About 12 years ago, CARE Bangladesh began a rural distribution system with the intention of providing employment to women among the extreme poor. “Aparajitas” is the name they gave to the beggars and widows who joined this system—the name means “women who know no defeat.” The women were carefully trained to sell a basket of goods supplied by companies who needed to reach the rural areas of the country that were beyond the scope of existing distribution systems, but where about 60% of the population still lived. Systems of female agents who sold goods in rural areas were a popular idea in that time, but most were designed to sell a single (usually heavy) big-ticket object, like cookstoves or solar lights. These schemes failed quickly because, once the product was “sold in” to the village, the women were left without a livelihood. The CARE system flourished, however, largely because the “basket of goods” the women sold was comprised of light-weight, frequently purchased items, in a variety to appeal to every family member. The aparajitas in this photo are listening to instructions from the CARE team in a meeting during our visit to the field in late 2009. Today, the CARE system has been spun off into a hybrid profit/non-profit entity called “Jita.” Studying the development of this system taught us a lot about women’s economic empowerment, but also about how women, even in the poorest communities, care about the beauty of their homes and the color of their clothes.
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