Front Cover
 The setting and BRAC's approach...
 The women's program
 Organizing groups
 The working women's groups
 The schemes
 The impact on the women
 Lessons learned
 Back Cover

Group Title: Seeds
Title: Developing non-craft employment for women in Bangladesh
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00088779/00001
 Material Information
Title: Developing non-craft employment for women in Bangladesh
Series Title: SEEDS pamphlet
Physical Description: 20 p. : photos ; 26 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Chen, Martha Alter
Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC)
Publisher: SEEDS
Place of Publication: New York
Publication Date: 1984
Subject: Women -- Employment -- Bangladesh   ( lcsh )
Women -- Employment -- Bangladesh   ( lcsh )
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Spatial Coverage: Bangladesh
Statement of Responsibility: story by Marty Chen.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00088779
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 12083958

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover 1
        Front Cover 2
        Page 1
    The setting and BRAC's approach to development
        Page 2
    The women's program
        Page 3
    Organizing groups
        Page 4
        Page 5
    The working women's groups
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
    The schemes
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
    The impact on the women
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
    Lessons learned
        Page 18
        Page 19
        Page 20
    Back Cover
        Page 21
        Page 22
Full Text

SEEDS is a pamphlet series developed to meet requests from all over the world for
information about innovative and practical program ideas developed by and for low
income women. The pamphlets are designed as a means to share information and
spark new projects based on the positive experiences of women who are working to
help themselves and other women improve their economic status. The projects
described in this and other issues of SEEDS have been selected because they
provide women with a cash income, involve women in decision-making as well as
earning, are based on sound economic criteria, and are working successfully to
overcome obstacles commonly encountered. The reports are not meant to be
prescriptive, since every development effort will face somewhat different problems
and resources. Rather, they have been written to describe the history of an idea and
its implementation in the hope that the lessons learned can be useful in a variety of
settings. They are also being written to bring to the attention of those in decision-
making positions the fact that income generating projects for and by women are
viable and have important roles to play in development.

Administrative support for SEEDS is provided
by The Population Council. Editorial policy is
set by the SEEDS Steering Committee Krstin
Anderson (Center for Public Advocacy Re-
search). Judith Bruce (The Population Council),
Katharine McKee (The Ford Foundation), Jill
Sheffield (The Carnegie Corporation). and Ann
Leonard (Editor)

Publication of SEEDS is made possible by tne
support of the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford
Foundation. Oxfam-Amerca. the Population
Council, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and
the Women in Development Office Agency for
International Development

Statements made and views expressed in this
publication are solely the responsibility of the
author and not of any organization providing
support for SEEDS

No7 1984

ISSN 073-6833

Developing Non-Craft

Employmentfor Women

in Bangladesh
Story by Marty Chen

Too often when development planners or practitioners plan income-generat-
ing schemes for women they consider only handicrafts. While in some situations
craft production may provide a secure source of income for women, in many cases
it results in poor returns and proves more complicated an undertaking than ex-
pected. Therefore, those interested in developing income-generating schemes for
women should first survey women's existing skills and then ask: "Are there any
non-craft activities based on women's skills that would provide a better source of
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (internationally known as
BRAC), is one agency that has developed a successful program of non-craft
employment opportunities for women. Some 10,000 poor women have been en-
gaged by BRAC in viable economic schemes: 9,000 in non-craft production! This
pamphlet reviews BRAC's experience in developing non-craft employment oppor-
tunities and participatory associations for rural women.

The Setting
The world of women in Bangladesh is
largely determined by the custom of purdah
(literally, veil; figuratively, the veiled seclusion
of women). Under the norms of purdah in
Bangladesh, women are generally excluded
from the public sphere-fields, markets,
roads, towns-and remain secluded in the pri-
vate sphere-homestead and village-and
move out only at prescribed times and for pre-
scribed reasons. So much so, that under the
traditional division of labor in Bangladesh,
women are excluded from economic activities
in the fields or outside the village and are con-
fined to economic activities in and around their
homestead or village.
Like women elsewhere, village women in
Bangladesh work long and strenuous days.
They raise and tend the animals; thresh, par-
boil, dry, winnow, and husk the grain; grow
fruits and vegetables; clean and maintain the
huts and homestead; give birth to and raise
children; and, occasionally, produce crafts for
sale or home use. However, unlike women in
other areas of intensive rice cultivation who are
actively involved in transplanting, weeding,
and harvesting, village women's work in Bang-
ladesh is confined almost exclusively to post-
harvest activities (i.e., threshing, winnowing,
drying, husking, milling, and storing grains).
Therefore, the only wage labor traditionally
available to women in rural Bangladesh is post-
harvest and domestic work in other house-
holds. Moreover, unlike other countries where
women play very important roles in trade, rural

women in Bangladesh seldom leave their vil-
lages for the markets either to buy or sell. As a
result, the few Bangladeshi women who en-
gage in trade do so only at the lowest levels-
as petty hawkers within their own villages. But
some women, especially the poor, have begun
to break through these traditional barriers in
search of work. BRAC's women's program was
designed to support such women in their

