Caitlin Burnett

Caitlin Burnett (Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization – BERDO): Caitlin is a native of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She received her BA in psychology and politics from Ithaca university in 2005. At the time of her fellowship, Caitlin was studying for a Master’s degree in ethics, peace and global affairs at the School of International Service at American University.

where the river owns the land

07 Jul

“Whatever I can learn,” Ruhulamin’s ma tells me, “I will use to help my child.”

Ruhulamin, a 17 year old boy, suffered a high fever during his childhood. Ruhulamin’s ma sought out medical care for her child, but after a botched medical procedure Ruhulamin is hearing impaired and has problems with motor control, as well as a very short attention span. After learning and practicing a physical therapy regime from BERDO, he and his mother have made significant progress – he can now move alone.

His mother, like the parents of other disabled children I spoke with, came to the group to learn about disability, to share experiences, and to make use of BERDO’s credit program to achieve financial self sufficiency through loans and savings. In addressing both the causes and effects of disability, money seems all too often to be the deciding factor between a life hampered by difficulty and one filled with hope – good medical and educational assistance is hard to come by for those who cannot afford it.

After an 11 hour, overnight ride on “The Rocket,” a steam propelled paddle boat that plies one of Bangladesh’s popular river routes, I could have sworn that we had landed in another decade. We arrived in the early morning into the small, sleepy, rural port on an 80 year old boat. Walking across the wooden gangway and winding our way among sleeping families camped out on the covered walkway we eventually emerged on the narrow, rickshaw filled street that serves as the main artery of the port.

Looking at a map, Barisal shadar (district) seems to begin where the division between land and water start to breakdown. Largely agricultural, submerged jute and rice fields seem to occupy every available space. Not surprisingly, life in the villages of Barisal centers on the production and processing of agricultural products. For the landless, those who don’t have land of their own to cultivate, sharecropping or working as wage laborers are two options available – but neither guarantees the year-round security of their livelihoods.

In the face of this insecurity, it is NGOs like BERDO, Proshika, and BRAC that can impact whether or not a family can expect to enjoy two full meals a day all year round with a roof over their heads. For BERDO, this means facilitating some 47 microcredit and discussion groups in and around Barisal, with approximately 100 disabled members as well as hundreds of non-disabled participants.

Meeting once every week, BERDO’s groups come together to offer peer support and to undertake microcredit activities. With modest sums of money (US $50 to $200), the group members do a variety of things, from planting vegetable gardens, purchasing a rickshaw, to buying small stocks of cloth for cloth and tailoring businesses. The subtle way that BERDO’s groups are different from other NGOs is that each group intentionally includes at least some families whose members have disabilities. In this way, the groups are a place for preventative health education as well as a place where the community rallies to support people with disabilities as they work to live safely and independently in their communities.

When I asked the group members to tell me why they invested their time and energies into the group, the meetings inevitably blossomed with an abundance of voices. “Somebody has hands, eyes, or legs, while others don’t,” Rimon’s ma told me, “we must come together to work.” Her son, Rimon, is mildly intellectually impaired and will most likely need assistance throughout his life. Rimon’s ma, who took a loan to build small houses on her family land, has secured her family’s finances by becoming a small landlord.

But while some find relative security, others continue to struggle.

Shilfi is both intellectually and hearing impaired. She is married, but her husband refuses to accept her because of her disabilities. With a loan from BERDO, she manufactures cigarette filters and supports herself, but still lives in poverty.

For women with disabilities, life without the support of a husband often means that security is very hard to come by. While NGOs offer some respite through microcredit, the hurdles faced by disabled women will remain significant. It is in serving this population that the true test of NGOs’ effectiveness seems to lie.

Posted By Caitlin Burnett

Posted Jul 7th, 2007


  • caitlin

    July 19, 2007


    Iain, thanks for your comment! Much more on microcredit is yet to come. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog with some more information on how microcredit works for disabled people!

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