Taraganj, Bangladesh─Firoza Begum, 35, tends roadside saplings from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. for Tk90 (less than $2) a day. It is a meager salary, but she is thankful - not only for the salary, but for the road itself.
That is because the newly-built 10-kilometer (km) road has brought together remote villages, government offices, a sprawling market, and a hospital in the northern region of Rangpur. The project also provides jobs to 116 women aged between 25 and 40, who nurse and protect 13,000 fruit and forest tree saplings.
"But for this job and the small money it brings, my family would have starved," Firoza says, watering a mango sapling beside the Taraganj-Dholaighat road, which was built by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) with financial assistance from ADB.
A new start
The changes in Firoza's life have come about in part courtesy of a $96.1 million loan from ADB's concessionary Asian Development Fund. Approved in 2006, the Rural Infrastructure Improvement Project covers 23 districts in north and central Bangladesh. In conjunction with the Government of Bangladesh, ADB is rolling out about 10,000 km of rural roads, 370 rural markets, and 190 union council complexes providing communities with effective transport to markets, access to social services, and employment opportunities.
"The project has improved rural infrastructure, better connecting farms and markets," says Arun Kumar Saha, project officer at ADB's Bangladesh Resident Mission. "Improved rural infrastructure is also helping people to easily access essential services, including healthcare, education, and administrative services."
In the meantime, the infrastructure has created jobs.
According to ADB, a total of 82,000 person-years of employment have been generated by the infrastructure work and the incomes of 95,000 poor households have increased by 25%.
The project also includes planting tens of thousands of saplings to generate jobs for impoverished women.
Small steps to independence
Women are interested in jobs such as Firoza's - which comes with a contract of just 1 year - not only because they offer much needed income, but also because they offer a future.
The women working roadside between Taraganj and Dholaighat, as is the case elsewhere on the Rural Infrastructure Improvement Project, are required to keep aside a portion of their regular earnings─just Tk30 ($0.39)─in a joint bank account with the LGED. They are also required to attend night-time skills-development training on raising poultry, gardening, and tailoring for the duration of the year.
At the end of the contract, the women's savings are returned and they are introduced to microfinance providers so they can launch small businesses using their new skills.
Ismat Ara, a mother of two young children, now runs a ready-made garments shop at Mithapukur Bazar, not far from Taraganj.
"I was happy to be able to open the shop," says Ismat, "but there were all men around. It made me so uneasy."
Fortunately, in 2010, a women's empowerment component of the Rural Infrastructure Improvement Project made it possible for the LGED to build a Women's Corner - a cluster of eight shops that is exclusively for women. Today, Ismat and seven other women run a variety of businesses, including a convenience store, a tailor's, a beauty parlor, and a tea stall.
These women entrepreneurs pay only a token Tk100 ($1.30) in monthly rent for each shop, compared to Tk1,000 ($13) for similar space outside. Women's Corner has become a hit with female shoppers.
"Business is brisk here," says Ismat, taking a small break from serving two college girls who are buying two cotton dresses. "My monthly income has gone up to Tk25,000 ($326), more than double what I used to earn 2 years ago. It seems like magic."