BRAC's Approach to Development
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement
Committee (BRAC) is a private, non-govern-
mental, rural development institution founded
and run by Bangladeshis. Begun as a relief
and rehabilitation effort in the aftermath of the
Bangladesh War of Liberation (early 1972),
BRAC today is an established, comprehen-
sive, multi-faceted, development institution
employing over 1,500 full-time staff. BRAC field
activities, with programming and administrative
support from a central office, have spread to
over 1,000 villages in several rural locations. In
addition, BRAC disseminates and communi-
cates the experience gained in its field opera-
tions through its rural training center, its edu-
cational materials, its development journal,
and its research and evaluation publications.
Early in 1973, after a year of relief work,
BRAC launched an integrated rural develop-
ment program with activities in the following
areas: agriculture and horticulture, fisheries,
adult education, health and family planning,

vocational and other training programs.
BRAC's approach at the time was much like
earlier community development movements.
All that really was required to get programs
underway, or so BRAC's thinking went, was to
motivate the village community through de-
monstration. However, very soon a number of
inherent weaknesses in this approach became
clear. First, motivation, education, and training
alone cannot address major structural prob-
lems within a society. Second, in assuming that
the village was a community, BRAC had not
understood the innate conflicts between the
rich and the poor within the village.
Over time, on the basis of its experience,
BRAC completely reassessed its basic as-
sumptions about rural poverty and develop-
ment. Currently it operates on the assumptions
that: (1) programs designed for the whole com-
munity deliver most of their benefits to the rich
and tend to by-pass the very poor; and (2)
programs designed for the poor must chal-
lenge the rural power structure, which keeps
not only power but also resources in the hands
of the few. Today, BRAC seeks to organize the
poor and powerless (both men and women) in
the village into cooperative groups who then
plan and manage their own group activities.
The groups receive support from BRAC in the
form of training, extension, credit, and logistics
assistance as needed.

The Women's Program
The women's program began as con-
ventionally as BRAC's general program. In vil-
lages where it was working, all women were to
receive health and family planning services.
Interested women were to attend functional
education classes and one sub-group of
women, whom BRAC staff called the "desti-
tutes" (i.e., widows or deserted women), were
to receive vocational training in tailoring.
Underlying this plan were the traditional
myths that women play no active economic
role and that tailoring is women's work and
requires, therefore, only a low level of training
and investment. It wasn't long before these
myths were proven untrue. Commercial tailor-
ing, for example, requires specialized skills,
intensive training, and a steady market. So the
vocational training program was abandoned.
In the area of adult education, however,
BRAC was more on target. It designed a cur-
riculum of lessons that were functionally re-
lated to the skills and problems of villagers,
both men and women, and recruited village
men and women as volunteer teachers. In ad-
dition, BRAC recruited and trained other vil-
lage women to deliver low-cost health and
family planning services. These programs
proved to be successful. The failure of the vo-
cational training program and the success of
functional education and of training village

women as front-line workers pointed the direc-
tion for the future development of a program for
In addition, research into what being a
women in various economic classes in Bang-
ladesh actually meant revealed that rural
households can be distinguished easily by the
degree to which women's income or produc-
tion is required to meet the daily needs of the
family. Generally, the more dependent a
household is on the income and production of
women, the poorer the household. No one
struggles harder to feed, clothe, and house the
members of poor households than women.
And no one faces greater constraints or
receives less support that these women.
Therefore it was decided to work only with
women from the poorest households whose
main problem is that of day-to-day survival.

