Firstly, thank you for joining me Robin. Perhaps you could start by providing an overview of Basha and some of the key issues your social enterprise tackles.
RS: I initially went to Bangladesh in 2006 and we were doing HIV awareness programs but within that we started a training program for women coming out of prostitution and found there’s a huge… well, everyone in prostitution in Bangladesh that I have met didn’t choose that, they were forced into it. And so, we just felt that we had to provide some way for them to come out (of prostitution) so we came up with a training programme for them.
Then, once the training programme was finished, we realised that they also needed a job and so the first women were able to get a job in a craft environment doing soap and sewing, and it was just so successful that when my term ended I just had to go back and find a way to provide more employment so that more women could have the training and more women could have the opportunity to rebuild a dignified life. So that’s how Basha came about.
We make the kantha blankets which is layered sari cloths sewn with straight even stitches like a quilt, and we employ all women coming out of exploitative situations or high risk situations. So they may not have been exploited yet but they are very vulnerable to that and we provide a safe supportive environment where they can sew and produce and rebuild their lives and in a good environment.
What were some of the hurdles you faced setting up your social enterprise and particularly one working with such a vulnerable group who have experienced such traumatic events in their lives? What role has craft played in healing, recovering and strengthening these women?
RS: So one of the big challenges is that craft isn’t what brought them (to Basha). I think typically when you’re running a craft business you would choose people whose artistry was their main criteria. We’re doing the opposite. We’re choosing people whose main criteria are their difficulties they have faced. So they’re learning their sewing from us, they’re learning their craft from us. So that’s a challenge because they are not always that teachable, they are still dealing with trauma, the skills that they learn to survive on the streets or to survive in difficult situations are not necessarily the ones that are conducive to sitting quietly and learning craft and working diligently so we’re working with a lot of those issues. The training, maintaining the quality, helping them understand how important that is and helping them appreciate their work. They are making something that in Bangladesh is quite normal but those of us from other places just see it as something incredibly beautiful and so much hand-work involved and so they gradually come to appreciate how much their products are loved and so we get to watch this beautiful transformation as they become skilled, they become proficient as they start earning an income for their family and rebuilding their life in a different way and taking their life in a new direction and having an appreciation in what they’re doing and pride of what they are doing. And you can just watch it on their face which is the biggest joy of my life and the biggest joy of our work. But there are lots of challenges along the way.
We have staff who are particularly geared to dealing with the trauma, it’s always hard to deal with but we know that’s part of the job. They do counselling and talk to the women a lot. We have social supports, we have support people from our partner organisations who do some follow-up and family support, and we do ongoing training. So they have 45 minutes of class a day so they can continue to develop themselves and develop their skills and grow as people. And their children are onsite receiving daycare and receiving educational support. We try to provide full, wrap-around services so that they are able to be successful because it is often their trauma and chaos that makes it difficult to be successful.
We look at different social enterprises working with craft and some use a home-based craft production method where women are able to work from home and balance their family obligations, but as you are describing with Basha the workplace is key to the rebuilding, nurturing and transforming the women’s lives with the support and guidance that it can offer. How did the social services you provide the women evolve and come about? How did you learn what was most important to prioritise their needs?
RS: Initially we worked with partners, so they were able to provide a lot of that support. The women had already gone through a year or two or three of training and preparation, and then they were able to receive some services from those partner organisations. Its only in the past couple of years that we’ve delved into doing that piece ourselves just because we ran out of partners and we’re really passionate about providing this opportunity to provide dignified work throughout Bangladesh. So we can’t wait for partners, we have to be able to provide all the services ourselves, so as far as providing more of the training and support and outreach, that we’ve just been learning in the past couple of years. I think just constantly seeing what needs there are and what we can do better.
Also, in Bangladesh, things like counselling aren’t that common. People aren’t sensitive at all to mental health issues. People are very cruel if somebody is on medication for their issues, so, in those areas its always a challenge and its always a struggle in finding staff who even understand that they need to listen to people and they need to be sensitive to mental illness, like, when someone is being belligerent, and are actually kind of having a crisis, a personal crisis – those are the areas we’re always learning, we’ve learned a lot, and we’re still learning.
