Modernizing the market for traditional female artisans in Bangladesh
Jessica Powell, Program officer
As our globalized society becomes saturated with single-use products, stacked cargo ships, and destructive resource harvesting, turning an eye to the traditions of the past may just save us. A return to locally sourced, sustainable, and quality products may be the needed solution to increasing environmental degradation. Those who still make these products need support to flourish before these trades disappear completely. One avenue for revitalizing a traditional, sustainable industry lies with women in the slums of Bangladesh.
The percentage of the Bangladeshi population living below the poverty line has grown substantially in recent decades, fueling expansion of squatter and slum settlements. This is due largely to an increase in rural to urban migration, which will likely worsen as climate change renders agricultural subsistence less viable. The Narail District in the southwest of the country hosts 30 slum settlements, home to one fourth of the district population. Abysmal living conditions in these areas lack basic water and sanitation infrastructure, space, healthcare, access to education, and leave people susceptible to hazards. Inhabitants of these settlements generally operate in the informal economy, and are often deprived of public services. Bhadulidanga para slum, by the side of the Jashore-Narail highway, is one of the most disadvantaged areas of the municipality, and 90% of the population is of a religious minority including Dalit and Harijan. Many of these households are women-led and reliant on the trade of traditional handicrafts for income. In total, 500 women in the slum make and sell traditional products to support their families, and municipality-wide there are around 20,000 artisans.
Artisans in Bangladesh have been making high quality, sustainable crafts for generations. While the husbands generally collect the raw materials – bamboo, cane, wood etc. – from local, adjacent districts, the women stay at home making the crafts. These types of plants are some of the fastest to regenerate, and being locally sourced, already mitigate many of the environmental problems seen in large scale manufacturing of similar products. The key products made in Narail District are bamboo baskets (dhama, chalan, chatai, etc.), trays (kula), fishing crafts (khalai), cane products, and nakshi kantha embroidered quilts by special order. Nakshi kantha are traditionally made from recycled cloth, from old saris, for example, and woven into quilts with beautiful motifs. Intricate wooden statues are also made by at least 10 of the artisans in Bhadulidanga para slum, who were trained by the famous artist SM Sultan. These products are widely used in homes, and known for their high quality. These crafts are also a special attraction of the Hindu festivals held around the region. Internationally, there is likely keen interest in sustainable products such as these as well.
Despite a high demand for their products, these women face challenges in bringing their products to market and selling at an adequate profit. These include a lack of storage space at home, damaged products from being left out in the elements, and thus a heavy loss of income during the rainy and winter seasons. A limited sales window – twice a week in the space in front of the public toilet – is not conducive for making a profit. Additionally, they must accompany their husbands to this market, and the public toilet is primarily for men. Due to these obstacles, women often do not receive a fair price for the value of the products they offer. During interviews with local stakeholders, one artisan said dejectedly that, “Despite all the hard work, there is a lack of proper buyers,” and as a result she doesn’t get the right prices. A few local traders buy their goods and sell them in their temporary shops, but there is no access to larger markets, despite demand for the products. Some crafts, such as nakshi katha, are highly time consuming to make, and risky without a secure buyer.
Kaushalya Biswas, an artisan, urged that,
“We don’t have a designated place to sell. We had a place temporarily in the open space, in front of the public toilet of the municipality. There is no roof over the head in the marketplace. I can’t sit on a rainy day. The goods are left in the house. If it rains suddenly when we sit in the market, the goods get wet and we have to face huge losses. The market is only for two days a week. Thus, the unsold goods have to be taken back home again with cost. There is no place to keep products stored in the house. If the returned products are put outside of the houses, the quality of the product is degraded. We can no longer sell those products. This loss would not have happened if it had been a permanent place.”
The UNCDF’s IncluCity project in Bangladesh will be an investment in the construction of a designated marketplace for the traditional craftswomen to sell their products – The Durgapur Growth Center for the Marginalized Women. This is in conjunction with the Narail municipality, who will own and run it. The plot of land donated for this is along the side of the Jashore-Narail highway, close to the Bhadulidanga para slum and serving this community. According to the mayor, vending stalls and use of the entire marketplace will be allocated exclusively for women, so they will no longer need their husbands to accompany them. Drinking water, female toilets, waste management facilities, childcare areas, as well as secure storage units will be installed for the women to use while they work. This should raise the incomes of the artisans, as they will have extended sales hours, a higher quality work environment, a place to store unsold products, and be able to control pricing and transactions directly.
Artisan Kaushalya Biswas says enthusiastically of the project, “Many people order for nakshi katha but it takes a long time to receive money. They would benefit a lot if they would have a permanent place to sell…It will be great and much more beneficial for all of us. Since we live in slums, there is a dearth of space for making and storing things.”
“Many people order for nakshi katha but it takes a long time to receive money. They would benefit a lot if they would have a permanent place to sell…It will be great and much more beneficial for all of us. Since we live in slums, there is a dearth of space for making and storing things.”
Artisan Kaushalya Biswas
Having a permanent address for their businesses will benefit the women over the long term by allowing them to invest in their store without risk, and provide a location for larger buyers and suppliers to contact them. They will be able to increase production and stockpile products for sale at a later time, growing financial security. Craftswomen will also be a part of the management committee of the market, in charge of maintaining the infrastructure and revenue, and creating an estimated 30 more jobs through this.
Construction on The Durgapur Growth Center for the Marginalized Women is expected to commence in 6 months. It will also be a venue for trainings on how women can use digital tools to grow their businesses, connect with NGOs and the private sector, modernize production techniques, and expand to be more financially independent. Creating economic opportunities in cities for excluded populations is one way to alleviate poverty amongst the ultra-poor, whilst, in this case, also supporting the sale of sustainable products.