Organizing Groups
The philosophy underlying BRAC's
women's programs is not to seek women's

economic development or social indepen-
dence as ends in and of themselves, but to
encourage the organization of poor women as
part of the larger struggle to organize the poor,
both men and women. BRAC therefore insists
that all economic and social action be under-
taken collectively.
Currently BRAC organizes the poor into
groups of 20 to 25. These groups are identified
from among the learners attending the func-
tional education classes. Each group chooses
two members to receive training in group
management and leadership and one family
planning helper The group plans and under-
takes a series of joint economic activities
(schemes based on traditional or new skills)
and a series of collective social actions
(schemes to demand higher wages, to settle
marital disputes, to demand rights and ser-
vices, etc.).
The task of organizing rests with BRAC's
field staff, each of whom is responsible for
working with the poor in five to six villages. The
field staff live as teams in simple office-cum-
dormitory complexes and walk or bicycle twice

a day to one or another of the villages in their
areas. In the morning they hold discussions
and supervise activities; in the evening they
attend meetings and classes. They visit each
of their respective villages at least once a
When they first start to work in a village,
the staff members walk around the village talk-
ing to individuals, observing neighborhoods
and households, and establishing contacts
with the poorer members of the community.
Prior to initiating work, field staff invariably con-
duct, if not a formal socioeconomic survey, at
least an informal survey of the area. Information
gathered includes local skills and occupa-
tions, village institutions, physical infrastruc-
ture, etc.
After a few weeks, once they feel familiar
enough with the village to know which of the
poor could be drawn into a group, the field
workers suggest a meeting be held at some-
one's house. At that first meeting, the field staff
briefly introduce themselves and BRAC. Those
attending the meeting are encouraged to talk
about themselves and their problems.
At some point during the discussion the
field staff interject to ask: "How many of you
would be interested in attending an adult edu-
cation class? We will provide the lessons,
blackboards, notebooks, and pencils. Would
you be able to locate a volunteer teacher?
Where could we hold classes?" If the group is
interested to attend and is able to identify a
local volunteer teacher (someone with a
modest education from that group or village),
that teacher is trained at the BRAC field office
for one week in the functional education cur-
riculum and methodology.
Functional education, as developed by
BRAC, revolves around village problems and a
problem-solving dialogue. A specific problem
is presented, discussed, and analyzed during
each class. Towards the end of each class, the
words (broken down into syllables and letters)
and numbers pertaining to that problem are
taught. The curriculum and materials-a set of
60 lessons with charts and a teacher's manual
-were developed by BRAC staff.
Separate classes for men and women
meet in village homes. Village men and women
are recruited on a part-time voluntary basis as
teacher-helpers. By observing and super-
vising the functional education classes, BRAC
field staff begin to learn about village problems
and their underlying causes and to identify
groups with like interests that could be orga-
nized into cooperative groups.
Towards the end of the functional educa-
tion course, the groups begin to discuss future

activities. Most typically, the groups discuss a
joint economic activity. A group may decide to
undertake collective farming or fish culture or a
rural industry. The field staff, together with the
group, talk over all the details and potential
problems in such a scheme. Meanwhile, group
members are encouraged to accumulate sav-
ings as a sign of their intention to work together
and to build and maintain a group fund.
No set rules for financial and production
transactions exist. Each group decides on its
individual production and financial plans. The
field staff help them by reviewing their plans in
terms of cost-effectiveness and feasibility.
Each group member must purchase a small
share (averaging $1.00) per year and is en-
couraged to save a minimum (average 5 cents)
per week. The accumulated savings and
shares constitute the group fund.
These funds are used on a rotation basis
to finance either small loans to individual mem-
bers, who otherwise are forced to take loans
from money-lenders at exorbitant rates of
interest, or group capital for small-scale, joint
productive schemes. Whatever supplemental
credit, support services, or other inputs are
needed to back the productive activities are
provided by BRAC; BRAC loans carry an
interest rate of 12% per annum, equal to bank
interest rates. Generally, each member is re-
quired to repay a minimum (average 15 cents)
per week from earnings against the group loan.
(The average annual per capital income in
Bangladesh is less than U.S. $100 per year or
$1.92 per week. In addition, these women are
from the poorest households where the
average income is lower.)
Groups often discuss and undertake col-
lective social action as well. They may decide
to use their group funds or pool their labor or
assist each other, or other poor people in the
village, in cases such as illness, death, or
property loss. Or they may decide to negotiate
the terms and conditions of labor, such as de-
manding minimum or delayed wages or con-
testing maltreatment by employers. Or they
may decide to lobby for public goods or ser-
vices from local authorities, such as power
pumps, public lands, medical services, or
rations. Another common group activity is to
circumvent the local moneylender by building
up group funds for use in financing small in-
dividual loans.
When the groups carry out their activities
they are regularly confronted by the village
"establishment" (the rich, elders, religious
leaders and/or local politicians). Much of the
skill required in group organization, and much
of the cohesion within the groups stems from

