Mixed in with the excited chatter of school children and the clanging of passing rickshaws on the roads of Old Dhaka is the melodious whirring of Shormila and Shipra’s sewing machines. The sisters are both partially deaf. They can barely hear the magic that they weave.
Loss of hearing is the second most common disability in Bangladesh. People with hearing impairments make up 16% of the total disabled population.
Shormila lost her hearing when she was eight years old. “My father struck me very hard one day and I lost my ability to hear soon after.” Her parents were unable to afford treatment.
A once outgoing Shormila found herself stuck at home. She found it increasingly difficult to cope with everyday tasks. “We live on a busy road and I stopped going to school in class 5 because I would be scared of speeding cars.” Shormila eventually became mute.
Shipra, the younger of the two sisters, lost her hearing as a result of typhoid. “While sick, my mother would put mustard oil and garlic in my ear before going to sleep, but this home remedy actually ruptured my eardrum.”
The most studious of the daughters, Shipra found it particularly hard to concentrate in school. Her teacher was also not equipped to teach a child living with a disability. Shipra dropped out in class 8. Like nine out of ten young people with disabilities in Bangladesh, she did not pursue post-secondary education or vocational training.
A mentor on his mission
Abu Bakar has been a tailor for 27 years. His classroom is a shop, and colourful threads and fabric replace chalkboards and tables.
He was working in many shops before saving up enough to buy his own space. His tailoring shop is located in a bustling marketplace in the Demra district of Dhaka. In addition to his work with clients, he also trains people wanting to get into the trade. Two of those people are Shormila and Shipra. Abu’s shop is a 10-minute rickshaw ride from their house. He has taken on the role of mentor for the two sisters.
“I took it as a completely new challenge when they approached me. I spent many days figuring out how to teach them. They are really good, I just had to figure out how to communicate differently”.
Abu created different signs for stitching, pleating, and creating folds. The girls were also taught to handle customers.
“Shormila and Shipra come to visit me still. They tell me that I’m going to have to do the same when they finally set up their own shop, just like mine.”
Formalising the informal sector
Approximately one in 10 people live with a disability in Bangladesh. Stigma and discrimination restricts many from fully participating in society, and particularly in the job market
According to the International Labour Organization, 80% of persons living with disabilities in developing countries are unemployed. Even if a person with a disability does get a job, they often end up in an unregulated arrangement which can be hazardous and exploitive.
BRAC’s skills training for advancing resources, known as STAR, innovates on an age-old apprenticeship model, integrating young people with disabilities, like Shormila and Shipra, into mainstream employment.
The training is designed for school dropouts and young people who face discrimination, including persons with disabilities, who make up one out of every ten graduates. Other participants include orphans, children of sex workers and members of the transgender community.
The training places learners in pairs with a master craftsperson, who is an experienced shop owner like Abu Bakar. Apprentices receive hands-on training and theory classes for six months. Unlike traditional vocational training schools, the training uses shops as classrooms, and follows the national curriculum.
A study by the ILO reveals that exclusion of persons with disabilities from the labour market globally is resulting in an estimated loss of GDP of up to 7%.
The biggest challenge is not in preparing persons with disabilities for the job market, but in finding trainers and employers who are willing to invest in them. President of the Bangladesh Employers Federation, Salahuddin Khan says, “Bangladeshi employers who have hired people with disabilities speak highly of their performance, loyalty, productivity, retention, regularity in attendance and overall workplace performance.”
To date, 2450 apprentices with disabilities have graduated from STAR, of whom 95% got employed. In 2017, the programme was able to secure jobs for 98% of its 835 graduates with disabilities. Three of the top preferred choices of trade include tailoring, carpentry and mobile phone repairing services.
Samira Syed is knowledge management and fundraising specialist at BRAC Skills Development Programme. Ashfaque Zaman is senior writer at BRAC Communications.