A Brief History of Nari Jibon Development Foundation (C. March 2005-)
Kathryn Ward, 27 Dec 05
With a new system and temporary office for two months, NJP opened with new staff, teachers (including three Fulbright Fellows), and structure and a philosophy of thinking outside the box of women’s work. Funding has come from Kathryn Ward, Executive Directors and her mother and nominally from student admission fees and donations. Staff committed to doing outreach and connecting students with possible jobs. We urged staff to develop their own English literacy and computers and tailoring. The tailoring teacher promised to teach sewing, cutting, and business skills rather than just sewing for garment factories. A former student of the ED joined as a volunteer computer teacher. Several computers had broadband connections to broaden students’ computer experiences.
Students and staff committed to office-class rules including nametags, time schedules, and class attendance. We tried to develop four month study-work-business plans with these students. All students and staff wore name tags-ids, signed in and out of office premises. Other students paid a flat 100 taka fee to attend on to four classes. Students received written materials in computers and English and/or materials and goods for Bangla and tailoring.
Students responded to our outreach and within a few weeks we had enrolled 50-70 students. We added a Bangla teacher and office aya to address some students’ illiteracy in Bangla and the growing number of children who came with their mothers.
Some new staff arrangements included four leikhapora-chakri [LPC] (work-study) staff members whose primary tasks were to acquire literacy in English or bangla and/or computers-office work or tailoring AND gain practical experience in either office or tailoring work. For example, some of the LPC women served as receptionists, did office related tasks, and/or fieldwork. Other women needed basic Bangla literacy. These positions sought to address the issues of funding for transitional training where the students received funding for studies but also for practical work experience.
Also some staff gained Bangla literacy for the first time, including the office aya and service staff. Previously the office aya had worked in garment factories for 17 years and never had the opportunity to learn how to read and write Bangla before she came to Nari Jibon. She now understands some English. Another service staff member also learned how to read and write Bangla and developed her tailoring skills. She has been reassigned to the tailoring room to further develop her skills. Other staff attended weekly English classes and had staff designated time for computer practice and education.
Our volunteer computer teacher had limited access to computers at her private university and hostel. Over time, she continued to hone her computer skills through practice, teaching students and participated in computer hardware and graphics classes.
Office staffs have included first time service holders. They have acquired English and computer skills, accounts and filing experience, and maintaining student and staff registers and inventories. They also have acquired skills in meeting and greeting both Bangladeshis and foreigners who work in and visit the office.
However, we soon discovered certain levels of resistance and dealt with problems from the Bangladeshi education system that generated limited skills in English and studies for both students and staff. Demands on staff time meant limited time and energy to attend classes. Most of our students had second or third division marks, but their education ranged from class six or less to SSC/HSC pass or college and university. Some students came for one or two classes and disappeared with materials. Other students resisted/challenged our insistence on English literacy before studying computers; we required at least a reading, speaking, and writing level of English before computer study. Although some claimed this literacy, upon written and oral tests, they could barely communicate in English and the computer teacher complained about the students’ progress.
Finally, some students had become habituated to laisse-faire attitudes and classes at Sathi office, other NGO stipend programmes, and resisted our insistence on English, testing of computer skills, and need for practice and study of their lessons in English and computers. Or likewise we insisted that tailoring students achieve literacy in Bangla along with their tailoring studies. Although some of the leikhapora women were very enthusiastic initially about their assignments, some of the office-track women switched back and forth between computers and tailoring. After four months, they ended up with few new skills if any beyond some Bangla literacy, understanding of some English, tailoring, and some office experience.
In May 2005, we moved back to the nearby original Sathi office, which provided a bit more room, light, and space along with potable water and reliable electricity. We also decided to charge 100tk per class to discourage casual students. Needy students received a waiver or paid a lower amount. Many of our students came from nearby slums and schools, including college and university students on summer vacation. Outreach workers visited local computer and tailoring shops, factories, and sex worker hangouts to discuss Nari Jibon.
One student who had moved into a leikhpora-chakri position almost immediately found a job with a related NGO. We added two more leikapora students, including one office and one tailoring track student. Further, in late summer, we started offering a weekly business class meeting, but some students resisted developing small plans with limited taka. Instead they insisted on large extravagant plans and thought that the ED would provide them with money and/or loans. Other students thought that we would provide work…any sort of good work…but the ED wanted to break out of the usual NGO mode of hiring fieldworkers and programme, graduates. She insisted that the success of Nari Jibon consisted of women finding work outside of Nari Jibon.
Further Nari Jibon could serve to launder assorted identities and serve as a bridge to work. For example, women garment and sex workers faced uncertain futures after a certain age. Many sex workers had become fieldworkers for HIV-AIDs programmes, but lost this work when grants ended and had no new skills. Once they entered Nari Jibon, they became Nari Jibon women with different skills and practical experience. Many garment workers faced threats from factory closures owing to changes in trade agreements. At the same time, garment and other workers who provided much if not all support of their families needed some transitional money to learn alternative skills. We estimated that full-time women could learn new skills in about four months. We also approached some NGOs known to hire women as fieldworkers to provide these stipends (at a rate of 4000 taka or higher than average garment salaries), but only one agreed and at a minimal level. We had to pay for medical treatment of these students, who also required extra attention because they had no literacy in Bangla and had extensive experience only in brothels, street trade and/or NGO fieldwork. They also lacked safety nets when they or their children became ill. When the NGO ended their stipends/conveyance, their studies ended.