and relates to devising tactics to deal with
these conflicts and obstacles. On principle,
mass confrontation and violent tactics are
avoided, but small-scale conflicts are the
everyday fare of the groups and their orga-
nizers. Of course internal conflict within groups
is also not uncommon. However, resolution of
such conflict, if skillfully handled by group
members and the field staff, can actually serve
to strengthen a group.
In terms of internal organization, a mini-
mum of two members of each group receive
training in cost-accounting and group man-
agement. These individuals then remain the
informal leaders who perform key functions
within the group. The group is formalized, with
an election of officers and adoption of constitu-
tion and by-laws, only if and when the function
of the group necessitates it; for instance,
groups must be formally registered to be eligi-
ble for certain types of government assistance
or to receive training from certain agencies.
Subsequently, active and strong groups
are chosen to organize other groups in their
own or neighboring villages. Not surprisingly,
there is a significant spread-effect as non-
group poor observe the activities of a group in
their area. Gradually, all groups are linked to-
gether into a federation, first at the village level
and then at the field project level. The groups
have chosen the term "Working People's
Force" for this federation (the Bengali original
for "working people" literally translates as
"those who live off their own labor"). All female
groups are called Working Women's Groups;
male groups are called Working Men's

The Working Women's Groups
After its initial failure with vocational train-
ing, BRAC launched an on-going search for
existing skills and potentially viable income
earning schemes for women. They discussed
feasible schemes with staff of other programs
and agencies, read case materials on suc-
cessful schemes elsewhere, toured other pro-
jects, including those in other countries, and
came up with a long list of possibilities. But
most importantly, they conducted surveys, in-
terviews, and discussions with village women
in Bangladesh!
In their search, the staff was willing to look
at any or all skills and schemes. But in their
programming, they had to be more selective
and systematic. First they had to look beyond
schemes which might employ 30 women here
or another 50 there. They needed to help thou-

sands of women in hundreds of villages!
Second, it would be up to each group of
women to decide which scheme or schemes
they wanted to undertake, depending on their
needs, skills, and requirements. Such deci-
sions would be based on several factors such
as long-term versus short-term returns, year-
round versus seasonal employment, the need
for partial versus total sources of income. And
third, BRAC staff wanted to evolve a framework
to expedite economic planning.
As a first step in developing this frame-
work, they asked themselves which skills and
schemes were potentially major sources of
employment for women in Bangladesh. They
came up with the following classifications of
skills or occupations:
1. Traditionally "female" occupations
that are or have been major sources of employ-
ment for women in Bangladesh: post-harvest
agricultural activities (husking, milling); animal
husbandry; poultry rearing; tree, vine, vege-
table cultivation; pre- and post-fishing proces-
ses (net-making, drying and storing fish); pre-
weaving processes.
2. Traditionally "male" skills and occupa-
tions that potentially could be major sources of
employment for women: agricultural field
operations (planting, transplanting, harvest-
ing); construction work; weaving.
3. Traditionally "female" skills that are
potentially major sources of employment for
women: quilt-making; craft manufacture.
4. Traditional skills from other countries
with a potential for women in Bangladesh; silk
culture; block-printing.
As a second step in developing a frame-
work, BRAC asked what needed to be done to
transform these skills and occupations into
major sources of income and employment for
women. In some areas, what was needed was
the type of support given by the government
and development agencies to traditionally
"male" agricultural activities (inputs such as
fertilizer and seed, technologies, credit, sub-
sidy, pricing, markets). In other areas, what
was needed was the type of "job creation"
done in industry (skills training, provision of
fixed and working capital management). It was
decided, given these two broad types of re-
quirements, to classify all potential schemes
either as: (a) those which enhance the pro-
ductivity of what women already do; or (b)
those which expand employment beyond what
women already do.
Production Enhancement Schemes. In
order to enhance the productivity of what
women already do, BRAC undertook schemes
which aim:

