Communities rising: Tackling COVID-19 and building back better
UNICEF strengthens key services and empowers underserved communities in Gazipur District
Shirin Akhter, 35, starts her busy day at 5 am. After taking care of her household needs, she sets off to work at 8 am as a community volunteer for UNICEF partner Village Education Resource Centre (VERC).
Shirin works in Gazipur District, Bangladesh, home to almost 6 million people. Gazipur faces both urban and rural development challenges. The city is a major industrial hub for the garments industry but poor planning has led to the emergence of urban slums and environmental degradation, while Gazipur District is home to rural, agricultural communities, where many families experience poverty.
Ripple effects of global pandemic
COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdown measures severely impacted garment workers, urban slum residents and rural populations in Gazipur. Many factory workers lost their jobs, while those surviving on daily wages struggled to make ends meet.
Access to nutrition and immunization services plummeted during the onset of COVID-19. Screening for severe acute malnutrition dropped 99 per cent in April 2020 with only 65 screenings held in Gazipur District, compared to 6,000 monthly screenings in January and February.
Nationwide, access to immunization services dropped almost 50 per cent in April 2020 raising the alarm on the secondary impacts of COVID-19 on essential maternal and child health services.
At the same time, child protection risks increased as schools shuttered, depriving children of learning, daily interactions and important social safety nets. Households were placed under severe stress, with women and children most vulnerable.
Multisectoral approach to counter COVID-19
In response, UNICEF teamed up with Sweden’s government agency for development cooperation SIDA to build resilient and integrated essential services for underserved communities in Gazipur, targeting 316,000 people.
“Our aim is to integrate services at service delivery points. We are ensuring pregnant women can receive both health and nutrition services together when they attend community health clinics. We have also trained health workers on gender-based violence and child protection issues so they can provide support and referral services to women and children at-risk when they visit the health centre,” says Omar Farooq, UNICEF Chief of Mymensingh Field Office.
UNICEF and partner VERC have trained 334 community volunteers to promote integrated essential services and counsel families on birth registration, maternal and child healthcare, child protection and the importance of accessing services safely during COVID-19.
“I speak with pregnant mothers and ensure they attend health clinics for routine visits, I check children’s immunization cards and I screen children for malnutrition. Nutrition mapping was never conducted in these villages, so mothers are keen to know their child’s reading,” explains Shirin.
Investing in young changemakers
Volunteers like Modina Akhter, 20, play a key role promoting equality and healthy relationships to families and adolescents.
“I motivate parents to treat boys and girls equally and be on friendly terms with their teenage children. I encourage mothers to speak to adolescent girls about periods and lots of other things,” Modina explains.
Adolescents respond positively to Modina, she is close to their age and shares many similar experiences growing up in Gazipur. She feels like she is making a difference in her community.
“I talk to 30 to 50 adolescents on a one-to-one basis each month and hold courtyard meetings. If I find any case of child labour, child marriage or abuse, I report this to the Community Based Child Protection Committee (CBCPC) and the committee takes action based on my report,” she says.
Strengthening services to build resilient communities
Through the introduction of COVID-19 prevention and safety measures for frontline workers and sustained community outreach, health and nutrition services were gradually restored to pre-pandemic levels in Gazipur. Immunization services recovered by June 2020, while malnutrition screenings climbed to reach 6,000 per month by November 2020.
However, these hard won gains remain fragile as the second wave of COVID-19 sweeps across Bangladesh. Working closely with communities through trusted sources of information remains crucial to success.
“Our goal is to build resilience so communities can withstand the shock of COVID-19 and any other challenges we may face in the future. Although, the pandemic is far from over, we believe that through this integrated approach and community empowerment we are on the right path,” says Omar Farooq, UNICEF Chief of Mymensingh Field Office.
UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to Sweden’s government agency for development cooperation SIDA, for its generous contribution supporting Integrated Essential Services in Gazipur during COVID-19.