Four years may have passed since the horrific fire and collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1100 people. But the female factory workers who survived the blast have not been forgotten.
The philanthropic arm of one of the world’s most famous furniture retailers, IKEA Foundation, has partnered with Asian University for Women to fully fund education scholarships for 200 Bangladeshi women so they can escape the vicious cycle and exploitation of poverty and hard slog of factory work.
The program, Pathways for Promise, is believed to be a world-first initiative, which provides free undergraduate and transition university education to local female textile workers. The course on offer includes English, maths and computer literacy classes.
What’s more, the program also requires the women’s employers continue to pay them their salary while they study.
“By focusing on talent that lay hidden among the millions of workers, AUW and IKEA Foundation have powerfully demonstrated how talents even in the most unsuspecting settings can be harnessed to great effect,” Kamal Ahmad, co-founder of AUW tells SBS.
The first group of students are expected to graduate in 2021. The idea is that they will have the skills needed to run their own textile business or work in public health centres.
IKEA Foundation CEO, Per Heggenes, hopes the program will “empower women through education and to cultivate women leaders”.
According to AUW, the pilot program of 15 students from five factories in Bangladesh had a 100 per cent retention rate.
Eliminating barriers to education
The scholarship program marks a huge opportunity for the women involved, considering UNICEF reports that just 81.2 per cent of girls regularly attend primary school in Bangladesh.
UNICEF reports that 74 per cent of Bangladeshi women are married by the age of 18. Barriers to education include a culture that values men over women, poor families that can’t afford to send their daughters to school, and high marriage rates for young women:
Joanne Hayter, chief executive of International Women’s Development Agency, says education is critical to getting women from developing countries out of dire working conditions.
“A lot of these factories are just shocking, it’s like modern-day slavery,” she says.
“There are huge numbers of women and girls living in compound accommodation, where there’s poor water quality and hygiene and it’s really cramped and there’s no privacy.”
"They have more resilience, more resources and the ability to make different choices."
Hayter says the AUW-IKEA Foundation program is “great for improving women’s lives, because with education, people can negotiate their own futures. They have more resilience, more resources and the ability to make different choices”.
Educating women from developing countries doesn’t just benefit the individual, Hayter explains. The benefits have many flow-on effects.
“When women have a sustainable income, the return to family and community is exponential. Education has a direct link to family planning, lower mortality rates, increased child nutrition, and ability to create their own income.”
Around three million women work in textile factories in Bangladesh alone; the south-east Asian country is one of the biggest makers of clothes for some of the world’s biggest clothing brands. According to advocacy group Clean Clothes, the industry is worth $US20 billion (around $26 billion AU) annually, but workers are paid on average $US68 ($89AU) per month.
Reports of abuse and poor pay and conditions continue across the biggest exporters of western clothes, including Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, and place a spotlight on the high human cost of cheap and fast fashion.
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