to transform subsistence production
into commercial production by pro-
viding small amounts of working capital
to increase output and efficiency by
providing the same package of exten-
sion services offered to men (e.g.
credit, inputs, technology, training)
to protect women's labor from dis-
placement by-machines
to improve the terms and conditions of
production, .(the reasoning being that if
women were to gain control over their
own labor, they would be able to de-
mand higher wages, greater employ-
ment opportunities, and access to
Employment Expansion Schemes. In
Bangladesh, women have been bound by tra-
dition to certain skills and to certain work.
Moreover, women's skills and products have
not been diversified or improved over time. In
order for women's opportunities for paid work
and production to expand, these trends need
to be reversed.
Therefore, BRAC also undertook schemes
which aim:
to commercialize traditional skills by
creating new markets


to revive and adapt traditional skills and
designs to new lines of useful, market-
able items
to train women in new or non-traditional
to mobilize demand for women's labor
by lobbying for women's participation
in public employment schemes and in
Between 1976 and 1984, BRAC's em-
ployment expansion schemes have been able
to engage the largest number of women in rice
processing (3,810), animal husbandry (2,344),
horticulture (843), and poultry (800). And,
significantly for Bangladesh, it has en-
couraged over 200 women each year to under-
take collective agricultural production on
leased land.
What follows is a discussion of some of
these schemes. Each scheme is discussed in
terms of the requirements for training, manage-
ment, and organization. The purpose of these
descriptions is to provide a sense of process;
that is, how the problems faced in developing
each scheme were confronted and overcome.

The Schemes
Horticulture. In Bangladesh vegetable
and fruit production is the preserve of women.
Therefore BRAC launched a horticulture ex-

tension scheme early on. New as well as tradi-
tional varieties of vegetable seeds were dis-
tributed each year to thousands of families and
to local primary and secondary schools. Field
staff provided instructions on seedbed pre-
paration, transplanting, and care of plants.
They also encouraged the growing of fruit trees
and regularly distributed thousands of seed-
lings and saplings of coconut, banana, mango,
papaya, and guava trees. All of these supplies
were sold at cost to interested households.
Currently, BRAC has targeted these hor-
ticultural services to more directly reach and
benefit poor women. Those who do not pos-
sess much land, or who want to pool their labor,
are encouraged to take up collective fruit and
vegetable cultivation on leased or share-
cropped plots of land. One group of women, by
way of example, planted 60 lemon trees at a
cost of 3 taka each; a total investment of 180
taka (15 taka then equaled U.S. $1.00; there-
fore an investment of U.S. $12). They harvest
roughly 30 taka worth of lemons per tree per
year; an annual return of 1,800 taka (U.S. $120
or ten times their investment). Women are also
being organized to plant and rear seedlings
and saplings for sale. By December 1982, over
800 women were engaged in horticulture
Animal Husbandry. In Bangladesh,
animal husbandry is also the preserve of
women. After some initial collaboration with a

Government dairy farm, BRAC abandoned the
idea of providing veterinary services for cattle
(often owned by richer households) and
decided to focus on calf and goat rearing
schemes for poor women.
Currently, BRAC provides credit to
groups of women who possess few, if any,
animals and who wish to rear animals co-
operatively. Many of the women's groups, with
loans from BRAC, buy young animals which
they rear and sell for a profit 10-12 months
later. A calf purchased for 500 taka (U.S.
$33.33) will sell 10 months later for 1,000 taka;
a profit of 50 taka (U.S. $3.33) per month
without much cost or labor.
By way of example, a group of 15 women
borrowed 7,500 taka (U.S. $500) in January,
1978. They purchased 15 calves. Each mem-
ber of the group was responsible for rearing
one calf. The rearing costs were negligible and
involved no cash outlay. After one year, 14
calves were sold (one calf had not been
properly tended so that particular women con-
tinued to rear it to an optimum size for sale).
Purchase price for 14 calves: 7,000 taka
Sale price for 14 cows: 14,814 taka
The women repaid their loan a few
months behind schedule, but only because
they waited for a high market price for their
cows. BRAC charged an interest rate of 15
percent per annum on the loan, so the total
interest came to 1,050 taka.
Sale price for 14 cows: 14,814 taka
Purchase price plus interest:
-8,050 taka
Net income: 6,764 taka

