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Creating livelihoods for rural poor women: Role of private sector

Posted on 16 May, 2019

SWAPNO (Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities) is a social transfer-based graduation model project targeting ultra-poor rural women who are widows, divorced, abandoned or left with a disabled husband.  Major interventions of the project include: Fixed wage contract for 18 months under public works component; need-based life skills and livelihoods trainings and formal financial inclusion. ecofab
In order to ensure livelihood sustainability post project intervention, SWAPNO takes on a market system development approach that ensures that project outputs fit in with national labor demand and market demand. It does this by creating linkages between community based initiatives at the micro-rural level  to the macro level; and developing skills at local level that match market demand. It is part of this initiative that SWAPNO beneficiaries transition into formal sector employment in the RMG sector after their 18 month public works employment tenure. The transition of the SWAPNO beneficiaries from abject poverty to secure formal sector employment represents an extraordinary journey of resilience, and the potential that a successful partnership between private and public sector has in eliminating poverty.
Kulsum Begum (25 years), Musamad Asirun (30 years) and Rashida Begum (25 years) are 1st Cycle SWAPNO beneficiaries from Kurigram district who have been working at Eco-fab , Gazipur for the last two years. Prior to joining Eco-Fab, for the first 18 months in SWAPNO, they worked in public works while simultaneously receiving various livelihood and life-skill trainings that enhanced their skills and employability, and built their self-confidence. After the 18 months, SWAPNO facilitated their employment in the RMG sector at Eco-fab, based on their expressed interest, after being presented with various livelihood options. There was a special arrangement made between SWAPNO and Eco-fab, to ensure that SWAPNO beneficiaries would receive an additional two-month training prior to joining, as they had no experience in the RMG sector. For these first two months, SWAPNO provided a stipend, while Ecofab facilitated their accommodation. SWAPNO and Eco-fab also worked together, providing regular counseling, follow-up and monitoring to ensure smooth transition of SWAPNO beneficiaries, into the foreign environment, 350 km away from their villages in Kurigram.
Employment at Eco-fab for women like Kulsum, Asirun and Rashida are extraordinary cases because of the transition it represents from an ultra-deprived and remote villages where they were living in abject poverty with no skills to a regular employment in the private sector. For example, Kulsum, was married off at the age of 15, after her mother passed away. As her father was unable to pay the dowry, she constantly faced violence and abuse by her husband. Eventually, she had had enough and gotten a divorce. When she returned home, she had the responsibility of taking care of her ailing father. When he passed away, her two elder brothers constantly taunted her as she was depended on their income, so she began working as a domestic worker doing odd construction jobs. Asiron, on the other hand was abandoned by her husband for another woman, leaving her with three young children to bring up on her own. With no education, skills or finance, Asiron was left helpless doing irregular and high risk jobs. Rashida suffered the same fate. She was married off at the age of 13, and forced to discontinue her education to take care of domestic household matters. In reflecting back, she says that she did not understand what her marriage meant, that she was at the time too naïve to understand motherhood and responsibility. So soon after she gave birth, her husband abandoned her and her child.
However, things were about to change for the better for Kulsum, Asiron and Rashida when one day they heard a public announcement that SWAPNO was looking for single, divorced or widowed women with no income, for employment in public works. They went to their respective local Union Parishads along with many other women just like them and luckily they were chosen out of a lottery. Through their public works employment though SWAPNO, they started earning a decent and regular wage, and utilizing the knowledge they gained through the trainings on responsible saving and spending,  began saving in a formal bank account and in informal saving groups. During their employment tenure, they received trainings and regular counseling through SWAPNO that enabled them to know their rights, speak for themselves and build their self-confidence. After the 18 month public work employment tenure, to ensure that their income and livelihood sustains post project, SWAPNO facilitated their employment in the sector of their interest- RMG, out of many other livelihood options.
Now, Kulsum earns BDT 11000 a month, lives in a shared apartment with her colleagues and is able to have a decent standard of living.  Every month, she sends BDT 6000 to her brother in her village, Nolaya through bKash, where it is used to pay for a land purchase in installments and contribute to her informal savings group. Kulsum plans on working for the next three years at Ecofab, after which she will go back to her village and practice farming and animal husbandry. The lively and animated young lady laughs when I ask her about wanting to re-marry and she says she is looking forward to it.
As for Asiron, when she joined Ecofab in Gazipur two years back, she gave the responsibility of bringing up her three young children to her mother in her village, Romari. Her youngest son was just a few months old when she had to leave him. It breaks her heart, she says, that her youngest son does not recognize her. However, she is proud that she is able to meet all her children’s needs and send them to good schools. She sends at least BDT 5000 home every month and spends the rest of BDT 5000 on herself and visits her family every two or three months. Happily, she tells me that she has saved for her daughter’s marriage. She herself has no plans on getting married and would like to continue working at Ecofab as long as her health allows.
Rashida has plans to educate her daughter, who is now studying in class 3 to a stage where she can take care of herself. Every month, she sends about BDT 6000 to her mother in her village, Choriopara to take care of her daughter and has used part of her savings to lease land. The grey-eyed young lady, is saddened when I ask her about re-marriage and says she is happy as she is, as he now has the freedom and ability to take care of herself and her daughter.
In the second cycle of SWAPNO, about 60 women joined Ecofab, amongst them were Asma Khatun (27 years) and Musamad Jolima Khatun (21 years) both from Satkhira district. It is now their fifth month at Ecofab, and they each earn about BDT 11000 per month which includes pay for overtime from 5pm to 8pm. Their stories are very similar to those of Kulsum, Asiron and Rashida. Married off as children due to poverty, abusive husbands who abandoned them, limited education and skills, and then coming into SWAPNO and transitioning into formal sector. When I visited Jolima five months ago when she first joined Ecofab, she looked so frail, quiet, shy and young to be there, that we had to verify her age. I was positively surprised to see her again after five months, talking to me so vibrantly and joking with her colleagues. She told me that she was joint renting a house with her colleagues and she enjoys her work very much. She, just like Asma have been sending money home and saving regularly at their respective saving groups in their villages. Jolima says that although she misses her two year old daughter, her mother is helping bring her up, and she is happy to provide the financial support.
Development initiatives such as these present the potential for private sector in meeting its labor and market demand while simultaneously participating in national poverty alleviation strategies and SDGs. The achievement of the SDGs and ensuring equitable growth in Bangladesh where the Gini coefficient of income distribution stands at 0.483, is highly depended on reaching out to the marginalized poorest of the poor and a collaborative framework where the private sector takes on a more active role.

By Farzana Ahmed Julie

[1] Eco-Fab is an extension of Viyallatex’s woven business and a LEED Gold Certified environment friendly business located in Gazipur