Stine Eckert, Pulitzer Student Fellow
Girls and women learn sewing, English and how to use a computer at Nari Jibon Development Foundation - A visit to a struggling women's project in Dhaka. Part 1
Rozina and Shompa stand up as if a teacher called on them when I enter the room. After settling that they can sit down they seem to be a bit more relaxed. Shompa has pinned a bright pink piece of cloth underneath the needle of the sowing machine in front of her. She has been learning to sow at Nari Jibon Development Foundation for a month now, working in the small room four times a week for two hours. After she first tailored a fatua, a short-sleeved lose shirt, she's now on to sow a dress.
"Pink is my favorite color," says the 20-year old political science bachelor student at National University. It will take her a day to make the whole three-piece, a typical traditional outfit for women in Bangladesh consisting of a dress, long loose pants, and a scarf wrapped around the shoulders. But it saves money and is good practice.
As Shompa, which means dream, becomes more skilled she will be able to tailor a three-piece in three hours, just like expert tailors. After her training is over two to three months, she can buy her own sowing machine and work at home. "I want to start my own tailoring business," Shompa says, a source for income at the side for her, even when she reaches her goal to become a teacher in political science.
Twenty-twos girls are currently in the tailoring class at Nari Jibon. As the organization struggles to find donors, according to Project Director Golam Rabbany Sujan, Nari Jibon, which means women's life, had to raise the admission for the course.
Since December 2008 every girl pays 500 Tk or $7.50 to participate up from just 300 Tk ($4.50). In 2007 the girls only paid 100 Tk ($1.50). Fees were low as Nari Jibon started out to especially help poor, underprivileged women. But with a drop in donations it has opened up for everyone who can pay.
To pay her admission, 15-year old Nipu Akhtar works part time in an office, where she helps with accounting and binds books. With her monthly-earned 1,000 to 1,500 Tk ($15 to $20) she can almost pay for her three courses; her parents pay the rest.
Nipu not only learns tailoring but also English for 500 Tk ($7.50) each, and how to use Microsoft Office and create graphic designs, for another 1000 Tk ($15). With her new skills she wants to later open her own boutique to sell dresses.
She says if a woman is not educated, the family wants the daughter to marry to decrease family expenses. "I want independence," Nipu says. "I will never marry. Only if a nice boy comes and then only after twenty years."
Opposite to her sits Shadia Islam, 18 years, who already won a little independence by simply coming to Nari Jibon. She says her father was not willing to pay the fees. Besides, he didn't like the idea she would be working outside her home, she says. But her mom supported Shadia: "My mom pursued my dad and changed his mind, she said to him ' Better do it, there's no gain but no loss either.'" She has one more year in high school and wouldn't mind marrying after a while, she says. "But I want my parents to find me a husband."
Similarly Tasnuva Swarena, 22, doesn't rule out marriage. But she also wants to have a job hoping that the computer class will help her to later find a government or bank position. She will graduate from Dhaka University with a Bachelor in anthropology in three months. But even when she finishes her master in another year, she says "there's little chance I find a job in anthropology."
Photo: "Pink is my favorite color." Shompa Akthar, 20, tailors a dress to save money and to learn the trade so she can open a family business.
Stine Eckert, Pulitzer Student Fellow