New livelihoods for women in rural Bangladesh

Jesmin title.jpg

Jute farming is a major industry in many parts of Bangladesh. Traidcraft have been working with women in jute supply chains to strengthen their trading position and diversify their income. Shawkat Hasan and Sonya Firoz from Traidcraft’s Dhaka office reflect on the progress of this project.

Jute farming provides the livelihood for many rural women in the Southern part of Bangladesh, one of whom is Jesmin Begum. Jesmin extracts fibres from harvested jute. The family owns 58 decimals of land of which 20 decimals are used for jute. Her husband Mohammad Zakir Sheikh is also an agricultural worker, growing jute and other crops.

In April 2015, Traidcraft and our partners Ulashi Sreejony Sangha, began work with Jesmin and many of her peers as part of our JEWEL project (Jute: Empowered Women Ensured Livelihoods). This is a four-year project, co-financed by Traidcraft and the Big Lottery Fund, the overall aim of which is to improve the livelihoods and wellbeing of disadvantaged women working in jute supply chains by empowering them to develop a collective voice, to access services, and increase and diversify their sources of income.

Rather than working with individuals, our approach has been to bring groups of women together. Jesmin joined one such group two years ago. Since then, Jesmin has been able to participate in a range of training opportunities with the other members of her group on issues such as effective group operation, advocacy and negotiation, agricultural operations, and poultry and livestock rearing. As a result, Jesmin is no longer completely reliant on jute. Instead, she is growing vegetables on her land and rearing poultry and goats. This has helped raise the household income and the standard of living of her family.

However, the project has also been successful in increasing the wages paid for jute fibre extraction. Jesmin has benefited from this change.

Not so long ago Jesmin used to earn around 3,600 Bangladeshi Takas every season by extracting jute. The jute extraction season does not last for more than three months, and often employers pay workers not in cash, but with processed jute sticks. Although these can be used for building or fuel, their value is low.  

However, last year saw Jesmin’s wages increase significantly as a result of advocacy from the women’s groups with some help from increasing market prices. The JEWEL project facilitated several meetings between jute smallholder group members, and the Jute Growers’ Association, focusing on convincing employers of the need to bring wages up for workers. Average wages have now gone up by 50% which is a huge change and jute workers have increased their confidence about using group power to negotiate for better working conditions.  Though a small number of employers were involved in the initial phase, more employers have now increase the wage.  The negotiation process also included improvements to the work environment, and both drinking water and shade is now being provided by some employers to support the wellbeing of workers.

Jesmin and her family

Jesmin and her family

Having extra spending power has a broad impact. Women have better control on their earnings and are able to invest more on health, nutrition and small family businesses such as poultry or livestock.  We have also seen women take up more prominent roles in decision-making within both their families and their communities. They are more vocal and can speak up easily not only with their employers but also with other stakeholders like government officials in any meeting, workshop or forum.

We expect this change to continue as the jute sector prospers. Some of our previous work in the sector has included lobbying for policy change to drive higher demand for jute fibre.  The government has taken initiatives to increase the consumption of jute fabric for industrial packaging, for example, and more demand will translate into better wages and opportunities for women like Jesmin. With their hard work and determination along with the support from JEWEL project to improve their skills and ensure better working conditions, Jesmin and her community are looking positively to a bright future.

Shawkat and Sonya both work in Traidcraft Exchange's Bangladesh office.