On International Women’s Day, we celebrate advancements made towards gender equality, while also recognizing that there is still a long way to go. At Ten Thousand Villages we believe that by economically empowering women in disadvantaged parts of the world, we help level the playing field. Freedom to make one’s own financial decisions is the first step towards self-determination, and can be the first step towards lasting grassroots change.
Recently, Tanu Dey, Director and CEO of Dhaka Handicrafts in Bangladesh visited our head office to talk about how this is working on the ground in rural Bangladesh. Ms. Dey told us that while the capital city is rapidly modernizing, the rural areas are changing much more slowly. We asked her about some of the work that Dhaka Handicrafts is doing to help Bangladeshi women.
Education subsidies for students, especially girls, are a major part of Dhaka Handicrafts’ social mission for a practical reason. In Bangladesh, the best chance a girl has to break the cycle of poverty comes from having a good education. So besides paying a fair wage to makers, Dhaka also invests in their kids. Tanu explains, “For girls in Bangladesh, until college, school is free. However, what isn’t free is the grade 10 standard exam that students need to pass if they want to get into college. So we pay 50% of that fee for the girls. When they go to college [equivalent to grades 11 and 12], there is an admission fee. Of that fee, we pay 50%. If they wish to continue to university, we pay 50% of that, too.”
In addition, Dhaka also gives students attending college and university a small monthly allowance, enough for pens and paper, so that the students can go to class with everything they need to learn.
Thanks to these benefits, one daughter of a producer is in school now to become a nurse. A few more are pursuing other fields in university, while many are working their way through college.
Dhaka Handicrafts sees this investment as non-negotiable. Tanu says, “No matter whether we are making profit or loss, our education fund is always there for the kids. Last year we had a loss, but their education will continue no matter what. That’s a promise we made.”
GENDER AWARENESS TRAINING
Education is a way to help the next generation, but Dhaka is also working to help the artisan women they work with today by offering annual training.
Certified Gender Awareness training programs are very expensive, so instead of sending all artisans to the NGO-led programs, they sent their office staff, so the staff can then lead sessions for the home-based makers.
The program used to be only taught to women, but according to Tanu Dey, this method didn’t work. Women would return home to their husbands, only to have the new knowledge met with resistance and violence. So now husbands and wives take the training together – and the change is making all the difference.
Tanu told us that a few years ago at the training, the husband from one couple refused to take part in a role-reversal skit, where the husband and wife were to play each other. He vehemently refused to do it under any circumstances. So Tanu said “fine,” and they moved on.
Afterward, she quietly took the man aside and asked “Why aren’t you doing this?”
He replied, “Now, after this training session, I know how much damage I do. And I don’t want the same treatment from her.” If there was any doubt that the training was working, it disappeared after this moment.
THE ROAD FORWARD
Every year, Dhaka has a producer meeting, with 4 or 5 women representing each producer group. In that meeting, women’s empowerment is a primary topic. A lot of these women are uneducated, and many were married years before they turned fifteen. They regret not being able to go to school, but today, they’re giving that opportunity to their own kids. Mothers are no longer forcing daughters to marry young. Tanu is happy to see this kind of progress, but says that it’s not always better if things move too quickly. In rural areas, it’s important to be careful to avoid upsetting the community. Lasting change has to emerge organically.
“With a lot of precaution [at the women-only producer meeting], we work, and we talk. And it’s working, because the women are becoming empowered now. They have the earnings – we do our best to give them work throughout the year, so now the society, the family, everybody is respecting the women. You can see it.”
Tanu Dey continues, “If I think 20 years back, and look at today, I can see the difference. I can see that in those days, women used to be so scared to come [to the meeting]. Today, they come. They wear the covering, the hijab, but they come to talk, and fight back. I like that.”