July 11, 2019

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Jhorna Islam is somewhat of a local celebrity in Tongi, Duttapara. While there are many clothing shops in the area, the uniqueness of her designs stand out, and the quality of the cutting and material used is noticeably high. 

Normally, the boutique teems with clientele, but today it has a special visitor. Queen Máxima of The Netherlands, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development paid a visit to Jhorna Fabrics, keeping the promise she made to its owner four years ago. 

Queen Máxima’s second visit to Bangladesh came in the wake of Bangladesh’s positive strides in financial inclusion, from 31% in 2014 to 50% in 2017. However, gender disparity in financial inclusion is still an issue, as Queen Máxima herself observes: “Bangladesh’s gender gap in financial access grew a staggering 20% from 2014 to 2017.

There is a lot more to be done, but things are changing.

A trip to Jhorna’s boutique was welcoming. An all-female group makes the clothing sold in the shop. Why all females? Jhorna laughs and says;

“They work harder. Men can be lazy, whereas women are usually very sincere. Also, I don’t employ men for practical reasons – you add just one man and the women can’t work as freely, they feel as though they need to wear dupattas (scarves) which are restrictive and hinder their work style”. 

Jhorna owns Jhorna Fabrics, a small business in Tongi, Duttapara, one hour away from Bangladesh’s bustling capital of Dhaka. The boutique employs 16 women and offers custom-made clothing for women and girls.

Jhorna started her business a little over 10 years ago. She did not have a goal to be a business owner, but her husband started to have heart problems at a relatively young age, and the small embroidery orders she was doing at home were not enough to cover the family’s bills. Jhorna took her first loan from BRAC Microfinance, undertook sewing training from Ansar BDP, bought a sewing machine and started purchasing fabric from Islampur wholesale market. As she started selling and making a small profit, she increased the size of her loans. At first it was BDT 5,000, then 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000.

In 2015, Jhorna took a small and medium enterprise (SME) loan from BRAC Bank for BDT 400,000. This allowed her to employ 10 additional employees, bringing her total staff count to 16. It also enabled her to purchase two new machines, raising the total number of machines in the shop to six. In 2019 her business reported an annual turnover of BDT 4.5 million and a yearly growth rate of 20%. She anticipates an annual turnover of BDT 10 million by 2020.

Financial inclusion is vital for women’s empowerment,” said Queen Máxima of The Netherlands, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development.

How is BRAC contributing to financial inclusion? 

Since the beginning, we knew that development is not possible without economically empowering women. BRAC laid the foundation of financial inclusion in 1974, with microfinance. Today we have become one of the world’s largest providers of financial services, operating in seven countries across Asia and Africa. In Bangladesh, 87% of our clients are women.

Our approach to financial inclusion stretches further from our microfinance programme, and includes mobile money services with bKash, formal banking services with BRAC Bank, IPDC, and other investments such as Guardian Life Insurance and Delta BRAC Housing. And together, we serve 41.2 million clients.

Jhorna is not only a businesswoman, she’s also a philanthropist.

She sends 10 children to the local government-run school, covering their school fees, stationary and uniform costs. Two of the children belong to her employees, and the other eight are from families nearby who cannot afford to send their children to school.

When asked about her future plans Jhorna said, “I don’t want to change very much, except that I want to do more for women living in vulnerable situations. I run a good business, I make enough money, so I want to support others who have not done so well – and to do that it would be great to expand the business. I would like to hire more women and support more families to send their children to finish school.”

We do not know if Queen Máxima and Jhorna will meet again.  With stories like Jhorna’s around us, and the national financial inclusion strategy already being drafted – we seem to be headed on the right track!


Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is the head of programme and enterprise communications, BRAC Communications. Luba Khalili is the deputy manager of content and campaign, BRAC Communications. Tahjib Shamsuddin is an external communications specialist for BRAC’s microfinance and targeting the ultra poor programme.

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3 years ago

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