In one of the poorest and most severely flood-affected areas of Bangladesh, women are embracing new technology to revive ancient art forms, create beautiful beadwork and make colourful clothing, to help them overcome both poverty and prejudice.
Kakoli Khatun comes from a region of northern Bangladesh beset by devastating annual flooding as well as high levels of extreme poverty and child marriage. However, this 21-year-old is defying expectations by combining a successful new business venture with studying at university.
Christian Aid’s local partner, Aid Comilla gave Kakoli the training, money and technology she needed to set up an online business. As one of Aid Comilla’s ‘change agents’, Kakoli then recruited and trained nine other women from her village to join her new business.
Kakoli is passionate about preserving nakshi kantha, the centuries-old Bengali art of quilt making, which involves embroidering old cloth with thread. With her new online business, she is helping prevent the tradition from dying out:
“Nakshi kantha is from an old era. It’s getting lost and no one is paying attention. It’s very beautiful. If we can make it and sell it, we will earn and it will spread,” she said.
Kakoli has seen a dramatic change in her fortunes since setting up her online business and earning a regular income.
Kakoli Khatun (wearing red) and three members of her collective use smart phones to sell their hand-made quilts online. As one of Aid Comilla’s change agents, Kakoli received digital skills training, start-up funding and support. She then recruited and trained a number of young women in her community and together they formed a quilt-making business.Credit: Fabeha Monir/Christian Aid
She said: “I didn’t have any dreams a few years ago because I didn’t have any money to do anything. To do something, I had to ask for money from my brothers and father. Today, I have a dream to grow this business so I can support my parents.”
The turnaround in Kakoli’s life is particularly impressive given that she is from Kurigram, Bangladesh’s most impoverished district where sixty per cent of the population are landless and over half live in extreme poverty.
People in Kurigram are being pushed further into poverty by the climate crisis. Higher global temperatures bring heavier monsoon rains, and when the mighty swollen rivers Dharla and Jamuna reach this low-lying area, they burst their banks and spill onto the adjacent farmland, damaging houses, destroying crops and leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded.
“Most local people are dependent on farming. Floods happen here annually, destroying our croplands and we suffer a huge loss,” Kakoli said.
This combination of material poverty and a poverty of expectation for girls helps to explain why Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. Over half of all girls are married before turning 18 and 22% are married before the age of 15. Child marriage normally spells the end of a girl’s education as she takes on the domestic duties of a wife and mother.
Kakoli avoided an early marriage but only because she managed to convince her parents to allow her to continue her studies: “My parents aren’t educated,” she said. “They saw a lot of girls get married around us so they think that their daughter has grown up and needs to be married. I explained to my parents that I don’t want to marry. I want to study now. I’m in the first year of my degree course and next I want to do a Master’s.”
Kakoli is determined to continue her education but across Kurigram, literacy rates are just 65%. She said: “Girls here need education. If they get married at an early age, they don’t understand the value of education and when they have daughters of their own, they make them marry early. The literacy rate drops gradually. If we are educated, then our children will be also.”
Many of the young women who have received support from Aid Comilla have first-hand experience of early marriage, among them 21-year-old Morsheda Khatun. Morsheda had to drop out of school and get married while she was still a child because her father had died and her mother couldn’t afford to continue her education.
Morsheda explains the difficulties facing girls in Kurigram. “Girls getting married at an early age is common here. Some are 13, 14 or 15 years old and it harms girls a lot. They can’t continue to study. It’s a huge loss,” she said.
Today, thanks to the help our local partner has given her, Morsheda is running an online clothing business from home. She has also resumed her education and has already completed her Intermediate exam, equivalent to GCSE in the UK or Junior Cert in Ireland.
Another of those who married as a child is 30-year-old Khaleda Begum. Khaleda recalls the experience of early marriage, saying simply: “I was married at a young age. I cannot describe my suffering.”
But with Aid Comilla’s help, Khaleda is overcoming her disadvantage and now runs a beadwork collective, something she describes as “the best thing in my life”. She also works part-time as a hospital receptionist and is studying for a degree at Bangladesh Open University. As the mother of two daughters, Khaleda is determined that her children will not suffer the same fate she did: “I want my children to be educated.”
Thanks to digital business training, start-up funding and support from our local partner, women like Kakoli, Morsheda and Khaleda are working together to take control of their lives.
The online businesses enable the young women to earn an income, increase their confidence and social status, and break the cycle of early marriage. And Aid Comilla’s home-based businesses are flexible enough to be combined with family responsibilities and gaining a college education.
Already, Christian Aid’s support has enabled Aid Comilla to reach more than 5,800 women. But this Christmas, there are so many other women around the world who urgently need this opportunity.
With your help we can train more young change-makers, provide more women with smart phones and build more internet hubs to connect them with a better future. In turn, these young women will go on to train others like them and light the path to change. This is their time to shine.