I believe that one of the greatest acts of compassion one can do in Bangladesh is create jobs. In a country with over 8 million extremely poor youths, the need for sustainable, eco-friendly, rural jobs is immense, and growing. In this context, I’d like to introduce you to one of my role models, Kohinoor apa.
Kohinoor apa is a soft-spoken woman who lives and works in Mirpur. She graduated from Dhaka University in 1994 and has been working with marginalised women ever since. She runs a handicraft-producing NGO called Tarango which has created over 12,000 jobs around the country. Thank you Kohinoor apa. If every one of us, women who have graduated from universities, could create 12,000 jobs for the less privileged girls in Bangladesh, wouldn’t ours be an amazing nation?
I asked Kohinoor apa how she managed such a great achievement. It took courage and dedication, she said. For Kohinoor apa, there is no separation of work and life. Work is her life. She often receives phone calls late at night from women who have faced domestic violence and are looking for shelter (Kohinoor apa not only runs Tarango, but also Asroy, a shelter for battered women). When she receives such phone calls, she becomes a counselor, sister, mother, lawyer, cop, whatever it takes to help the women who reached out to her.
She says she often counsels husbands over the phone, urging them to be gentle with their wives, to allow their wives space if needed, to facilitate better relationships in which women can grow and be safe. She has even started rolling out gender sensitisation workshops for husbands and wives in the areas where she works in.
Tarango is a not-for-profit organisation that provides skill-training, supplies, and space to women who want to learn to weave, and then pays them living wages for the products they make. Kohinoor apa says she dreams of parceling out parts of Tarango to social businesses or cooperatives, whereby the women who work for Tarango could own bits of the business, but the problem is that these women, though now empowered with some skills, do not have the exposure or network necessary to design or market high end products.
Currently, Tarango supplies only to the high-end export market, to companies like Harrods. With teary eyes, Kohinoor apa says she feels very proud that a small shop like Tarango, with the hard work of small women with nothing to their names, can find space in the shelves of Harrods.
Tarango uses all-natural products and dyes, often using recycled materials such as rice bags and cement bags. It also offers its weavers day care facilities, boiled eggs, bananas, safe water, and sometimes, shelter. Kohinoor apa says she sometimes takes women who previously worked rolling bidis – 1,000 a day, from morning to midnight – for a return of Tk12. Now those women are much better off and whenever she visits, she finds them smiling and happy.
Creating mass happiness through eco-friendly rural jobs may be a dream we all share, but it takes a certain type of person to actually manifest such a dream. To dreamers, Kohinoor apa says, without economic empowerment, women cannot raise their voices. If you have the opportunity to do anything, focus on creating economic empowerment for women.
Tarango only employs women because they have found that when women earn, they spend first on food, and then on their children’s education. Kohinoor apa says all her workers dream of providing their children with an education. This may sound like a simple dream, but actually, it is their key to a positive future.
In my own experience around Bangladesh, I have found many extremely poor adolescent girls who have made it to class VIII or IX, who would love to further their education but can no longer afford it. I asked Kohinoor apa what we could do to help those girls, how could we start a scholarship fund for them? I also asked her how much demand remained for products like the ones Tarango makes – is their potential to scale up these efforts?
Kohinoor apa says there is a lot of demand for high quality handicrafts, and abundant scope to create many more jobs around this market. However, she says many organisations make products, but one of the reasons Tarango has done so well is that buyers trust her. An organisation has to have a good reputation. She says Tarango now has an annual turnover of Tk4cr, and from its profits she runs the shelter (Asroy), expansion efforts, and scholarships for the children of the workers.
In conclusion, Kohinoor apa says Bangladesh may be seen as a country of beggars by the outsiders, but we need to facilitate nationwide skill-training and then show the world who we really are. That will give us the power to negotiate better deals for our country.