CRAFTING BETTER LIVES

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By Paromita Datta and Plaban Ganguly

Reviving Hope
Do you think you would be satisfied earning 1200 BDT a month?
I know the answer will be a resounding no. Living in a cosmopolitan world, we pay more than 1200 BDT for Netflix to enjoy watching a thriller or romantic movies on the weekend over a cup of Kopi Luwak. We even pay much more than that for our internet to tweet about the environmental impact of using polyethene or posting a selfie with a newly bought floor mat made of jute. But, unlike you and me, Azmira Khatun, a paralysed single mother from Rangpur, Bangladesh, is happy to earn 1200 BDT every month. Just a year back, the new mother was unemployed and struggling to make ends meet with her newborn baby.

After the birth of her first child in 2017, Azmira’s lower right limb became paralysed, which resulted in her husband leaving her and battling for survival on her own. Neither did she have the education or skill to get a job in the nearby industries, nor the opportunity to do anything while staying at home. Being the daughter of a farmer, like many other women from the rural areas of Bangladesh, she could make jute braids and make a few crafts using jute. What she used to make for her household, has now become her only earning source. She is now crafting floor mats for Monsura Jute Handicrafts, a small enterprise, located nearby her home. She works there on a production basis so that she can work from home as well.

‘Now, I have no regret being a single mother and raising my daughter. I am earning enough to support my family. Working in a small jute enterprise nearby my home along with other women from my community encourages me to continue my work and achieve further skills. Disability to me is just a mere word. My strong will power to support my family financially is my strength’. When Azmira was telling me this I found something in her glittering eyes. It’s not all about making floor mats, but the hope of crafting a better life.

Diversifying for Sustainability
The north-west area of the country can be considered as one of the most economically depressed areas having around 63.7%, 48.0%, 46.2% and 34.5 % people who live below the poverty line (2 USD/day) in Kurigram, Gaibandha, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat districts respectively (World Bank, WFP, BBS, 2014). Extremely poor women in north-west Bangladesh are found to be engaged in off-farm (tailoring, weaving, agro-processing), other rural enterprises, and in the agriculture sector (FAO, 2011; CARE, 2015; Practical Action, 2016). This region is mainly characterized by an agro-based economy and poverty-ridden surplus low-cost labour. This means that there are many unemployed people and/or labour directly and indirectly and it becomes difficult for them to maintain their livelihood during off-peak times in the year. This labour force can be utilised in many sectors and jute product manufacturing could be one of the promising sectors if appropriate training i.e. jute weaving, knitting, etc. can be provided. Women were commonly found to make homemade crafts in these areas. DFID Extreme Poverty Programme identified a strong need for professional job opportunities for extremely poor households. Similarly, there should be the avoidance of isolating the poor through a narrow, targeted intervention, to contribute to their integration within the wider economy and other wealth groups. The labour-intensive jute sector can play a role in this regard.

Jute, being the golden fibre for the country, historically has always played an important role in the country’s economy. The importance of the jute sector to the Bangladesh economy, in particular, cannot be overstated. It is a major cash crop for over three million small farm households, the largest industry, producing about one-third of manufacturing output, and the largest agricultural export commodity in Bangladesh. The livelihood of about 25 million people (almost one – fifth of the total population) is dependent on jute related activities in agriculture, domestic marketing, manufacturing and trade. At present, eco-friendly products and services are in high demand all over the world. In recent years, the Bangladesh government has been trying to promote the jute industry and to restore its lost stature in the world market. Bangladesh’s resolution titled ‘Natural Plant Fibres and Sustainable Development’- primary objective to promote jute, has been adopted by consensus in the plenary of the second committee of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The resolution focused on jute and other natural fibres which are lesser-known to the international community and reiterates that the promotion of those natural fibres would highly contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The resolution will help address environmental degradation and climate change issues (disadvantages of artificial fibres and the benefits of using natural fibres) by creating awareness globally. Through this, it is expected that it will pave a way for a stronger, effective and efficient global value chain for jute and other natural fibre products. It is also envisioned that if the demand for jute and jute products increases in the global market, Bangladesh’s jute growers and traders will get competitive prices.

A Golden Opportunity
One of the major challenges for upscaling this industry is the inadequacy of the skilled labour force. In the jute textile sector, the local industries mainly suffer due to the unavailability of skilled weavers who can support export quality weaving. The problem of inadequate technological advancement and poor skill sets in jute processing and light engineering sector has been strongly emphasized in previous projects and studies on jute and light engineering by the Jute Research Institute, both in Bangladesh and India (BJRI, 2015; Ali, 2015; Daily Star, 2015; CRIJAF-India, 2013; CARE, 2016; Practical Action, 2006). One of the probable solutions to this challenge can be turning the poor rural women, currently working as labourers having an income of around 1.5 USD/day, into skilled jute weavers. They can eventually fill the lack of skilled manpower in this particular sector. In this process, local, medium and small sized jute enterprises will be benefited the most. Most importantly, they will be able to meet the huge demand of jute products in the local market, making the sector more economically sustainable.
In Bangladesh, the jute sector can provide the second most significant area for women empowerment after the garment sector as women participation in the Jute Diversified Products (JDP) sub-sector is substantial. Many women, mainly in rural areas and without any training, are directly involved with the production of craft items using jute as the main raw material. Besides, a significant part of the family labour is used in the jute cultivation especially in post-harvest activities i.e. retting, fibre extracting, washing and drying which is done by women. The present trend of production and promotion of JDPs is opening up new possibilities. Reviving the jute sector is creating additional employment opportunities, helping in the improvement of the economic conditions of farmers and workers, particularly women. Female workers should also be provided with the same technical and skill development training for skill-oriented operations like their male counterparts and the outcome may be equally productive and efficient like RMG sector (IJSG, 2010).

