The fabric spilling forth from Mena’s sewing machine stands out bright against the darkness. The small room in which she sits bent over the machine is lit only by the light from the now-crowded doorway and the air inside is noticeably hotter than the heat of the Bangladesh summer outside. Yet, despite the heat and the arrival of strangers at her doorstep, this young lady retains her composure.
Sixteen years old now, Mena took up sewing at the age of thirteen. Her mother owns a small shop, making little cakes that she sells by the roadside. Mena learnt to sew through an apprenticeship scheme that is part of the UNDP-supported Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) project.
The sewing training that Mena was involved in forms just one part of UPPR’s activities. The project seeks to empower urban communities to identify and execute their own development schemes, support to local-level representative bodies called Community Development Committees (CDCs). These Committees help vulnerable community members to improve their living conditions and livelihoods in a whole range of ways.
In Mena’s case – and for many others just like her – the apprenticeship programme has helped her do just this. UPPR, through the CDCs, identifies and supports keen community members who are in need to undertake apprenticeships with local businesses. These links with local businesses help to ensure the sustainability of both the project itself by tying the skills and training to ongoing business concerns, but also mean that the skills align with community needs. They also mean that project participants like Mena, are able to help provide for their families on an ongoing basis, enhancing their future prospects, and slowly but surely lifting themselves out of poverty.
Currently in grade ten at high school, Mena works for around three hours each day in the morning before her classes. Her dedication to the competing demands of study and work is evident in the piles of schoolbooks that surround her sewing machine. She sews for a large number of customers from within her community, adding to the
money that her mother earns from the small shop next door. Despite the demand for her skills, she manages to attend school every day and studies in the evening.
Yet the impact of this training has not just been on Mena and her family. Since taking her own three month training course, Mena has been teaching three girlfriends to sew, passing on her knowledge to improve their earning potential. In this way the training and assistance provided through UPPR has a reach into communities beyond the immediate project participants. Through this engagement, Mena, and others like her, are taking the project forward themselves, ensuring community ownership of the development process, and UPPR is helping to enable even more young women to expand their horizons, gain greater respect from those around them, and improve their livelihoods.
In a powerful sign of this transformation, the ease and confidence with which Mena greets the strangers who arrive to meet her is telling. Despite the fact that in her community women in the workplace are a rare sight, she says she has received nothing but support with her endeavors, especially now that she is working and earning. Changing attitudes is a long and gradual process but for this community, in which there are very few female tailors, Mena’s presence is highly valued, and she is in great demand.
For this hardworking, focused young lady, her aspirations for the future now seem quite attainable. Asked about her aims, she responds simply that she’d like to buy two additional sewing machines and employ others.
By expanding her business and by employing people from within her community Mena demonstrates clearly the way good local level development can have multiple flow-on effects. And it is thanks to this attitude, and the hard work and commitment of people like Mena, local CDCs, and the UPPR project, that this story is being replicated right across Bangladesh.