You’ve mentioned that in the last couple years you’ve taken on more of the services required to support the women – is that through the recently established ‘Friends of Basha’ organisation?
RS: Yes, we’ve now set-up a non-profit society that’s separate from the business, so that allows us to have funding and a side programme that does provide the training and some extras for the children. It can provide some services beyond what a business would normally do. We try to keep the business paying for what the business can pay for but recognise that some issues are outside the scope of what an employer would pay and so that’s what Friends of Basha is for. So things like the training programme that helps women come out of prostitution in the first place, the extra counselling and support, and food for the children. Many of them – well, most of them – are malnourished and so we’re helping them get on track with their nutrition. It takes a lot of food actually to help the child make up for a lack in the past.
Are most of the craftswomen mothers? Do they have their children staying within the childcare centre while they work?
RS: Most of them… many of them are. It kind of varies from area to area and what the situation is. Some of the women coming from brothels did not have children, and one of our partners only works with mothers so those all have children. We have five centres now so each centre has its own demographic and its own culture, so some offices have many children and some have few.
You were mentioning before how during someone’s time at Basha, many of the women experience a transformation – what are some of the things that you can see that indicate that their engagement with craft activities and different services is having a positive impact on their lives?
RS: Again, it really varies a lot. Partly the background of the woman. Some have been trafficked as a child and have never had a good upbringing, and have spent their whole life on the street, and so for them it might be making it through the day without completely losing their attention, getting angry at everyone and completely blowing-out – so for them that means success. And some have cognitive difficulties because of their background, so for them its about finding a skill that they are able to do successfully and helping them stick to that and be successful with that. And then some you just really see them move into a big house and a bigger residence and making good decisions for her children and being nurturing to her children, and recognising the importance of education for her children and things like that.
And with these different steps of transformation, do the designs of the craft pieces take the skills and capacity of each woman into account? Is their personal progress somewhat reflected in their skill development?
RS: Yes, to a degree. Our main product is the kantha blanket and so some people might, well there’s a few, who might only make smaller pieces because that’s all they can get to. And there are a few who can’t sew at all. We also have another product which is called a chunky knit blanket and that was partially inspired by the trend of chunky knit products and thinking that it would look cool made out of saris but it was also inspired by the fact that it requires tearing, and tearing is easy, and someone who can’t do anything else can tear cloth! So that was a perfect mix of trend meets an easy skill that someone can do who can’t do much else. And then we also have a line of jewellery and metal products and those are the higher skilled, and so those who we can trust around more expensive metals and we know they can handle the small detail, and the women who can do that go there.
A beautiful feature of each of the Basha products is that the women personally sign the tag or label of each piece. What other methods are used by Basha to connect the women’s stories to the products and share with your customers?
RS: Yes, they sign their name in both Bangla and English. So you can actually go to the website and find their name and read their story, and their story of now, and what their hopes are for their future. We want the purchaser to be able to connect with the artisan. We also love it when people send back a photo or a message or something to the artisan so we are able to show her and show everybody ‘this is where your blanket is!’ or ‘this is where your product is!’ and they really love it. They always get this cute little look on their face like ‘Whoah!’ – of pride and accomplishment. And again, its shocking to them that people do love their work so much so they do enjoy seeing it.
Also I should ask how people can support Basha, there’s of course your beautiful product range, but perhaps you could let us know a little bit more about how people can support your work through the Friends of Basha organisation?
RS: Yes, we have a website friendsofbasha.org and people can donate through that or they can email us, there is an address there people can send funds, and that really does help us. We’re doing well in providing employment but the Friends of Basha allows us to actually help women come out of difficult situations, come out of prostitution and get the support that they need to take that step. Its not easy and it takes time and it takes a lot of work to find the right women and to really help them make that change. So that’s a way we definitely need support.
So does this mean that through the Friends of Basha you will be able to reach out to more women than before, where you were just working through Basha itself?
