As a young girl in Mymensingh, Rose would often run down to her father's tailor shop to watch him work. She was mesmerized by the motions of the job and she would watch until it became muscle memory. A love for fashion was born in her but life is never easy for girls like her.
Rose is a transgender woman and as she grew older she realised if she ever wanted to pursue her dreams she would have to leave Mymensingh.
Dhaka was not kind to her either. But Rose only wanted happiness for herself and that determination is what kept her bracing through all the hostile looks thrown her way. She moved from place to place gathering experience, persevering through the harsh words hoping that one day it would pay off and her dreams would come true.
And then life took a turn for the better. Nearly two years ago, Rose was recruited by Bandhu to work at a fashion house named Fashion Theory. She was part of a recruitment drive by a new project named ZEproject jointly founded by Bandhu (an NGO) and Fashion Theory (a fashion house) on 27 August 2020.
Rose started at the bottom with a meagre salary (around Tk13,00 monthly) but slowly began to work her way to the top. Now she makes around Tk30,000 per month. With added responsibilities, along the way, she also helped recruit more people from the community.
Riya, another transgender woman was employed. Rose and Riya's transition to the staff at Fashion Theory was not always a smooth process. There were harassment issues at the start, void of the respect shown to other staff members.
They managed to solve some of these obstacles on their own, rest were reported to Bandhu who then held meetings to reach a solution for these issues.
"Everyone would always be hostile. No matter which walk of life they are from, I was always seen as the lowest. If I was not a transgender woman I would never be treated this way. But I still didn't pay it any mind. I want to live and build my life on my own terms," Rose told The Business Standard.
Today Rose enjoys an improved position and salary at Fashion Theory. She has earned more responsibilities through her hard work.
ZEproject is an initiative that helps Gender Diverse Communities get access to work in the RMG sector. It has helped women like Rose and Riya find access to safe and secure jobs in the sector.
The Business Standard also spoke with Anne-Laure, CEO of Fashion Theory, and Mohammad Rofiqul Islam, Manager of training and counselling at Bandhu, about the ZEproject.
Anne-Laure was born in France and for as long as she can remember she has worked with the GDP. When she came to work in Bangladesh 11 years ago, she had expected the influence of the community on the burgeoning fashion industry to be significant. Instead, there was none.
Most people in Bangladeshi society are fearful of hijra or transgender people. The community itself has little to no training or education and as a result, has no proper job opportunities.
Nowadays, there have been efforts to uplift the community and Anne-Laure wanted to participate in this drive. She aimed to encourage companies to hire a more gender-diverse workforce and foster a safe environment.
At the same time, she wanted to help make ethical products for buyers as she noticed that a lot of "LGBT" themed products sold abroad were made in unethical conditions as the factories making these products were not at all friendly to the community themselves.
The project and the people
The idea behind ZEproject was to encourage hiring hijra and other gender diverse individuals while also cultivating a supportive environment. They desired gender equality for not only male and female but also for third gender and all others who fall under the gender diverse umbrella.
Anne-Laure approached Bandhu, a well-known NGO that works with the hijra and transgender community and formed ZEproject. The core work of ZEproject is to provide compliance certifications for companies who reach a certain quota of hiring.
The certification is awarded on a star basis with 5 stars being the highest.
So far, they have four members- Apparel Village Limited has 1, Denim Expert and Crosswear group have 3 stars and Fashion Theory has 4.
The members under ZEproject pay a membership fee of $1,000 (Tk 86,000) to Bandhu in exchange for their services and help.
This funding helps Bandhu provide services such as conducting workshops with the member factories on creating awareness of diverse gender identity, day to day communication, providing support on mediation, recruitment.
They also have two hotlines available for any hijra or transgender staff facing issues ranging from legal matters to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
Certifications are a coveted mark in the RMG sector. Foreign buyers have been increasingly demanding more certifications so they are aware that the product is ethically responsible. So, ZEproject incentivises achieving gender equality by providing these certifications.
A core problem both Anne-Laure and Bandhu have identified is the lack of education and training that the hijra and transgender community have. Factories are unwilling to hire unskilled labourers and the means to train and educate the community are sorely lacking.
"The 5% tax rebate the government proposed for hiring 10% hijra and transgender workforce is a nice incentive but there are some issues. How long would a factory need to hire the 100 people to avail the rebate? A 100 people that may not have the skills? Most of them have no education background or training," Anne-Laure said. "This needs to be changed."
Support and assistance
Mohammad Rofiqul Islam is the contract focal/coordinator of ZEproject from Bandhu. Islam is part of a 5-person team that works on ZEproject.
Islam detailed how it was difficult for new recruits to move due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Another issue was sourcing safe homes for employees due to discrimination from landlords. Alongside that, the new gender diverse workforce in these factories faced cases of harassment or discrimination.
Islam said, "There were a lot of people in the factories that had a certain mindset about transgender or hijra people. They were fearful and treated them poorly."
"Near the beginning, a lot of the girls would call me saying they were being made to sweep the floors or do other personal work like buying cigarettes. But these were some of the challenges in the beginning. Now this situation has improved a lot," he added.
Bandhu addressed and sorted out some of these issues in their annual workshops and follow-ups with each member. Those conducting the workshops are well-versed in conflict management, and as a result, Islam notes that they have been largely successful.
He noted, "In our workshops, we have identified that sexual violence is a topic that needs to be further worked on. Bandhu has strict policies against working with anyone who disagrees with our sexual violence policies."
Islam emphasises the importance of changing the mindset of the staff in the factory in order to bridge the gap between the two groups and pave the way for all gender equality.
He also noted that in the future, training and workshops need to be more inclusive. There are thousands of employees at a factory, but if only department heads receive awareness training, then not everyone receives the critical training required to cultivate the atmosphere ZEproject strives for.
Bandhu is exploring better methods to provide mass training to all employees.
Such issues are unavoidable when dealing with such a pervasive issue in Bangladesh, but Islam is proud of the progress that ZEproject has made thus far.
Not all smooth sailing
Not all who have been employed through ZEproject have had Rose and Riya's luck. Nirob is a third gender employee who worked at Crosswear group. She told the Business Standard that she worked at the factory for eight months before quitting for her own safety.
She faced harassment and discrimination from most of the staff and after finding Bandhu's mediation insufficient, she left the company. She also felt like she received less pay (Tk9,500 monthly) though she had previous experience in the RMG sector. She did not receive a salary increment after three months of employment, despite being promised so.
Nirob's experience is nothing new for the community. Oftentimes factories hire GDP staff for a brief period for show before cancelling their contracts or harassing them to such an extent that they are forced to quit. This also reiterated Islam's point that more inclusive training would have to be conducted at each factory.
Nirob is thankful to ZEproject and Bandhu for the opportunity but there is still much lacking if they want to achieve proper equality. Indeed they would have to aim for more success stories like Rose by properly educating staff if they truly want to achieve gender equality.