We also had resistance from some of the women’s leaders—largely illiterate-- who seemed threatened by the idea that their members could learn alternative skills, might reduce the leaders’ claims for poor downtrodden women, and did not receive any interest from the project. The leaders called meetings during the women’s classes and programmes and/or keep the member students working on unpaid projects rather than letting them come to classes. In turn, when these groups received grants, none of their members had the skills or literacy to work on the grants.
We also faced some scheduling problems as students tried to attend four different classes so we tried to insist on either English-computer tracks or Bangla-tailoring tracks. Given only five computers, we also had to stagger computer schedules where students learned Microsoft word followed by Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. Some students insisted on drop-in classes, which we could only provide on Fridays.
We also had challenges of women dropping out owing to ‘family’ problems, especially if their mother or father became ill or lost their jobs. Other students dropped out owing to their own illnesses. Some husbands and guardians made the students drop after a certain time period of learning—enough so they could teach their own children. Other students came during school vacations. Still others dropped out for work. In some cases when we insisted on English class attendance AND computer studies, some students refused to continue.
Still other women found work in offices, but quit owing to family problems (health of family members) or misbehavior of male colleagues. These problems suggest more training on handling workplace issues, but also educating family members about women workers and consequences of such work patterns.
In tailoring, some students who had finished their studies declined offers for tailoring shop work, but preferred to set up businesses in their homes. Some tailoring shops have refused to hire women tailors, while other shops have offered jobs to our students. Or students and guardians felt that such work would bring unmarried women into contact with men. So they waited for the ED to provide sewing machines for students. (She declined). We encouraged the women and their families to develop savings programmes or seek urban micro-credit.
By end of July, the ED returned to USA and she closed the original LPC women, one of whom went into modeling and clothes, another proposed to start a vegetable-food wholesale business, and another had no plan at all after four months. Another office track woman tried for fieldwork jobs, but had acquired few new skills in English and/or computers.
At the same time the last LPC woman continued her studies in tailoring, bangla and business classes. She also did fieldwork to tailoring shops and assisted in the tailoring room. Six months later, she left as a full-fledged tailor, with savings and business plan, and a new sewing machine (provided by the ED).
Meanwhile some of our other students in computers-offices began to seek work and found work in offices and sales. We hired one of our better students as office receptionist.
In July some of the more advanced computer students (Word and Excel classes finished) asked for graphics classes, which we provided. Another teacher started computer repair-hardware-assembly classes. All English and computer students registered for and started using email. We have taken our best students to computer fairs and programmes.
The project coordinator, Saleha Parveen, also took several students to a business planning workshop by Women for Women and developed her own business class, which has met one day per week and included most office staff and some male students. Students developed business plans, budgets, and some have implemented these plans such as a food mess, pen sales, phone shop, and a computer repair shop.
From March 2005 to December 2005, 218 women student had registered for assorted classes at Nari Jibon. We have stressed that every student develops a realistic plan for their education and future. We have three volunteer English teachers, four computer teachers (two basic, one repair, and a new graphics-website), two tailoring teachers, one Bangla teacher, office manager, receptionist, office aya-fieldworker, and one service staff. A new project is the Nari Jibon website/domain: www.narijibon.com where women students will learn how to set up and maintain a website. They will also receive training in taking photographs and generating articles for a web magazine on Nari Jibon. We hope to install wireless broadband internet in the near future. We also started a research cell with staff from the ED’s longitudinal women workers’ project, which should generate work opportunities for fieldwork, office work, scanning, surveys, and so forth. We have instituted meetings with students and guardians every three months to discuss the students’ and guardians’ plans. In the near future, we hope to open a driving school-programme for women leading to real licenses. We have added three new LPC women: two in office work (recent HSC grad; older woman who has been outside of work for 10 years) and one in tailoring (formerly garment worker). Two additional tailoring women students are receiving partial support, and as more funding becomes available they will become LPC students. However, the vast majority of NJ students receive no conveyance or stipends from the project.
Class results (some students took multiple classes):
Currently running: 32
Left for: studies: 14
Jobs: 9 (garments, office work, NGO work)
Family probs.: 7
Computer repair: 12 (since August)
Computer graphics: 7 (since August)/website since December
Tailoring: 109 (since March); students learn to make 32 items
Running: 32 (17 half-finished)
Finished: 50; 6 started own business
Bangla: 63 (since April): letters, reading, math
15 running (regular): three class levels
English: (since March) three class levels [English 1, 1.5 & 2]
50 students (three class levels)
Business: (since August)
Business: 7 (clothes sale, pens, phone shop, computer repair, food-catering mess)
1. Regular & sincere attendance by students
2. More transitional funding for women moving out of previous work (work-study, equipment such as sewing machines and computers, business capital)
3. More staff outreach to employers (business, NGOs) about Nari Jibon, what skills they need, and promotion of our students
4. More follow-up-tracking of our students
5. Capital and employment generation in spin-off businesses, such as cyber cafes, repair, copy-composition shops, tailoring shops, and research work
6. Educational and motivational efforts with guardians, husbands, family members, and workplaces about the importance of women’s education and work and respectful treatment of women at work and traveling to and from work
7. Registration as a trust and for foreign donations with GOB
8. More class room space, sewing machines, and computers for practice and classes.";