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To reach vulnerable rural communities with COVID-19-related hygiene education, the National Coordinator supported one of UST’s partner organisations, IDEA, on its collaborative project with police officers. Through this initiative, police officers helped distribute more than 3,500 bars of soap and 1,200 leaflets for hygiene promotion to rural communities in the Sylhet Division.
The marginalized communities in tea plantations, a population often left behind, were among the people that the police were able to reach. As a 2016 ILO study notes, workers in Bangladeshi tea plantations (also known as “tea gardens”) are ethnic minorities, usually descendants of immigrants from different parts of India.
They lead a difficult life due to their low income (less than US$1 for a day’s work). They are also typically excluded from many government services, as tea garden authorities—who are responsible for their housing, water, sanitation, medical and education—do not assume these duties fully.
While the Sylhet Division has the highest number of tea plantations in the country, these vulnerable communities can be difficult for NGOs to reach because they are spread out.
Fortunately, IDEA, which receives technical and financial support from UST, launched in 2019 a project with Sylhet police officers named PEACE (Police Engagement Approach for Countering Extremism) that directly targets these rural populations.
This project, based on the national strategy for community policing, seeks to achieve crime reduction by strengthening social networks and police-community relations.
Given this holistic approach for enhancing community safety, the project not only involves typical policing activities such as intelligence gathering, but also broader community development initiatives, including extending educational and extracurricular opportunities to youth and addressing other needs of the community.
Monthly community policing forums are now held in 8 sub-districts and 100 wards in Sylhet through the PEACE initiative by which police officers keep regular contact with community members.
In these meetings, the police help analyse the causes of community problems, develop action plans, mobilize appropriate local recourses, and evaluate the efficacy of the response.
To ensure that they have the capacity to act in these spaces, police officers have been trained in various community development skills, including on WASH and menstrual health —for which IDEA provided a workshop in March 2020, just before Sylhet went into lockdown.
The PEACE initiative enabled the Police officers to disseminate COVID-19 prevention messages by building on the existing relationship with the communities as well as their WASH knowledge. “Working with the population during the COVID-19 pandemic was very easy because of the police’s ongoing engagement with the communities,” said Nirmolendu Chakraborty, Assistant Commissioner of the Sylhet Sadar police station (thana).
While the COVID-19 intervention may be over, police officers will continue to work with the communities to help address pressing issues.
“The police are friends with the communities because of the programme,” observed Chakraborty. “Now, we always try to reach out to the vulnerable communities with our assistance, taking note of their needs.”
With this understanding of gaps, the police may also raise voice on WASH and MHH issues in local political spaces as normal activities resume. “The police have an important voice in budget consultations at Union Parashad and Upazila Parashad levels.
They can advocate for WASH and MHH in these meetings, as they have been trained on these issues and are aware of the lived experiences of rural populations, including tea plantation workers,” explained Manik Esahak Biswas, NC Assistant, Bangladesh.
COVID-19 hygiene promotion has reenergized police officers and reaffirmed their belief in the importance of their work that targets the most vulnerable.
“The COVID-19 intervention has inspired me to help people,” reflected Habibur Rahaman, Sub- inspector at the Sylhet Model police station. “Serving others is the best way to serve Allah. I will carry this lesson throughout my life, that we can always do good by showing humanity to others.”