Salima Sarwar

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1992
Association for Community Development (ACD)
This description of Salima Sarwar's work was prepared when Salima Sarwar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .


Salima Sarwar's efforts to assist village women plant and own valuable trees helps not only to empower women and increase their incomes, but helps restore environmental balance in rural Bangladesh as well.

The New Idea

Property, historically a virtual male monopoly in Bangladesh, can be a powerful liberating force once women begin to utilize it. Recognizing that redistributing agricultural land is unlikely on any significant scale soon, Salima has found a practical, conflict-free, affordable alternative - trees. Women can grow trees inside the village proper without taking anything away from the men. They also may be able to do so along the edges or scattered in the middle of fields in ways that do not hinder crop growth.Once these trees mature, the women who planted and cared for them will benefit as the trees provide a stream of salable products. As soon as a tree matures, moreover, it becomes valuable property, property its owner can use as collateral for loans to plant more trees or to start other ventures.Such new income and capital ownership will subtly strengthen these women's position in their families, making it far more likely that they will be able to express their opinions and participate in decisionmaking.Salima encourages the women to form tree care groups through which they obtain training in this new agroforestry role. She backs these groups up with local area nurseries that, in their initial years, have a local area franchise monopoly. These tree care groups also become bridges to other services like medical and reproductive health care, literacy training, learning problem-solving skills, and group support.As her women clients prosper, naturally so does the local economy and the region's environment.

The Problem

In Bangladesh, women receive little education and often end up trapped in a cruel cycle of early marriage, heavy childbearing, malnutrition, and continuous domestic pressure to maintain the household and feed the family on less than a shoestring budget. Their opportunities in life are narrowly confined. Psychological and economic dependency, along with a lack of marketable skills, is the wall chiefly responsible for this confinement. In most localities it is believed that only men should possess the rights of ownership. The husband owns the land his family farms and, if he dies, the property and all that is on it is passed to his sons or other male relatives, not to his wife or daughters. Many people still see women as property, not as plausible property owners.Bangladesh, the most densely populated country in the world per square kilometer, also urgently needs the sort of environmentally sustainable, beneficial means of increasing food and fodder output that this idea promises. The country has already lost much of its tree cover and is now losing approximately one percent of what remains each year.

The Strategy

Salima's approach is designed to give women in each of the communities she is serving all the support they need at each step along the way to becoming successful tree growers and owners.She forms them into neighborhood tree care groups, thereby building community awareness, peer support that helps each individual member over the inevitable problems, and a forum that facilitates learning, work, and later offers activities ranging from marketing to the organization of collateral services such as health care. So far Salima's organization has helped twenty such groups get started, each with roughly twenty members. These women receive their first seedlings free of charge, or for a nominal charge, and plant them on the bare land around their homes.Behind these women stand new local nurseries that Salima has helped other local people, chiefly but not exclusively women, to launch. The proprietors of these nurseries have every incentive to see the tree care groups and their individual members prosper, and Salima trains them to be able consultants and sources of encouragement as well as competent nursery managers. After an initial period when they can only sell in their area, her approach allows them to sell seedlings more broadly, for example, in the district town, thus allowing their business to grow but not before they have focused first on building up new local demand.In order to overcome male resistance to the concept of female ownership, Salima also includes men in her tree planting scheme. Men can obtain saplings and plant them in the village farmland--on the condition that they recognize female ownership of the trees in the village center and on the land around each home. Salima also seeks to develop a financing mechanism that will use trees as collateral in a revolving loan fund. The loans would be tied to the value of the trees offered as collateral. Those requesting loans would be properly educated about the concept of loan and interest so as to ensure a higher percentage of loan repayment.

The Person

Salima (from northern Bangladesh) has devoted her life to working with women both in slum and rural areas, chiefly training women in vocational skills, self-employment, and income generation. In addition, she has helped develop twelve feeder school groups for children and a basic literacy training center in nineteen villages in neighboring Upazila. Salima founded Mohila Sanghati Parishad, a registered family planning organization, and remains the president. She co-founded Chetona Parishad, a sociocultural organization, and is an executive member. She also organized a business and professional women's club.