Jeremy Meltzer is the Founder of i=change, a tech platform for online retailers that makes it simple for brands to give back to women’s empowerment projects with every sale. So far, i=change has donated an incredible $111,169 (and counting) to The Hunger Project’s programs empowering women and girls in Bangladesh via 23 brand partnerships.
Jeremy recently travelled to Bangladesh to see how the organisations i=change support are making an impact. Travelling with The Hunger Project Bangladesh team, he spent two days in an area called Manikganj, about 1.5 hours drive out of Dhaka, a very remote area that does not often host foreigners. He met with our village partners to gain an insight into the issues they face in Bangladesh and how our work is enabling people to transform their communities.
We chatted to Jeremy after he returned from his trip to hear what he learnt on the ground.
i=change has raised over $1.7 million for causes since it began. As the Founder, what is your vision for connecting customers, causes and brands in this way?
It started from a desire to make an impact and create change for women and girls. I saw a lot of violence in Latin America in my early twenties and was very moved and upset by what I saw. I travelled around the world and met with NGO leaders and gained an insight into how extraordinarily complex these issues are. Of course, the NGO’s need more funding to do more of their work. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, I thought about how to bring these two worlds together. How could they exist in a way they haven’t before? It was about feeling, instinctively, that it must be possible to unite these two worlds in a way that could create significant benefits and, ultimately, create a new sustainable funding stream for women’s empowerment projects.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in Bangladesh and how you saw The Hunger Project’s work in the communities?
For all potential investors wanting to accelerate change, I believe the best thing you can do is visit these countries and communities; sit with the people, listen, learn and be immersed in their culture. It provides a remarkable insight into the complexity of the work — just sitting with the local teams who have been committed to working within their communities for decades. They have a deep pool of knowledge about how to create change in communities that have have entrenched beliefs which, regardless of the harm it may cause, are often unyielding and fixated to a practice as it’s simply “the way it’s always been done”. Like all of us, we don’t know what we don’t know. It’s about how to take communities on a journey that unlocks their own potential and growth and delivers significant benefits to the whole community.
Seeing the work The Hunger Project is doing in Bangladesh was very inspiring. What I really appreciate is how THP is committed to the process of unlocking the potential that people already have — they may simply need more skills and understanding in order to see the benefits for themselves. It’s about investing in long-term, community-led development, which we now understand is best practice in international development. This means working with what the community already has, which is their knowledge of the land and what works, and the nuances of their religious and cultural beliefs. We can think about working within that framework to help them see the greater possibilities when, for example, their cultural lens shifts and they don’t marry off their girls, or they work just as hard to keep their daughters in schools as their sons and understand their daughter’s wellbeing is intricately tied to the social and economic prosperity of the entire community.
The cycle of subjugation of women and girls is severe in Bangladesh, and child marriage is common. What was your insight into those issues when you were there?
I met a girl named Keya who was determined to stop her own marriage. Her parents had found a boy in their village and were preparing for her marriage.
She worked with the male elders in her community so they could see the benefits of not marrying her off as a fifteen-year-old. In a very poor, remote Bangladeshi village, here was a girl with fire in her eyes. She realised she had to bring the male leaders in the community on this journey with her in order to change her destiny.
She looked us deeply in the eyes and said, “I was determined not to be married.”
She heard the work THP was doing and had been to one of the meetings about child marriage in her village. She understood it was her right to not be married, and that child marriage would harm her and her community.
It’s an important story because girls are often painted as victims, but the girls we met were strong. Keya was strong.
Her eyes lit up when she told us what she was doing. She was now still at school and doesn’t plan to be married for a long time. When she does, she explained she will have a small family only.
I also spoke with one man in particular who you wouldn’t, on first glance, assume as someone who stood for women’s empowerment. He spoke very gently about how marrying off girls was not in the Quran and is actually a cultural practice that needs to be stopped. The engagement of men in the community and how they had become quite passionate advocates for change was very inspiring to see. In patriarchal communities — indeed, in most countries in the world — this is where it has to begin. Men need to be taken on the journey and understand how these practices do harm to everyone.
How could you see The Hunger Project’s programs in Bangladesh transforming communities?
In a school we interviewed a number of women who were working in the community on a number of levels. One was a doctor in a poor, rural clinic, making sure young women could give birth safely (which in these communities often means not dying). We met another woman who is a counsellor, working with women survivors of sexual and physical abuse.
It was inspiring to see such strong women stepping up to be the change. There were girls who went on a march that we participated in who chanted ‘we must end child marriage’. These school-aged girls, the average age probably 15 or younger, were passionately marching while the men led in front and behind, chanting equally as passionately for the end of child marriage.
Of course, there’s no silver bullet to any of these complex issues. Yet even in this distant, rural community which most foreigners will never see, there was this galvanising, community-driven sense that the way we treat women and girls must change if we wish to thrive. It’s a global message that, while it filters slower to the poor and more rural corners of the world, is still a message that is being delivered and, slowly, being heard.
Even in those few days we spent in that community, there was a sense of change. The women we met were strong, proud, and less prepared to accept a patriarchal world view — and the ideas that hold them back — more than ever.