Under the rain-soaked canopy of a mango tree stood a one-room structure with large windows. As we entered, a soft murmur of whispers swept through the room. Curious eyes greeted us with shy, furtive glances. Most workers of the Bangladeshi apparel industry work in grim, unsafe environments, but this place sang a different song. The room was wide and spacious, flooded by broad daylight and fresh air that smelled like rain.
We were in one of the 650 Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF) sub-centres in rural Jamalpur. Women of various ages sat bundled in multiple groups on the clean concrete floor. Each group had a piece of large cloth in their midst. The clothes, some half-made and some almost ready, had hand-embroidered flowers blooming in the canvas, each more beautiful than the rest. The artisans worked their needles with swift, skilful moves even while looking away. In one corner sat Taslima – an artisan with a story to tell.
Taslima is a 22-year-old single mother working as an artisan. Her story started from when she was 13 and newly married to a man she never met before. Since her family was poor, the prospect of a marriage meant one less mouth to feed. It was an arranged marriage and like many other girls in her community, her consent was not required. In four years, she was a mother of one daughter. To her it was a perfect family. She felt safe and content. But the feeling didn’t last long. After six years of marriage, her husband married his cousin. Taslima was oblivious to this till he brought his bride home and politely asked for a divorce.
Betrayed and heartbroken, she returned to her parents with her daughter. Now being a single parent, it was hard for Taslima to raise her daughter without a source of income. Her ex-husband hadn’t paid any alimony and he seldom provided for their daughter.
At this point she started working as an artisan at the Goherpara AAF sub-centre in Jamalpur. The money helped with her daughter’s food and expenses. One day when a barefoot lawyer from BRAC’s legal services came to her workplace, Taslima came to know about the legal action she could take against her ex-husband.
The barefoot lawyer took Taslima’s case to BRAC’s staff lawyer, who suggested an alternative dispute resolution. They also sent a legal notice to her ex-husband stating if he does not pay the alimony and child support, he will be sent to jail. This prompted him to agree to pay Taslima the alimony in instalments and provide child support for their daughter. Today he has only paid BDT 25,000 out of the BDT 60,000 he owes her. It might not compensate for the years of economic hardship Taslima went through, but it gave her a sense of financial security for her daughter’s future.
The legal service that Taslima received came through the artisan development initiative (ADI), a BRAC integrated development programme for artisans who work at AFF, Aarong’s own production units. Aarong is a social enterprise creating livelihood opportunities for over 65,000 rural artisans, 95 per cent of who are poor women. ADI brings BRAC’s six core development programmes like microfinance, health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, community empowerment and legal services to directly to their doorstep. ADI’s goal for 2014 is to cover all sub-centres and production centres, which will eventually benefit over 20,000 artisans every month.
Services under ADI include access to microloans and savings accounts, access to free legal assistance and prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant artisans. Free sanitary latrines are distributed to artisans who are too poor to afford one, and awareness on safe water and good hygiene practices are promoted. Social issues like gender equality, HIV/AIDS, child marriage, dowry and many more are openly discussed. The artisans are particularly fond of the legal sessions because these provide them access to practical solutions to their legal problems.
Taslima’s story is just the tip of an iceberg. Majority of the women in rural Bangladesh do not have proper access or enough resources to seek legal solutions and Taslima was no different. Although indifferent at first, Taslima fought valiantly for her and her daughter’s rights and ADI provided her the platform to do so. She dreams to raise her daughter into a headstrong, educated woman in the future.
ADI at a glance:
389 sub-centres covered by ADI
7,000 participants at health sessions
4,700 savings accounts worth more than BDT 7 millions managed by microfinance
4,000 artisans received water and sanitation-related awareness classes
2,100 artisans graduated from BEP sessions and nearly 2,000 new members are enrolled presently
3,000 artisans received legal services
1,400 artisans have been included in community empowerment programme
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is a senior communications officer and sub-editor at BRAC.