Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
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Celebrate mothers around the world

By Elaine Van Cleave on May 14, 2012
© The Tennessean

With Mother’s Day only days away, I find myself reflecting on my own experience as a mother and the challenges and opportunities my daughters face as they begin families of their own. I gave birth to three beautiful, healthy daughters, who are now strong, empowered women. During my pregnancies, I had access to prenatal care and nutritious food. My girls were able to go to school and to follow their dreams.

I know all too well that not all mothers are so lucky. In many places in the developing world, women are not empowered to take control of their health or finances. Many struggle to provide basic necessities for their children. Young girls are forced to get married and have children before their bodies are physically ready.

Sixty-six percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before their 18th birthday, and over one third of girls are married before they are 15, according to UNICEF. Many of these girls have children shortly after marriage, before their bodies are fully developed to support a healthy pregnancy. The organization also found that girls ages 10-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than those ages 20-24. In addition to the health risks to the mother, infants who are born to young mothers are more vulnerable to malnourishment and as a result, often suffer from stunting, a measure of the shortfall in a child’s growth due to malnutrition.

But innovative programs are changing the future for some of the world’s poorest women and girls. Programs funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are making a difference. In Tennessee, Sen. Bob Corker plays a critical role in supporting these programs as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. One such program is SHOUHARDO, a comprehensive food security program run by the poverty-fighting organization CARE, USAID, and the government of Bangladesh. The key to SHOUHARDO’s success is that it is about much more than food security. It is about women’s empowerment.

SHOUHARDO addresses the underlying causes of malnutrition, including the deep gender inequities that exist in Bangladesh. This means that instead of simply handing out food or explaining how to better grow produce, SHOUHARDO gives women the tools they need to elevate their status in society.

As part of the program, women’s empowerment and education groups, called EKATA or “unity” groups, bring together 20 women and 10 teenage girls who work together in a mentor relationship. Together, EKATA group members discuss contentious social issues like early marriage, violence against women, and the lack of educational opportunities for girls. The teenagers learn from the women’s life experience, and in turn, the women protect the girls from violence and abuse. In some villages, EKATA members form support networks to stop child marriage, a practice that endangers young women and their future children.

Physical stunting, like child marriage, is a prevalent problem in Bangladesh. At the start of the SHOUHARDO program in 2006, 56.1 percent of children in the program were stunted. EKATA groups, along with other aspects of the SHOUHARDO program, have dramatically changed the social fabric of rural Bangladesh. Women are standing taller, and so are their children.

In less than four years, the SHOUHARDO program reduced child stunting in parts of rural Bangladesh by 28 percent. That’s at nearly twice the average rate of U.S. government funded food security projects in the area.

Two million people have benefited from the SHOUHARDO program, and today, we will have the opportunity to hear from one of the experts who helped make SHOUHARDO so successful. I urge those of you in Nashville to attend. I promise that it will give you hope for the fate of the world’s mothers, and that young women around the world can be as lucky and as healthy as my own girls Ashrafiz Zaharia Prodhan, technical manager from CARE Bangladesh, will speak at the Nashville City Club (201 Fourth Ave. N., 20th floor) today at 6:30 p.m. about the impact of the SHOUHARDO project on women and their families.

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