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The sky’s the limit

ROSL has recently begun funding the Sreepur Village in Bangladesh, which educates young mothers and children from poor and isolated areas. Pat Kerr MBE, set up the project 30 years ago while working as a flight attendant for British Airways. She tells Overseas how the project has evolved since then

When did you first become interested in humanitarian work and helping women and children in particular?
I was brought up to consider others and believe ‘in small acts of kindness’ in your daily life than anything else. As BA crew we were spending a lot of time in Bangladesh and it was the monsoon and we had spare time and could easily visit/help out at a local, Canadian-run, orphanage. The involvement gradually grew and I took advantage of unpaid leave in the winter to spend longer there. In the 80s there were not so many of this type of volunteer project so we got lots of interest and eventually had enough funding to set up the existing project, which brings in mothers and children to ‘keep families together’. It more grew around me than happened as a result of planning.

Why/how did you decide on the location in Bangladesh to set up Sreepur Village?
We needed a large site of high land – both to avoid flooding and to ensure we could manage sewage. We finally found the site we are on now which, at the time, was isolated with only a dirt road and no electricity.

How have you seen the village grow during your 30 years of involvement?
We were lucky that President Ershad came to the opening ceremony and offered us a road and electricity – which came in very quickly. The area has changed phenomenally over the last 30 years and from being completely isolated we now live at the the end of a fairly busy commercial area. The garments factories have spread out here and we have partnerships with many – who sell our products and train (and sometimes employ) our mothers. Now (COVID) things are different but garment factories offer much more reasonable salaries to trained people so this did help the mothers a lot.

Do you think conditions and opportunities for women and children have improved in Bangladesh during that time?
The biggest change has been the proliferation of mobile phones (land lines have never worked well), which means that people from isolated areas (often inaccessible without using a boat) can be in touch with the rest of the country. The second is the growth of the garment factories industry. More than any NGO or the government, the factories (with all their human rights issues) have given women the opportunity to earn money which has substantially empowered them. You used to see women outside of their homes, before the pandemic you would see them flocking to their factory shifts in bright clothes and talking animatedly.

In the more isolated rural areas this has not happened and there are still lots of huge challenges such as the flooding we are seeing at the moment. We always prepare the mothers (agriculture training, numeracy, legal literacy, and especially health and hygiene) to go back to their villages but some have nowhere to go and find work in the factories. Others sometimes leave their villages temporarily if there are flooding, shortage of food etc, and earn money then go back.

Left: Taking the temperature of a mother at Sreepur Village as part of their COVID-19 precautions. Right: Mother and children washing their hands and legs

Pat Kerr MBE

While working as a flight attendant for British Airways, Pat could see the dire need for support in some of the poorest parts of the world. This led her to move permanently to Bangladesh, raise the money to build Sreepur Village and give a future to the young mothers and children it supports, something she has been doing for the past 30 years.

How will the funding from the ROSL Trust be used?
We are very grateful for the ROSL funding. The world is changing around us but we are going to use it to educate the mothers and the children in a very practical way. At the moment we have the project in ‘lockdown’ as we have so many vulnerable (diabetes, asthma etc) mothers here. We are also running on a low staff ratio and staff and new families who join us have to stay in our quarantine area. So things are in some flux but we are working on basic literacy and meeting mothers’ varied needs. For instance, a 13-year-old girl with cognitive issues and her baby have just joined us and she has substantial needs which the ROSL funds will help us address. We have a ’Talking Science’ Programme where women learn about science from practical every-day tasks (what happens as you boil the water for your rice, for example), a sack gardening training programme and a number of different levels of literacy classes. The extra funds will enable us to buy colourful materials and supplies and hopefully, once things settle to increase the variety of our programmes.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions for the project that you would still like to achieve?
We are hoping to develop an app and use a mobile phone network to spread our services to many more isolated areas. With our long-term programmes on site, we are unable to accommodate the number of families we would like to help. With COVID making it difficult for social workers or other staff to visit people in the community, we hope that a simple digital approach will work well. If it happens, it will have many training elements and a monitoring function. Mothers can be encouraged to share with other mothers so they can offer support within their communities. We are always trying to improve and liaise with women and elders in village communities to ensure we tailor our work to their needs.

I was brought up to consider others and believe in small acts of kindness in your daily life

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