Realigning the stars for Bangladesh’s adolescent girls

January 6, 2014

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Even after her father hacked at her mother’s foot with a kitchen knife in an alcohol fuelled rage, Merina, 16, did not want to abandon her father. “He wasn’t always like this,” she says. “His addiction turned him into a crazy person.”

Even after her father hacked at her mother’s foot with a kitchen knife in an alcohol fuelled rage, Merina, 16, did not want to abandon her father. “He wasn’t always like this,” she says. “His addiction turned him into a crazy person.”

Her father, Joynal, inherited land for harvesting mangos and also worked on others’ farms, earning him a comfortable income for his family in their village in Bangladesh’s western district of Rajshahi. When his wife, Salema, gave birth to three daughters and no sons, Joynal began to resent his responsibilities and turned to moonshine. It started with cursing and blaming his daughters for his misery but soon enough Joynal would beat his wife regularly.

“He started acting out when my older sister was 14,” recalls Merina, the middle sister. “He stopped her education and married her off.” Joynal then made his wife take out a loan from a non-governmental organisation to pay for his daughter’s hefty – and illegal – dowry. To pay that loan back, he sent Merina, seven years old at the time, to work as a domestic worker. She remained in that job for four years.

Barely a teenager, Merina had experienced or witnessed most of the challenges facing young people growing up in the developing world – poverty, lack of education, child marriage and violence.

“Girls living in poverty are doubly disadvantaged,” says Safiqul Islam, director of education at BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). “First for being in poverty, and second for being a girl.” He believes adolescents are particularly neglected by the development sector and the Millennium Development Goals, as they focus on helping a child survive to five and getting a primary education but not beyond.

According to UNICEF, there’s an estimated 1.2 billion adolescents currently in the world, and nine out of 10 of them live in the developing world. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), nearly 40 per cent of the world’s 207 million unemployed are between 15 and 24 years old and 28 per cent of all young workers worldwide live on less than USD 1.25 per person, per day. These are grim statistics from a global perspective, but for Bangladesh, where a third of the population is under the age of 14 and child labour is a visible reality, the youth are now an important target for development interventions.

Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), a Bangladeshi human rights NGO, says, “Whether we like it or not, child labour will remain.” Last year her organisation, in collaboration with Save the Children, gave the government a draft law which would recognise domestic workers, including the estimated 400,000 children working in private homes, in the country’s labour laws for the first time.

“It is a serious self-contradiction,” admits Kamal to The Daily Star, “because we are working towards eradicating child labour, and here we are recognising it in a law so that they are given some measure of protection.”

For development organisation BRAC however, preparation is just as important as protection. “What’s good is that Bangladesh has realised that many of our youth enter the labour market without any skills,” says Islam, referring to the Bangladesh government passing a national policy in 2012 to encourage skills development. “At BRAC, we’ve started to prepare the youth with skills in a trade, ensuring they have a future livelihood.”

In April 2012, BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, selected 1,000 school dropouts with at least primary level education, aged 14 to 18, to pilot an apprenticeship scheme, a concept not unheard of in the western world, but new ground for Bangladesh. Merina, who got the chance to attend a UNICEF hard-to-reach school after her stint as a domestic worker, qualified. She nervously signed up for the pilot, entitled the skills training for advancing resources (STAR) project, not sure if she should place any hope in the opportunity. She was offered a menu of nine trades, which included tailoring, motorcycle repair, mobile phone and appliance repair, refrigeration services, beauty therapy, and handicrafts. Keen to make her own outfits, Merina began her six months training with Rotna Tailors in Katkhali, four kilometres from her parents’ troubled home.

“This initiative is addressing the unemployment and underemployment of young people, which is a bigger issue in urban areas than in rural,” says Joydeep Sinha Roy, who works on BRAC’s STAR project. “We are trying to formalise the way training is given in the informal sector and improve the workplace. By training girls and children with special needs, we are also breaking stereotypes.”

Like many of BRAC’s programmes which focus on empowering women, STAR enlists more girls than boys. One early success story from the STAR project is Khadija, one of three girls who dared to break down male-female stereotypes even further by signing up to learn motorcycle repair. People teased and discouraged her solely because she was a girl, saying, “How could a girl possibly work in a marketplace?” But with her father, professional mentor and peers encouraging her, Khadija stuck the training out and soon found her services sought after by customers. Following in her example, 22 girls in the next round of apprentices signed up for motorcycle repairing.

Khadija (far right) has inspired friends to reach new heights professionally.

Khadija (far right) has inspired friends to reach new heights professionally.

“It is fundamentally important that we focus on the girls because vocational training is viewed as an option for boys and not an option for girls,” says Education Director Islam. “It’s an attitude issue so bringing girls to the forefront signals that we are moving away from the rest of the community and saying ‘look at them, they are human beings and very capable of doing other things’.”

Alongside five days a week of hands-on training with their mentor (called a master crafts-person), the ‘STARs’ also attend lessons in basic English and financial literacy, and awareness raising workshops, such as on early marriage and occupational safety. They are encouraged to open their own bank accounts with BRAC Bank to save the stipend the project gives them, their salary from their apprenticeship and sometimes also their family’s savings.

The STAR project also helps the master crafts-persons, many of whom only have a primary level education themselves. “These entrepreneurs have not fully realised their potential. They can do the job but they might not know the best safety practices or how to maximise efficiency, so we are preparing them as better trainers,” says Islam. This is also done with the help of project partners UNICEF, International Labour Organisation and Bangladesh’s Bureau of Non Formal Education.

Last year 992 apprentices graduated under the watchful eyes of 486 master crafts-persons, including Khadija and Merina. Among the total were 17 adolescents with special needs (nine girls and eight boys). Currently 983 are employed and nine decided to work for themselves. Overall, their monthly incomes range from BDT 2,000-12,000 (£16-102).

Having proved she is skilled and committed, sometimes showing up hours early, Merina still works at Rotna Tailors. “I’d like to have a tailoring shop of my own one day,” she says. “I’ve learnt a lot and now there are things I want to do for myself and my family.” She promised to keep her younger sister in school and to not get married with a dowry or before she’s 18. She also plans to get medical attention for her mother’s injured foot, and having learnt that alcoholism is a disease, Merina is keen to admit her father into rehab.

She’s not worried about whether she’s as good as a son would be nor afraid of acknowledging her lost childhood. Merina and her former STAR classmates have grown into responsible young professionals.

Soraya Auer is a journalist and media relations specialist for BRAC in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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