Despite being persistently mocked as a transvestite, Fatema shows sheer indifference to the cat-calling of the people around her. She is one of the oldest and most talented workers in one of the centers of Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF). Fatema was cast out of her house by her brothers and has been looking after her mother for 15 years. Right when Fatema was looking for a living, AAF came as a beacon of light, and has have been her second home since then.
Trying to relocate and revitalize the general mass after the war of independence, BRAC, one of the biggest NGOs in Bangladesh and AAF’s buyer of products, was concerned about how they can make the current condition of the citizens better after the war of 1971. The light-bulb moment occurred when they realized the importance of empowering women in terms of income and independence: the idea having its roots in BRAC’s core vision of alleviating poverty and empowering people towards a better future. Soon, in 1976, BRAC along with Ayesha Abed, the founder of AAF, began to train women in hand-craft related work. Ayesha Abed initiated most of the activities as she urged women to become strong-willed and trained in the artisan sector. Hopes were pinned high upon Ayesha Abed. She arranged professional trainers, and they began training one woman at a time. They started with the most traditional of handicrafts, such as nakshi kantha and embroidered goods. Who would’ve known this one small step would lead to hundreds of women to achieving a milestone in their lives.
Ayesha Abed was a social activist and the wife of BRAC’s founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. In 1982, Ayesha Abed Foundation was founded in the honour of the late Ayesha Abed. The primary focus of AAF was clear: to empower women from every nook and cranny of Bangladesh; especially women in devastating states who had endured a lot of pain and suffering.
AAF’s first project was carried out in 1983 in Manikganj, the place where the world renowned zamindars, the Bara Bhuiyans, were defeated by the Mughal Empire. Home to the famous Matta Kshitish Lal Sarkar bari kali mandir, Baliati Zamindar Bari and a few other such forts, Manikganj had a very high illiteracy rate back in the 70s. Since illiterate women have been the best target of discrimination throughout the decades in Bangladesh, clearly Manikganj was the perfect place to look for women who needed help. Like the emphatic way Fatema said she had chosen to work in the wood section in spite of it being a heavily male-dominated line of work in Bangladesh, AAF has always believed in instilling the right kind of attitude in women right from the beginning of its establishment. “My life has transformed into something better,” Fatema said regarding Ayesha Abed Foundation’s impact.
AAF acts as a facilitator in gathering and organizing both skilled and untrained artisans from various village organizations across the country and providing them with training and employment in its numerous centers which serve as Aarong's production hubs. Even Aarong was born out of need, initially acting as the only buyer for AAF products. Aarong is a social enterprise creating livelihood and opportunities for over 65,000 rural artisans, 95% of whom are poor women. Ever since AAF was founded, Aarong has primarily been taking hand-made products by workers who are under it. AAF currently has 13 centers and 637 sub-centers all across Bangladesh.
In the beginning, the foundation began to study and catalogue the designs and motifs of traditional art forms by visiting museums, elderly craft masters and private collectors. They experimented with all kinds of native forms of design and materials, trying to figure out if AAF could help Aarong launch them in any of its product lines. The foundation hired skilled craftsmen to help train village women in stitching, weaving and dyeing. Soon women were to be seen in groups, mingling and making beautiful designs and embroideries on pieces of clothes, pulled tight on a canvas. They became so adept at what they do that they could stitch clothes without even looking at it.
That’s what AAF did with women: They made their hands agile and their lives advanced.
Taslima, who’s a 22 year old single mother working in one of the sub-centers in Jamalpur, talks positively about AAF, much like Fatema. The district Jamalpur, situated on the bank of Brahmaputra River, is abundant in ice, sugarcane, jute, tobacco, and mustard, which implies that the district is heavily reliant on men for agrarian work. This was clearly portrayed when, after being betrayed by her husband, abandoned, Taslima found no jobs available for her in any sector in Jamalpur. Ayesha Abed Foundation yet again arrived as a ray of hope to Taslima, and has done so in numerous occasions for women in dire conditions.
AAF has the artisan development initiative (ADI), a BRAC integrated development program for artisans who work at AFF. ADI brings six of BRAC’s core development programs like microfinance, health and nutrition. Services under ADI include access to microloans and savings accounts, access to free legal assistance and prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant artisans. Free sanitary latrines are distributed to the artisans in actual need of them, and awareness on safe water and good hygiene practices are promoted. Social stigmas are also openly brought up. The artisans are particularly fond of the legal sessions because these provide them access to practical solutions to their legal problems.
AAF’s work can be considered to be completely synonymous to women empowerment. AAF doesn’t just generate income for women but works towards embedding women with courage, independence and dreams waiting to be realized.
Written by Karishma Fatiha