RS: Definitely. So Friends of Basha runs our training programme in the communities where we didn’t have partners. So we have an outreach worker and we have a team that runs the training programme. So they have six months of training before they start working for Basha. So that’s covered through Friends of Basha.
We’re looking to start a Worker’s Hostel for girls who have come back from India or Saudi Arabia. I recently found out that the re-trafficking rate is incredibly high, like 60%, and so we just want to see if there is anything we can do to help women come back, have a job, have support, have a supportive place to stay and hope that that can help reduce the re-trafficking rate. Because to think of a girl – it takes years to get back into Bangladesh after they have been trafficked and rescued, and to think that they are just going to be trafficked again is just the most heartbreaking thing I can think of. So we just want to be able to respond in any way we can to these situations so that we can really help girls stay out of prostitution.
Because really, I have never met a girl that wanted that life, or chose that life. Its some type of vulnerability that led her into it and if you get them early enough or you get them with enough hope, they really make that transition and really grasp onto a new opportunity.
What are some of the underlying issues that make these women vulnerable? What are the social and cultural issues particular to the areas in which you are working that are marginalising these women?
RS: Well there is, its a very patriarchal society… A woman is protected by her guardian – a woman would always have a guardian like a male protector – and so if something happens to take that away, like, her father dies or her husband leaves her or she’s left without this guardian, she’s a target. If there’s extreme financial need, like there’s a lot of poverty… that’s an issue. Children with step-parents are often thrown out or abused or just not taken care of, so those are often the ones that end up on the streets as children or trafficked as children. A lot of them are abandoned wives, maybe have a baby and then abandoned and left with few options, so that’s very common. Young marriage is common which also supports the abandonment, young marriage and then early abandonment by the husband.
And then some women were working in the garments industry and didn’t get paid. One woman in particular she didn’t get paid and so someone said ‘Oh I’ll help you get another job’ and she sold her to the brothels so stories like that, they are very varied but just a common vulnerability and someone taking advantage of that.
Do you see yourself opening more centres to help engage and support more women?
RS: Yeah, our dream is to continue to grow as long as there is need, and there is huge need. We want to do some research about where we should go next, because really its just so hard to decide because there are so many areas where there’s a different vulnerability. So our most recent centre which we opened in October is near the border of India, so that’s where there are girls at risk of being trafficked, there’s several brothels so women are wanting to come out of the brothel, and the re-patriated girls, the girls who have been trafficked already are coming back to that area. So there is just so much need just right there. Then if you think of areas that are prone to disaster, those are really high for trafficking, and areas that very impoverished are high to trafficking. Any transit centre, like train station or public bus station, those are all rife with trafficking. And so it just seems like this endless, endless need. So we are passionate to continue to grow, and to continue to reach out into new areas. Its just about narrowing down where is next.
Have you found that since establishing Basha you have raised local awareness of these issues and perhaps started to change people’s value in women?
RS: Well I think its very easy for them to be rejected by society because of what has happened – that’s the tradition, that once a woman is ruined in the eyes of society that she can’t come back. I think that at Basha we’ve proven differently: the women have been successful in having new respect in their society. Though, if you read through some of the stories on the website, some will say ‘my family didn’t use to respect me’ or ‘people didn’t use to listen to me’ or ‘everyone used to just say I was a bad woman’ and now they respect me. So they have been able to come back through working with a fresh respect in the eyes of their community and their families. I think, in general society it would be like “no she’s ruined, she’s bad”, and so its great to see that that isn’t true, that they were able to reestablish themselves with dignity and be examples within the community that people can change.
Is there much support locally for social enterprise, for example from the government or local organisations?
RS: No… Our society registration is quite new, and so I think there is some funds like through foreign embassies that we are looking into. Its kind of surprising because if you look up social enterprise it’s all Bangladesh because of Mohammed Yunis but in practice it’s not that supported. There is more of it and it’s definitely there, but there’s just not a lot of public support for it. But I just so believe in it, because it’s just such a fantastic way to help people with dignity. Its not a hand out, its not just this endless drain on resources that you have to keep giving, giving, giving – you just give a job and she can run with that. She can rebuild her life with that – its not just charity.