Big Hope, a Factory, and the Survival of Women in Bangladesh
April 10, 2019
In 1998, with her husband too sick to work and two children to support, Ashiron Nesa took an unusual step for a woman in rural Bangladesh: she started her own business. With no help from a bank, and just 40 Bangladeshi taka (BDT)—50 U.S. cents—in savings, she launched her company, Onek Asha (Big Hope), for the survival of her family. Twenty years later, she has her own factory, with 70 permanent employees and another 530 artisans working from home.
While Nesa’s remarkable success story is still unusual for a woman in culturally conservative Bangladesh, it is gradually becoming less so. The majority of women in Bangladesh are not only poor, they are caught between two vastly different worlds—the conservative world of culture and tradition, where their lives revolve around bearing and rearing children for a husband and provider, and another world, shaped by the harsh realities of increasing landlessness and poverty, where a woman’s independent livelihood can be a matter of personal and family survival.
As a result of these broad socioeconomic forces, entrepreneurship is growing among the female population of Bangladesh, and women now account for more than 10 percent of the nation’s entrepreneurs. They have made their mark in cottage industries and small-scale manufacturing, and they are even becoming a presence in traditional male preserves such as construction.
Since running a business inevitably draws women into the world outside the home, the influence of women entrepreneurs is also being felt in social and cultural settings, and women’s entrepreneurship has been recognized as an important contributor to national development more broadly. Business opportunities for poor, rural women like Nesa have become a special priority of the government and development organizations, and together they have promoted a range of programs offering skills training, access to credit, and marketing opportunities to support entrepreneurial development among women in rural Bangladesh.
In 2017, Ashiron Nesa began working with the WEESMS program—Women’s Economic Empowerment through Strengthening Market Systems—a partnership between The Asia Foundation and the market-based-development organization iDE that promotes entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for women. WEESMS provided Nesa with advanced business training, arranged “exposure visits” to learn new business and design ideas, and introduced her to Bangladesh’s first e-commerce platform, Bagdoom.com, which has significantly increased her sales. She also received training in workplace safety.
Nesa’s company makes jute products such as carpets, curtains, sandals, baskets, and floor mats. She employs mostly disadvantaged women—widows, divorcees, and victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse—whom she trains on the job. When she was first starting out, 20 years ago, her fellow villagers had little sympathy for a woman who chose to work. Her relatives were also unsupportive and pressured her to leave her disabled husband rather than be “forced to work and support the family,” which they saw as beneath her. But Nesa persevered, gradually winning over her critics in village meetings, growing her business, and eventually obtaining treatment for her husband, who recovered and now plays an important role in the business. He helps her obtain raw materials and promote and market her products, and he helps run their household.
In 2013, on Begum Rokeya Day, named for the famous Bengali writer and women’s rights activist, the government of Bangladesh presented Nesa with the Joyeeta Award in recognition of her success in the face of overwhelming challenges. Today she has monthly sales of BDT 100,000—roughly USD 1,200—2,400 times her original investment of just 50 cents. She recently bought a new plot of land to expand her factory, and she dreams of bringing financial independence to all the women in her village.
Women’s Economic Empowerment through Strengthening Market Systems (WEESMS) is a five-year project (2016–21) funded by the Embassy of Sweden.
Sukla Dey is a program manager for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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