Shondhya Rani Sarkar's eyes light up when she speaks of how well her son is doing in school. When Shondhya first came to the Aarong Production Centre in Manikganj, he was a year old. The self-assured Shondhya of today was then a desperate young widow with no means to feed her baby.
She joined a local microfinance group of the NGO Brac and was recommended for employment with a nearby Aarong production centre, where women like her could earn a decent living without endangering their dignity. That was 15 years ago.
Today, Shondhya is one of the most experienced block print workers at the centre, training new recruits. Working 8 am - 5 pm shifts, six days a week, she earns a steady income that could easily rival that of any men-lead family's in her village. Her life is not easy, but Shondhya gains satisfaction from the thought that she has provided for her son and ensured a brighter future for him -- one that fifteen years ago had seemed to her an impossible dream.
Shondhya's story is hardly exceptional, but it is in the slow and steady changing of the lives of thousands of Shondhyas across Bangladesh that we are brought face to face with the true impact of an organization, which has so far come into the limelight only for its commercial success.
Potters, brass workers, jewelers, jute workers, basket weavers, handloom and silk weavers, wood carvers and leather workers and embroiders are but some of the skilled people who make Aarong what it is. Aarong supports 65,000 artisans, 85 per cent of whom are women. 30,000 of these skilled craftspeople work through the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF)1 and its network of 13 production centers and 637 sub-centers spread across Bangladesh. The rest of the 35,000 artisans work in independent workshops and traditional family-based artisan groups and come to Aarong for support in marketing their products.
With the help of AAF, Aarong organizes and trains rural artisans, allowing them access to the market. The process follows several steps: First, a design team conceptualizes the season’s designs which are then sent to the rural artisans for production. Aarong continuously develops the artisans’ skills through training programmes, and conducts quality control of the completed items before they are bought at a fair price and sold across retail outlets in urban markets. Aarong strives to provide a uniquely Bangladeshi lifestyle experience while encouraging social change. A newly generated demand for Bangladeshi handcrafted products illustrates that Aarong has achieved this vision, and continues to challenge the retail industry with its sustainable fashion ‘revolution’.
Aarong’s strength comes from its teams of skilled artisans. We hold close the same mission that we started out with, to empower and include the most disadvantaged women. Every artisan who works in Aarong-owned production facilities is also a client of BRAC's multifaceted development programmes, with access to microcredit to pursue income-generating activities of their own. The stories of women like Shondya are etched and woven into every handmade novelty that Aarong sells.
Ayesha Abed Foundation
The Ayesha Abed Foundation was established in 1982 to commemorate the memory and work of Mrs. Ayesha Abed, a co-worker and wife of the founder and chairperson BRAC. The work that is done in the foundation is a testament to her commitment to the issues of education, training and employment opportunities for the disadvantaged women. It was she, who in 1976 initiated all the present major activities in Manikgonj. AAF acts as a facilitator in gathering and organizing both the skilled and previously untrained artisans from various Village Organizations across the country and providing them with training and employment; in its numerous centers serving as Aarong's production hubs. The foundation currently has 13 centers and 637 sub-centers spread across Bangladesh.
The co-existence of Aarong and the Ayesha Abed Foundation, both geared towards the same ambition, made an extensive support system for artisans all over the country a reality. Through this system, independent producers conducting fair trade with Aarong are encouraged to organize other artisans from their communities, including those communities which BRAC’s services have not yet reached. Today, there are almost 800 independent producers active in different corners of Bangladesh and working with them are nearly 30,000 rural artisans. Additionally, more than 35,000 other artisans are working at AAF centers, producing and selling goods to Aarong to support themselves and their families, resulting in a total of over 320,000 direct and indirect beneficiaries.
BRAC, Aarong, and Ayesha Abed Foundation’s Assistance to Artisans
AAF's current services to the artisans include free skill-building, supply of raw materials for production, transportation of goods, quality control, storage, management, finance, marketing, and microfinance loan options through Aarong. Working mothers have access to day care centres for their toddlers while they work, and senior workers receive a retirement benefit. AAF employees in rural communities also obtain various support from BRAC, including micro-credit services; seeds, agriculture, poultry, livestock, and fisheries inputs; free schooling for their children; subsidised tube-wells and sanitary latrines; health care including free eye check-ups and glasses, free treatment of tuberculosis and severe illnesses and health education; as well as legal awareness and support. A health security scheme for artisans and their family members is currently being piloted to protect artisans against ruinous health expenditures.
In addition to being trained, women recruited by AAF benefit from a living wage and job security. The workspaces are often right at the doorsteps of the artisans, to enable them to mainly work from home while being able to look after their families.
Taking into account the specific needs of its employees illustrates how Aarong through AAF has always infused a conscious effort to address issues such as the environment, gender-specific needs, safety, security and most importantly - the empowerment of women.