<%-- Page Title--%> Development <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 115 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 25, 2003

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Rural Women Blaze Path in Business World

Lisa Hiller

Razia Sultana's husband agrees that he married an intelligent woman. Crouching on the smooth clay floor of their one room house, he says, “She could have done many things.” Indeed, as a child growing up in rural Bangladesh, Razia dreamed of becoming a nurse. But fate had delivered her into poverty and poverty forced her to leave school by Grade Five. By the time she was 18, Razia had a family of her own to care for, and the option of dedicating several years of her life to full-time study was no longer available to her.
These days she has another dream, to enable her three daughters to pursue their studies. But this requires money, and the Tk. 2,000 her husband earns as a labourer at the local mill is sometimes not even enough to cover her family's basic living costs, let alone stretch to meet the expenses of schooling.
Razia had long been thinking about earning extra money, but she was not sure how. She had only ever been trained in sewing. “I wanted to learn something else because the sewing business is not very regular as every woman can sew,”
she said. There was simply no market for her skills.
Poverty and underemployment are major and persistent issues in Bangladesh. Experts now believe that by better matching skills training to market and industry demands, new employment opportunities and economic growth could be harnessed. In addition, more flexible vocational and technical training courses, provided in short modular form, would enable less traditional students -- like rural women -- to gain marketable skills that contribute to a better trained and skilled workforce, while also helping poor families, like Razia's, to improve their incomes.
Currently, few women, especially those who are poor, have the opportunity to undertake marketable skills training. The demands of domestic life mean that many women simply do not have access to courses that are flexible enough to suit their schedules, and therefore, many are never able to realise their full economic potential. Where formal Technical Training Centres are concerned, poor women face rigid entry requirements. For example, they must be between 14-20 years, have completed the eighth class, and need to follow a two-year curriculum to graduate.
This centralised curricula is geared towards formal sector wage employment primarily in engineering and industrial trades and does not respond to the needs of poor women for entry into work and employment. In addition, societal constraints seriously affect women's participation in vocational and technical training. As a result, only 15 per cent of students enrolled in the 12 Government Technical Training Centres (TTCs) throughout Bangladesh are women.

“It often does not require a formal institutional setting and a lot of funds to provide user-friendly, short-term, market-oriented courses to motivated people, like many rural women,” explains Suvira Chaturvedi, an employment expert working with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Bangladesh. “Local knowledge, skills and resources can also be pooled to provide the relevant training that addresses industry and market demand,” she said.

Under a new government initiative, the Ministry of Labour and Employment's Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, is drawing on technical assistance from ILO, and funds from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), to use formal institutions as a resource in bringing marketable skills training within reach of women in villages and local communities. Through the Skills Training for Employment Promotion of Poor Women through Strengthening the Technical Training Centres (TTCs), poor, but motivated women are offered short, market-oriented courses. Upon completion, the new skills they have gained will enable them to find employment, or start a business, in non-conventional occupations, such as paper box making, poultry vaccination, computer operation, or electric house wiring and repair of domestic appliances.
“There are already a number of training courses on offer by Government agencies, NGOs and other institutions in these districts and throughout Bangladesh,” explains Ms. Chaturvedi. “What is being done differently through this community-based approach is identifying and making deliberate linkages with market opportunities for small enterprise or wage employment,” she said.
To make these linkages, surveys aimed at gauging market opportunities in the eight participating upazilas (Ghatail), Gazaria, Khulna Sadar, Jessore Sadar, Gabtali, Dinajpur Sadar, Boalkhali and Phulgazi) were carried out. In Ghatail, where a thriving fabrics and textile trade exists, the market researchers discovered a high demand among sari traders and sweet shop owners for good quality packaging, produced locally.
Currently many traders are ordering packaging, like boxes and bags from as far away as Dhaka. But, says Bonik Samity (business association) member and saree shop owner, Rafique Islam, traders would much prefer to buy locally. “I need around 1,000 saree boxes every month and its costly getting good quality ones transported from Dhaka. But, I have no choice because there is nobody here that makes good quality boxes,” he said.
Soon, however, Mr. Islam may indeed have a choice as this is exactly the kind of market opportunity the project attempts to identify, and then meet by designing relevant skills training courses and making their delivery flexible and practical to encourage motivated rural women to take them.
Razia was among the first batch of students to take the six-week saree box making class in Ghatail. In the true spirit of bring skills training direct to the rural poor, the course was run only 15 minutes by rickshaw from Razia's home, while local instructors from the nearby Technical Training Institution delivered it. Similarly, other courses being run for women clients of the project also rely on local government or private sector experts as trainers.
Employment experts also believe that if Bangladesh is to develop a skilled workforce to compete in an ever-increasing global economy, then more flexible courses that train students in marketable skills will have to be offered through the national Technical Training Institutions. Sk. Afzal Hossain, the Regional Director for Dhaka, estimates that “Only half of the graduates from the Technical Training Institutions find jobs in industry or public institutions, or start a business. Many of them use their qualification as a stepping stone to higher education.” This is mainly because the centralised curricula is geared towards preparing students for higher education rather than the requirements of a skilled workforce for an increasingly competitive private sector.
By demonstrating the effectiveness of flexible training linked to economic opportunities, the project is laying the foundations for offering similar courses nation-wide to the rural poor, particularly women. It is envisaged that the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training as well as the Technical Training Centres will institutionalise this strategy, and that the capacity of these institutions will have been strengthened to continue the approach.
But for some students, like the rural women, overcoming obstacles to accessing relevant courses is only part of the challenge they are facing in getting a job or starting their own business. Culture and social practices dictate that the women's place is in the home. This is evident in the marketplace, where no women, not even in women's clothing stores, can be found working. There are next to no opportunities for women to work in local businesses. “The challenge is to get people used to the idea that women are able, willing and capable of working in diverse occupations, businesses and industries,” says Ms. Chaturvedi.
The first who need to be convinced of this idea are the women themselves, who often lack the confidence to even imagine earning their own income. “In my village,” says Razia “
many believe that no-one will come and buy the boxes from women. People don't believe that women are capable of managing a business like this,” she admits. The course being offered under the project offers women more than just market-oriented technical training. It places emphasis on providing training in basic business skills, self-confidence and awareness of gender specific constraints in society and in the employment market, and strategies to address these issues. Post-training support such as creating links with banks or micro-credit, that can provide business start-up loans to the women are also crucial elements of the support being extended under the project. And, successful results are already beginning to show.
During the training period Razia sold 25 boxes to local shop owners. While this number seems small, it represents a huge boost in confidence. She now plans to build a co-operative with the six other women from her village who took the course and supply boxes to the local saree shop owners. “Women can do more for the development of our country if we can share the working world with men,” she said. “At first I never thought I could go to the market and convince the shop owners to buy these boxes, but now I have the confidence to do these things,” Razia says.

The writer is communications officer, UNDPBangladesh.
Photo Credit: Marie-ange Sylvan-Holmgre


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