Fifty percent of the income was distributed
equally among the 14 members of the group,
an individual profit of 483 taka (U.S. $32) per
women. The other fifty percent of the net
income was deposited in the group fund.
Some groups prefer to take smaller loans
and purchase only a few animals. They then
decide which members have the facilities
(space and feed) to rear the animals. The initial
investment is made by the group and the rear-
ing costs are borne by the individual. On sale
the individual woman realizes half of the profit
and the other half is put into the group fund. If a
loss is incurred, that loss is borne by the group.
Therefore the group puts pressure on individ-
ual women to rear the animals properly. As of
December 1982, over two thousand women
were rearing cows or goats.
It should be noted that these animal hus-
bandry schemes for the poor are designed
more to maximize a profit from rearing rather
than to enhance production. No veterinary ex-

tension services have been offered and not
much cost or effort need to invested by the
women. The only inputs required from BRAC
are credit and field staff supervision. In the
future, however, BRAC plans to provide train-
ing and inputs (vaccines, improved feed) to
enhance the production of those poor women
who are able to purchase their own goats and
Poultry Rearing. In Bangladesh, most
women keep a few chickens or ducks (de-
pending on the terrain) to scavage around the
homestead. In 1976 BRAC initiated a poultry
program designed to expand the free-ranging/
scavenging system of rearing and to improve
the quality of poultry through introducing im-
proved breeds, mass vaccination, and training
(on improved breeds, feed, housing, and
disease control). Early on they decided to cen-
tralize the training and technical support of the
program at BRAC's Training and Resource
Center (TARC), a training campus with hostels,
classrooms, and demonstration farm fifteen
miles from Dacca. Poultry houses were con-
structed on the TARC campus, stocked with
foreign cocks and local hens, and cross-bred
chick and egg production was begun.
Initially, BRAC relied on outside expertise
from donor agencies for technical training and
assistance, but soon it hired its own poultry
trainers. These technical trainers were ex-
pected to conduct feasibility studies, provide
training, and coordinate the supply of
vaccines, eggs, and chicks. More recently,
another cadre of workers has been introduced
to support the poultry program: poultry "para-
vets"-high school graduates who, after
training from TARC, are posted to the field
projects to provide on-the-spot supervision,
extension, and management with technical
back-up from TARC. Currently, cross-breed
eggs are supplied from TARC to individual
women through the para-vets and village
women assist the para-vets in regular vaccina-
tion campaigns.
Ultimately BRAC has learned that there
are several critical elements to a successful
poultry program: upgrading the domestic
flock, centralized breeding, systematic culling
of local cocks, regular supply and delivery of
vaccines, village-level supervision and man-
agement. Their poultry program now includes
all these elements.
Fish Culture. In Bangladesh, only richer
households own ponds but they often allow
their ponds to erode and dry up. Therefore
BRAC decided that groups of poor villagers
could be organized and supported to lease,
re-excavate, and stock such ponds. In theory,

a one-third acre pond can yield 10,000 taka
(U.S. $666) worth of fish per annum.
Most typically, the government and other
agencies engage men in fish culture. "Men are
fishermen," or so their thinking goes. However,
BRAC considered fish culture a potential
scheme for both men and women because in
fishing communities women perform major
functions, such as net-making and fish-
processing, and in many communities young
women and girls do harvest fish from village
ponds. Also, experience has shown that
women can provide the heavy labor required
during pond excavation, and in the cultivating,
harvesting, and marketing of fish. Staff dis-
cussed the potential for women in fish culture
with a UNICEF fishery expert and, in January
1978, they jointly arranged the first national
training for women in fish culture. Since then,
women have been regularly engaged in fish
culture by BRAC, UNICEF, and other
Aurangabad village offers a good
example. With BRAC support, 24 members of a
men's group and 15 members of a women's
group leased a pond which had been neglect-
ed for 15 years. They re-excavated the pond in
early 1978. Group members donated 20% of
their labor and BRAC paid wages to cover the
remaining 80%. The members of the groups

started the scheme with capital they raised:
each member was asked to put in 2 taka per
month to a group fund for roughly a year. They
invested the following amounts into the pond
small fish (3,000) 469 taka
rice husks (2 maunds) 125 taka
lime (300 seers) 60 taka
oil cake (1 maund) 83 taka
chemical fertilizer 20 taka