Weaving New Hope
Traditionally and historically, women have had limited access to income or land, and also limited scope to join agriculture cooperatives, which provide production inputs and commercial opportunities to become independent commercial producers. Despite good socio-economic progress of women in many sectors over the recent decades, the jute textile sector of Bangladesh still remains a male dominated sector compared to other textile sectors. Employment of female workers is relatively less in the jute sector whereas more than 80% of workers are female in Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector. Currently, 2,43,000 workers are employed in 26 state-owned jute mills. Women workers constitute 18% of the total workforce of BJMC jute mills (Ministry of Finance, 2017). Because of the lack of skill and low basic wages, female workers have almost no savings and can hardly bear the cost of education for their children (Gender Action Plan, International Jute Study Group, 2010).

To improve this scenario through developing the capacity of weaving and designing, diversifying end products, and to strengthen the skills and employability of the women workers in cottages and small enterprises, with the funding support from European Commission, Practical Action is implementing a project titled ‘Securing Employment and Economic Development around Jute Textile and Light Engineering Sector in North-West Bangladesh’ through RDRS Bangladesh in four districts of Rangpur division since February 2017. The project is being implemented in the 4 districts of Rangpur Division which includes – Rangpur, Kurigram, Lalmonirhat and Gaibandha. Broad focus has been placed on the jute textile and light engineering value chain to strengthen economic empowerment and skill with job opportunities for entrepreneurs, youth, women weavers, artisans and other actors of the value chains.

To contribute to the economic development of one of the most economically depressed parts of the country with the potential of creating jobs for thousands of extreme poor and women (includes 2% PWD) in the Jute Textile and Light Engineering and related sectors, the project was designed on a business development approach to make it financially sustainable. It ensures financial sustainability at three levels: a) Entrepreneur level through technical and business skill development, adopting revenue generation model, better understanding of cost structure of the business and accessing other available commercial finances; b) Micro enterprises through upgradation/diversification of products, better access to market intelligence, ability to meet buyers compliance, better sales and increased profit margin; c) Worker level through skill development and improved access to job information to increase income and find better employment opportunities and skill training.

During the project period, professional jobs in small industries, vocational training, value chain strengthening and introducing business development approaches to youth will lead to greater local economic development. Moreover, the income level of metal workshop artisans will increase.

A total of 2350 poor women have received basic training on weaving, jute product making and safety measures from Karupannya Rangpur Ltd. (one of the largest exporters of jute products in Bangladesh) as part of the project. After receiving basic training, all the weavers have completed a three-month apprenticeship.

Within three years, the impact has started yielding. Many lives have begun to change. Now they are working for selected SMEs, either production-based working from home or salary based in factories such as Karupannya Rangpur Ltd. It was found that the current average income of women workers or home-based jute product makers is 118 BDT/day (average 3530 BDT per month and maximum 9000 BDT per month). Their income varies based on their efficiency, type of factory they are working in, modality of working, etc. It is mentionable that around 68% of the women have received contracts from the employers and the average income has increased up to 112%. From an average income of 710 BDT per month, women weavers are now earning up to 1500BDT per month on an average. For few of them, this has become a way of empowering themselves through contributing to the family financially as they were homemakers or supporting their husbands in agricultural activities only.

On a busy Wednesday, in late October last year, Mahfuza was working like a busy bee at Bunon Craft Hub in Rangpur, one of the northern districts of Bangladesh. The 20-year-old graduate student remains busy in weaving diversified jute products, for five days a week, six hours a day. She has been producing jute handicrafts, handbags, woven baskets, table mats, toys, etc. for the last couple of years. These diversified jute products are sold to buyers in the local market.

“With a little support in terms of training and employment, I have started transforming my life and this is what I have been trying to do.” Mahfuza, told me. Due to poverty, her family wanted to discontinue her education and marry her off. “But, I never wanted my life to turn into a vicious circle of poverty. I enrolled myself into the six-month-long training on weaving. After learning the basic weaving process, braids preparing, knitting, safety & security in the workplace, I got a job here! It was a lifeline for me and my downtrodden family, enabling my capacity to earn to continue my education, support my family and have a dignified life,” Mahfuza added. From the apprenticeship period, Mahfuza is earning 3000 BDT per month which is great support for herself and her family.

Halima Begume, weaver from Asiruddin Jute Products, Gaibandha, completed training under the same SME. Currently she is supporting the new batch of weavers with training procedure and assisting the SME owner, Asiruddin, who is a disabled person. “I am working for the SME for a year now. I know which product has demand in the market now. The owner allows me to put my own design ideas in the products as well, he encourages and appreciates our creativity”.

The journey towards crafting these opportunities was not simple at all. Not all the weavers received appreciation and encouragement at the beginning. All of them had to face hurdles and criticisms from their family and local community. But fighting against all odds, these brave women stepped out and created scope for their work which has rejuvenated the glory of the golden fibre of Bangladesh. The confidence I have found in Halima’s voice was echoed in the voice of Nurjahan Begume as well, an entrepreneur and owner of a SME from Kurigram. “Now people appreciate my work, my courage and determination of generating income. I am not taking support from anyone but support from my fellow women to flourish the business.”

Paromita Datta is a sociologist and currently working as a monitoring & evaluation expert in an international charity. She can be connected via datta.paromita@yahoo.com
Plaban Ganguly is an anthropologist and development communication expert and currently coordinating the marketing and communications unit in an international charity. He can be connected via plabanganguly@gmail.com

*Photography by Din Muhammad Shibly

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