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Aarong artisans leading a women’s revolution in Manikganj

  • Published at 01:15 am October 24th, 2018
Brac-aarong-artisan-syed-zakir-hossain-manikganj
A large number of women in Bangladesh have found financial independence by working for Aarong, a Brac initiative, over the last 40 years Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

About 10,000 workers – 90% of them women – are working at 80 sub-centres of a factory in the district

Paru Begum’s journey, thus far, has not been easy; she lost her husband and son – who was less than a year old – in 1976.

At 20, she desperately sought ways to survive. Life was tough. She then took a loan from Brac’s microloan scheme, and bought calves, but the income was insufficient to pay the installments.

Then, Paru encountered the Ayesha Abed Foundation. She started as a block print worker with a daily wage of Tk5—Tk2 of which she used to repay the loan.

The journey continues, and now, over 40 years later, she earns Tk5,000 a month. Her job has not only brought stability to her life; she now owns land and a house.

“I still love the job; it empowered me,” said Paru, now 62 years old and still with Ayesha Abed Foundation in Manikganj.

Not the only one

Paru’s story of empowerment is pleasantly not unique. Monowara Begum, now in her 80s, has been working with the same foundation for over 40 years. She, too, owns land and a house. Two of her sons have passed their Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams, and are now making a good living.

“It is not about money; I feel good working here. I have old friends here; we chat, have lunch together, and work together. Work is fun for us,” said Monowara, who earns Tk6,000 working in the dyeing section.

Like Paru and Monowara, about 35,000 workers are employed at 363 sub-centres at 14 centres operated by the Ayesha Abed Foundation.

This correspondent visited the factories of this foundation under Brac and spoke to the village’s women who have been working to supply fabric for fashion houses, like Aarong, for the last 40 years.

Brac’s Ayesha Abed Foundation is a production house that markets its products through Aarong.

“90% of the workers here are women who earlier did not have an opportunity to work, but got involved via Brac, under an initiative of the late Ayesha Abed. These women were producing these garments, and Aarong was launched in 1978 to market those products,” said Mohammed Gias Uddin, manager (admin, compliance and logistics) at the Ayesha Abed Foundation.

Dignified work for women in rural areas

The village’s female workers, who earlier even did not even come out of their homes, are now earning between Tk3,000 and Tk25,000. About 10,000 such workers – 90% of them women – are working at 80 sub-centres of five branches of a factory in Manikganj.

There, 145 individuals design: sarees, salwars, kurti, children’s dresses, jewellery, other sorts of garments, and home décor products.

One designer, Mala Akhter, met her life partner working there.

“My mom worked here for 30 years and brought up two children. As the eldest, I started working here with my mom at the age of 14, met my life partner, and got married five years ago. My husband also works here,” said Mala, who became the “Worker of the Month” in September.

“It’s a dignified job, and I love this place. It has given me stability, and provides me, my husband, and my family a good life,” she added.

About 65,000 workers, including 35,000 artisans, are now working for Aarong. The initiative began with five women from Kalibari in Manikganj and has grown to spread its products across the world.

When asked about how Brac engages rural women with this initiative, Mohammad Gias Uddin said they provide loans of Tk3,000 to Tk500,000 in rural areas.

“From those beneficiary families, we select the ultra poor families and train them. If they choose to take the job, they can earn money, repay the loan, and lead a good life,” he said.

He also added that they will be awarding the best workers to mark the 40 year anniversary of Aarong.

Aarong, the retail arm of Brac, was formed in 1978 to provide employment, income generation, and social development opportunities for underprivileged women. It does so by reviving Bangladeshi handicrafts.

From a single shop, Aarong in the last 40 years has grown into one of Bangladesh’s biggest retail chains, with branches in all major cities.