(A maund=a measure of weight equal to 82
pounds; a seer=a measure of weight equal to
approximately 2 pounds.) They also supplied
some cow dung from their own stocks.
In the first year they realized a profit of
roughly 4,000 taka; an average investment by
each of the 39 members of 19.50 taka (U.S.
$1.30) yielded an average return of 103 taka
(U.S. $6.80).
As with poultry, BRAC soon found it
worthwhile to hire its own fish culture experts to
provide training and technical support through
TARC. In 1978, one large and two small ponds
were re-excavated at TARC's rural campus
and stocked with fastgrowing varieties of fish.
Now, TARC technical trainers can give regular
training in fish culture and in the design and
construction of fish ponds and TARC can sup-
ply small fish or fingerlings. The actual
management of the fish pond schemes are
handled by the field staff.
All schemes encounter problems and
fish culture is no exception. First are the terms
and conditions under which the ponds are
leased. Some of the early leases were not
court-certified. These contracts eventually fell
through, groups got disheartened, and the
schemes were discontinued. Now all leases
are certified.
Second, various technical problems
arise. For example, there is an optimal depth to
which ponds should be excavated in order to
prevent seepage and allow for maximum
Third, there are the human and organiza-
tional problems involved in pooling labor and
sharing a profit. Marketing, however presents
few problems as the fish are sold at the tradi-
tional fish markets. And some groups, depend-
ing on the size of the pond and the condition of
its banks, grow banana, papaya, and other fruit
trees around the pond to prevent erosion and
to bring in an additional income.

Rice Processing. Post-harvest proces-
sing of grain, mainly rice in Bangladesh, is also
the preserve of women. The following post-
harvest work is carried out exclusively by

women; most are very time-consuming pro-
Parboiling. This is the process of boiling
rice in large drums over slow fires.
Drying. Before grain is set out to dry, a
drying surface must be prepared
(plastered with mud), dried, and swept.
Drying grain must be turned at regular
intervals and protected at all times from
poultry and wild birds.
Husking. Most typically rice is husked
first and then polished in a foot-operated,
hammer-action implement known as the
Winnowing. Like drying and cleaning, it
is done at several intervals: post-
threshing, post-parboiling, and post-
husking. Women manufacture their own
bamboo winnowers.
Storage. Domestic and market stocks of
grain and seed are also stored by women
who prepare the storage bins and super-
vise the activity. It is women who judge
the quality and moisture level of grain and
seed before and during storage.
About 70% of all rice in Bangladesh is
processed by ruralwomen1 and over 50% of all
paid work available to women is from pro-
cessing rice.2 Rice processing provides,
therefore, the critical margin of survival to mil-
lions of poor women and their families. It is
estimated that over 40% of rural households,
the poorest households, survive because of
women's income from rice processing.3
Thus it was evident that assisting women
who wanted to undertake rice-husking on a
commercial scale had several economic ad-
vantages because: it is based on existing
skills, equipment, and markets; it brings a
quick return (within two days); it carried few
risks; and it has traditionally been operated as
a small business by some women. The only
real constraint is lack of working capital to buy
the rice.
Groups of women interested in under-
taking rice husking take credit from BRAC
through their group, work as individuals or in
teams, and market the rice through male mem-
bers of their families. The group serves as an
umbrella to receive loans and the group mem-
bers work as mutual guarantors one to another.

1. Harris, Barbara. Post Harvest Rice Processing System
in Rural Bangladesh, Bangaldesh Agriculture Re-
source Council, Dacca, 1978, p. 2.
2. Cain, Mead and S.R. Khanam, "Class, Partiarchy, and
the Sturcture of Women's Work in Rural Bangladesh,"
Population & Development Review. 5(3), 1979, pp. 34-
3. Who Gets What and Why, BRAC, 1979, pp. 75-77.

Initially, BRAC provided enough credit to each
woman to purchase one maund of un-
processed rice. Later, having recognized the
cost-effectiveness of processing a greater
volume at one time, each woman was given
enough credit to purchase two maunds of un-
processed rice (180 taka or U.S. $12). A small
amount of credit goes a long way. With that
amount women begin to earn between 36 and
56 taka (U.S. $2.40 and $2.73) per week. As of
December 1982, nearly four thousand women
were engaged in commercial rice husking.
In order to insure women's control over
this source of income, there are plans to con-
vert some women's rice-husking cooperatives
into owner-manager cooperatives of small-
scale, custom mills. In Bangladesh, mechani-
cal and automatic mills, encouraged by cheap
capital (provided by the nationalized banks)
and by subsidized electricity, have been grad-
ually taking over rice-processing and, thereby,
displacing women's labor. Increasing the
scale of women's rice processing and
strengthening their control may prevent or re-
verse the displacement of women from this
critical set of operations. If large, automatic
mills are prohibited, and if only small-scale
custom mills licensed, women could be orga-
nized to own and manage these mills. BRAC,
and other agenices that have considerable
experience in organizing women could
provide the managerial back-up to women's
custom-mill cooperatives. In this way women
would not lose their major traditional source of
income as the country adopts capital-intensive
techniques of production.
Silk Culture. Since the mid-1970's, the
Bangladesh Government's silk board and
several voluntary agencies, including BRAC,
have looked into the potential of different types
of silk culture to generate a natural fibre for the
nation's handloom sector and to generate an
income for village women. Initially, emphasis
was put on the cultivation of a variety of silk
worm which feeds off castor bush leaves and
spins a variety of silk known locally as endi.
Endi silk was reputed to be stronger than cot-
ton, less expensive than mulberry silk and to
involve a labor intensive technology (hand-
spinning) rather than a capital intensive tech-
nology (machine-reeling). The cultivation and
spinning of endi silk promised to privde a
steady income for a limited investment: capital
requirement (U.S. $6.33 for a spinning wheel
and U.S. $5.00 for racks and other implements)
and training requirements (the skills required in
cultivation, rearing, and spinning of endi silk
transfer more quicky and easily that those re-
quired for mulberry silk).

