorted me to admire their sparkling toilets, and the children had recited the five rules of good hand hygiene that have become everyone’s mantra: wash your hands before eating and after using the toilet, before feeding the baby and cleaning the baby’s bottom, and before preparing and distributing food. Diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death of children aged under five globally, but in this community, the incidents of diarrhea have plummeted since Plan International’s programme was initiated - as has child mortality generally.
Binad hovered over Penna proudly. He explained they still borrow their neighbours’ toilet because they are saving up for their own gold standard model – a brick built one with the best hardware. A toilet is now a status symbol and partners are hard to find for children without one.
The significant increase in access to toilets in Binad's community demonstrates successful sustainable international development! And it will endure after Plan International is long gone.
More child sponsorship achievements in Penna's community
Penna’s fabulous sponsors have quietly but generously supported her and her community through Plan International UK since she was three years old. The success of the programme is emblematic of Plan International’s model that puts children and their communities at the heart of leading and implementing their own development. In fact, their model is so successful that the statistics are eye-wateringly impressive In Penna’s community:
- mortality rate for children under five years old has dropped to 31 per 1,000 live births, from 133 per 1,000 in 1994,
- primary school enrollment is 99.98 per cent with a dropout rate of only 0.2%
- birth registration, which is essential for children to be able to access their rights, has increased from 10 per cent in 1994 to 100 per cent,
- and the average age of marriage has risen to 18.8 years (15.8 years elsewhere in Bangladesh), with the district government having declared the area ‘Child Marriage Free’.
Change that's sustainable and community-owned
Penna’s Grandpa Binad has been the president of the local community committee since its inception at the time of Plan International’s arrival 23 years ago. He and his committee talked about the work they intend to continue on behalf of the community long after Plan International and the four other NGO partners we work with have left. I also met the chairman and members of the Union Parishad - the local tier of government. They explained they now see Binad’s Committee and other civil society organisations as partners who should and do legitimately hold them to account. Time for Plan International to move on, I wondered?
Indeed, at the end of this year, Plan International is preparing to hand over responsibility to these maturing, confident community organisations. With our support, they have achieved the successful development the community set themselves on our arrival. Importantly, they now understand and are able to claim their rights and hold the authorities to account for the delivery of development. That way, they will sustain the work they have grasped so strongly.
Helping other communities through child sponsorship
Following the success of Penna’s community, Plan International is now moving on to work with a community living in even more hostile conditions in the southern Bangladeshi district of Bhola. I am curious to see how long it will take that community to pick up the traces and begin to determine their own futures in the way Dinajpur has done. Not long is my guess, with our proven model and with our spectacularly generous sponsors and donors back in the UK - and of course, made only possible thanks to our magnificent local staff and volunteers behind them.
Meanwhile, I wave goodbye to Penna knowing her life is going to be healthier and easier because of Plan International and its partners and their supporters. And who knows, she herself will probably become a link in the chain of sustainable development in the future.
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