#DayoftheGirl SKILLS: skills training helping to build careers for young women in Bangladesh
Samina Yasmin recently visited Bangladesh and met Khadija Akter, a young mother realising her potential in the slums of Dhaka.
As I walked down narrow lanes, entering the slum, I realised my feet were already under water. I was in the slum because of my role on Sudokkho, a programme which works to improve incomes for the poor in Bangladesh, including people who live in slums like this one in Dhaka, the country’s capital.
Khadija was still working in the factory when we got there. As we waited for her lunch break to start, we made small talk with her neighbours. “This place has always been like this, drowned during the monsoon. We do our chores sitting in front of our houses, walk a long way to fetch clean water as our tube wells also get polluted by this,” said a young woman, while bathing her baby. She doesn't work. Married at an early age, already a mother of two, she looks after her household and children. Why was a film crew looking or Khadija, the young woman asked me. “She received training from one of our partners and is now earning well. So we wanted to interview her.”
Before she could respond, an older male member of her family, who did not seem very pleased to see us, responded, “Yes, yes, train all the women, let them earn money, then there will be none left to cook for us when we come home after a long day’s work!” I waited quietly instead of replying. Words coming from me, the privileged person that I am, would not convince him why economic empowerment is vital for women. He needed to hear it from someone in his own community.
A few minutes later we saw a petite girl coming hurriedly toward us. This was Khadija Akther, a 20 year old, single mom of a toddler - her husband had abandoned her due to poverty. Khadija lives in a tiny room with her mother and older brother. Her mother had supported the family by breaking bricks on construction sites. We asked Khadija to sit and talk to us. She insisted we wrap up within 30 minutes - she needed to get back to work as soon as her lunch break was over.
Khadija and her brother could not finish school, they did not have enough money for ‘luxuries’ such as an education. Both siblings were desperate to do something that would ensure them a permanent income. One of Khadija’s neighbours took her daughter to a nearby training centre knowing that getting skills training in the readymade garments trade would ensure a job as a sewing machine operator. Khadija went with her neighbour to the Shatabdi Fashions training centre, which is one of Sudokkho’s partners.
For a nominal fee, she took a 45-day training course and soon after got a job in a factory in Mirpur, a hub of garments factories in Dhaka. Instead of joining as a helper, as an unskilled worker would, she was immediately hired as a sewing machine operator. Helpers receive the minimum wage of BDT 5,300 (approximately USD 65) per month. As a trained and certified worker who knows all the processes of making a shirt and trousers, using different types of machines, Khadija started out on a monthly salary of BDT 8,500 (USD 105). In the meantime, her brother took another job, and now both of them have sufficient income to support their family.
We asked Khadija how she feels about this sudden change in her family’s financial circumstances. She smiled and answered that she doesn't need a husband to provide for her anymore. She can now look after her mother and child herself. When the production volume is high during peak season, and they get to work extra hours, she can earn more than what she earns on average, with which she can save for their future!
Khadija’s mother, Helana Akther, was quietly standing behind Khadija throughout the interview. She was wearing a worn out sari and her face bore the marks of years of struggle under the scorching sun.
When Khadija went back to the factory I asked her mother how she felt about what her daughter had just said. Helana started weeping. When she could talk again, she told us this had been the best time in her entire life. Since her childhood, she had worked hard just to survive. No one had ever told her that she could get well paid jobs by getting skills training.
Once her daughter and son started working, they told her to retire. Especially Khadija, the youngest of her children, made her stay at home, enjoy the company of her grandson and relax. This proud moment makes her tear up.
There was a time when Helana thought getting her daughter married off would solve all problems and give her daughter a secure life. Instead, her daughter has ensured a secure life for both of them. Though Khadija’s job has not brought them luxury, they have three meals a day, a rented house to live in and a promising future.
Helena thanked us for the contribution from Sudokkho, a skills and employment programme funded by the British and Swiss governments, which is implemented by Palladium in collaboration with Swisscontact and British Council in Bangladesh. Sudokkho does not directly provide skills training. Instead, it helps build the capacity of the existing privately owned training centres around the country so they can provide low-cost, world class and effective training on different trades in the garments and constructions sectors. Its mission is to produce a more skilled workforce, targeting the underprivileged, especially young women. Most of the women Sudokkho has helped are between 18 and 24 years old and were previously not able to get decent jobs due to lack of education or skills.
Khadija’s neighbour who earlier commented that if all the women go to work no one would be left to cook for the men, now responded. He was less aggressive than earlier, agreeing that Khadija had changed her family’s fortune. Depending on men as the sole bread winners these days is not sufficient, costs of daily household supplies have gone up and it is not easy for one person to provide for the whole family, even when living in a slum. Daughters like Khadija, who take charge of their lives, are blessings for families. “Girls are no longer a family’s burden these days and it’s not always that bad if they take part in generating income,” he concluded.