Gold entrepreneur empowering women in Bangladesh

“I feel I can now earn my own living as this initiative has given me a chance to actually discover the hidden talents that I have.” Renu Begum

An eye-opening period of service in a Bangladeshi old people’s home led Farhana Meghami, a Gold Award participant, to create a groundbreaking project to empower not just its elderly female residents, but many other women in her local community.

Weeping all day

While completing her Service section at the Bangladesh Association of the Aged elderly home, she noticed that there were many female residents who did not need to be there, but who had no where else to go because their families couldn’t support them and they could not support themselves financially. Some of the women wept all day due to the difficulty of their circumstances: their poverty, isolation and sense of helplessness. According to the Asia Development Bank, one in four women in Bangladesh will be widowed or divorced by the age of 50. As their participation in the labour market is much lower than that of men, finding themselves alone frequently means that they also find themselves without an income.

Pollution problems

Farhana was also concerned about another issue, this time an environmental one. She was keen to find a solution to the damaging effects of the by-products of industries such as jute production. Natural waste from large factories is generally either burnt or dumped in nearby lakes or rivers, creating huge pollution problems. She was determined to find a way to recycle such waste creatively, whilst also creating new opportunities for the women she was meeting to become financially independent.

Following lots of consultation with the women in the old people’s home, associations for women, and with women in villages willing to work for themselves and earn a livelihood, Farhana concluded that women of all ages in her community felt economically disempowered. She believed that by turning local waste into creative products they could become economically active and play a unique role in improving their society. But she needed professional help to train these women with the required skills.

Untapped talent

Help was not far away – she discovered a reservoir of untapped talent amongst the women in the elderly home, who were gifted with handicraft and patchwork skills. Their work was not only magnificent but also inimitable. These talented women were willing both to teach the young women the art of patchwork and also to continue to develop their own handicraft through fine-looking merchandise. The result was beautiful baskets made from leftover jute and bamboo sticks, and exquisite bed covers, table mats and ladies’ bags.

Farhana’s impact on the lives of the 400women involved so far in her project has been extraordinary. Following a display of their work at Bangladesh’s annual international trade fair, a massive profit was made through the sales of their goods. Foreign buyers signed up for regular purchases and, most importantly, these women were recognised for the first time in their lives for their ingenuity and talent. The income was distributed equally amongst the distinctive groups of women involved, enabling them to improve dramatically their standard of living and meet their families’ basic needs. Moreover, they now go back to their villages and encourage other women to take part.

Nafisa Ahmad, 36, one of the women involved in the project said, “I feel I have gained a lot of confidence in myself and I also believe that hard work pays off no matter how tough the path is. I would like to thank Ms Meghami who has been more like a friend and sister to us at all times.”

Optimistic future

As a result of her entrepreneurial drive, Farhana was asked to represent the International Award Association at the Twelfth Commonwealth India Small Business Competitiveness Development Programme in late May 2011. She explains how it inspired her to improve the outlook for women in Bangladesh:

“Heeding the success stories of people, especially women, in developed and less developed countries has inspired me beyond measure into believing that even though Bangladesh is an under-developed country, the women of its land can have an optimistic future with the help of those triumphant women entrepreneurs who are willing to help the less fortunate to help themselves.”

Entrepreneurs like Farhana, inspired by the experiences and skills they have acquired through their Award Programme, can play a vital role in turning societal challenges into economic and developmental advantage.

Bangladesh key facts

  • Bangladesh is a developing country, which at 146 ranks as ‘low’ in the UN’s index of human development.
  • Poverty is widespread and women face big challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities.
  • Female participation in the work force is 58.7% compared with 82.5% for men: women are much less likely to be financially independent than their male counterparts and when they do work are more likely than men to be in poorly paid jobs.
  • According to the UN, the number of over 50s in Bangladesh is predicted to rise proportionally from 12.92% of the population in 2010 to 37.14% in 2050. The proportion of these over 50s who are female is also set to increase.

The Award in Bangladesh

The Award has been operating in Bangladesh since 2008. There are 16 operators including schools, universities and youth organisations. The Award has now spread to Dhaka and Chittagong with plans to offer the Award to all 64 districts of Bangladesh. Since the inception 4100 students from 25 leading institutions from Dhaka and Chittagong enrolled for the Award.

Further information