As a young girl, Yasmin did not have much career prospects, even though she did not lack ambition. She had spent much of her adult life tending to her three sons and doing housework. In her free time, she taught the neighbourhood children Arabic for free. It was not until she connected with Protibha – a livelihood programme that teaches marginalised women crafting skills in order to be financially independent – that she finally realised her true potential.
Now at the age of 47, Yasmin has become financially independent. She has even saved a sizable amount in the form of savings certificates. She learned kantha tailoring under Protibha's skills training modules and became an accomplished tailor. She completes multiple orders per week and also shares her skills with the women in her neighbourhood.
She has even had the opportunity to earn with her cooking skills. In between her tailoring orders, she also makes 'achaar' (pickle). These orders are picked up and sold by Protibha; afterwards, the money is given to the artisans.
"I want to do and learn more. Hand block printing seems fascinating to me. All I really need is the opportunity. It is the same with all the women in our village. More and more women are working now. Of course, this mindset is not there in most other villages I know of, but still, times are changing," said Yasmin.
The startup has recently won an award from Youth Co:Lab, a project jointly led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation. This project works to empower the youth in the Asia-Pacific region, promote entrepreneurship and social innovation.
The evolution of Protibha
Stories like Yasmin's are commonplace within Protibha. They have trained 112 women in various crafting skills, and a further 350 women have participated in their sessions on legal advice, domestic violence and parenting. Protibha offers training for tailoring, hand block printing, crochet and kantha stitching, beautician skills and basic computer skills. They also offer an entrepreneur development training module where women can learn soft skills and gain financial literacy.
Protibha was first founded as an initiative of It's Humanity Foundation (IHF) in 2014. Initially, their goal was to fund IHF. The initiative underwent a change in 2017, as described by Chief Operating Officer Afruza Tanzi. In a survey conducted by IHF on the impoverished areas they operated in, they found that women there were not being allowed to work as they were not seen as capable. Though IHF provided free schooling, the school retention rate in these areas was under 30%. Most children were dropping out between the ages of 8-10 and sent to work to earn for their families.
Based on these findings, Protibha underwent a reformation. It has evolved to include programmes for women's empowerment and helped build sustainable lives by providing them with the skills to hone their craft and become financially independent. Their goal was to empower the students' mothers who attended IHF's free schools. Ultimately they aimed to increase the school retention rate too.
"It was challenging to get the women on board at first because their families and husbands did not want them to join any training sessions. We held financial literacy awareness campaigns and spoke to the parties. Essentially, we cut a deal – keep your child in our school, and we'll sort out an income source for you. And from there onwards, we started reshaping Protibha," said Afruza Tanzi.
She added, "We managed to build a network of trust. People in the areas we operated in would come to us with news of women who had some level of tailoring, stitching or cooking skills. With that knowledge, we mapped out and identified which locations were better for which skills.
Not all areas have equal access to resources or job opportunities for every skill. So, we needed to see which craft is feasible to teach. Enhancing their pre-existing capability ensured better job prospects."
As a result, not all training modules are offered in every centre. Protibha currently operates three centres, two in Tongi and one in Saidpur. They offer training based on which area has more resources for that craft.
"A lot of the training we offer wasn't initially in our plans. But through an open dialogue with the women, they would tell us which skills they were interested in learning, and we tried to facilitate that. For example, they asked us for beautician training, and so we began offering that," said Tanzi.
The trainers are selected through a careful vetting process conducted by Protibha's trusted field managers. Trainers have to meet two criteria: They have to be locals, and the women have to be comfortable with them. Though they focus on finding female trainers, they also employ male trainers. They first assess the trainer's interactions with the women and then choose accordingly.
After the training phase, the women are connected to urban buyers where they can employ their new skills, and Protibha gives them orders placed on their online marketplace. They can also choose to find their own opportunities. Protibha provides the materials which are delivered to their doorstep by the field managers. As leaving their houses is still disallowed for some women, this is a convenient way for them to work and earn.
For rickshaw art, however, the process is different. It was challenging to find any woman interested in learning the craft, let alone finding someone proficient in the art, as it is a completely male-dominated field. But they soon found out that there was a portion of women skilled in the craft; they were simply invisible.
"We saw that wives or daughters of rickshaw artists were helping them out with their orders. But they were not being credited. So, the skill was there. We just had to find them. With rickshaw art, we convinced male artists to take these proficient family members under their wing as their assistants. This way, they had more opportunities to learn the craft.
We don't offer rickshaw or cinema art training as we do with other crafts. We simply provide the materials and give them the orders people make to us," said Tanzi.
Now there are teams of women who solely do rickshaw art, and they always take priority when it comes to bulk orders. Rickshaw art has ended up being particularly lucrative and has a high demand.
Kantha stitching or tailoring is a commonly female-oriented craft, but rickshaw art was a unique finding that Protibha was eager to nurture. It has so far been a successful venture. Protibha has even recently partnered with fashion brand La Mode to craft shoes adorned with rickshaw art.
A resounding impact
As Tanzi puts it, the true success has been the impact on the community and even the surrounding communities. The stigma of working women is slowly being broken, and more people seem to be coming on board with the notion that women also have the right to work.
In the five years since Protibha has changed their social aims, they have found that the school retention in IHF's operating areas has now gone up to 68%. Not only are families under Protibha more willing to send their children, but even the attitudes of families in the area have also changed.
Through their financial literacy workshops, they have noted that the women can now save money for themselves instead of giving it all away to their husbands. They keep a portion of their savings in the form of savings certificates.
They have also noted that the women now feel more at ease with them and are willing to ask for assistance on other matters. As a result, they offer monthly knowledge development workshops on human rights, health and hygiene, child development and family planning.
In these workshops, the women are advised on legal matters, healthy eating, feminine hygiene and doctor's appointments are organised on their behalf.
"The women didn't feel comfortable sharing a lot of their health and hygiene issues. Breaking that barrier and gaining their trust took some time. But now they approach us on their own to share and request assistance on their issues," said Tanzi.
Overall, the feedback from the community and their impact have been eye-opening for those involved at Protibha.
In the future, Protibha is looking to start community based pop-up shops. They are also planning to expand their project to Sylhet and Cox's Bazar.
"It has been a learning experience for us just as it has been for the women. We never had such big plans; the women paved the way for that. Their potential was always there, all we did was help them find it," added Tanzi.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the SDGs through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Springboard Programme of Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh is a platform for young social entrepreneurs to contribute towards achieving the SDGs through tailored mentorship and wide-ranging national and global networking opportunities.