BRAC was able to arrange for training for
three levels of personnel at the Government's
silk farms and through other voluntary
agencies. Successive groups of village
women were given intensive training in castor
silk cultivation and management in order to
work for BRAC as full-time silk paratech-
nicians. And the field staff responsible for
developing BRAC's silk industry were trained
in the stages of production, technical and
support systems, pricing and marketing.
After a trial phase, systems of production,
management, and extension were developed
based on three critical decisions. First, all
stages of production (from cultivation of the
plants and rearing of cocoons to spinning of
thread) should be undertaken by each woman
to ensure her sufficient income and incentive.
Second, only worms (not eggs) should be sup-
plied to the women for rearing. Supplying
worms reduces the extra care required for
young worms and ensures only quality worms
are reared (since diseased or small worms can
be weeded out at BRAC's Service Centers).
Third, the Service Centers would supply all
worms and seeds/seedlings and serve as col-
lection depots on set days each week to pur-
chase spun thread. On that day, each woman
receives payment for her thread, repays a
small amount of the loan for her spinning
wheel, and collects worms for rearing. The dis-

trict Government nursery supplies the "parent-
stock" of eggs and seeds/seedlings, technical
back-up, and a market for the silk thread.
BRAC purchases damaged thread or low-
quality thread at a low price for experimental
Given the success with castor silk, it was
decided to branch out into the cultivation and
rearing of mulberry silk. The Service Centers
and silk paratechnicians are now equipped to
provide the greater care required by the mul-
berry plant and worm. As of December 1982,
over eight hundred women were rearing and
spinning castor silk and another fifty mulberry
silk. More recently, block-printing and hand-
embroidery of silk fabric have been introduced
and women are being trained to weave silk.
BRAC has found that silk rearing and
spinning can provide a primary income to
women who engage in silk spinning for eight
hours a day or a supplemental income to those
who work fewer hours. It believes that silk cul-
ture can provide a year-round income, despite
the seasonality of the plant, and that silk culture
has the potential for large-scale employment
for many women in Bangladesh.

Agriculture. In Bangladesh, agricultural
field operations are the single largest employer
of rural labor, but traditionally only men, not
women, were involved. BRAC decided to train





women in agricultural field work so that they
would not only earn an income, but also gain
access to the rural labor market. They rea-
soned that if women were seen working in the
fields, they might then be hired by others as
agricultural laborers.
As a first step, BRAC decided to support
groups of women who wished to lease or
sharecrop land to cultivate their own crops. It
helps them plan and manage their cultivation
and provides loans for the inputs required.
What are the necessary steps in a suc-
cessful agricultural scheme? How have the
women undertaken these steps? And have the
women acquired the requisite "male" skills?
Land Leasing or Sharecropping. With
loans and advice from BRAC, women
lease or sharecrop land. Initially, the
women were not good at judging what
quality or quantity of land to seek. Now,
through training and experience, the
women have gained this vital expertise.
Land Preparation and Ploughing.
Women do not undertake ploughing
but contract men (on a daily wage
basis) to perform this function.
Cultivation. Previously, women did not
have the skills of transplanting/
planting, weeding, etc. Initially, they
contracted men to work alongside them
and to train them in these operations.

Within the first season, the women had
acquired all the necessary skills.
Harvesting. As with cultivation, the
women have been able to acquire the
necessary skills with relative ease.
Marketing. Markets remain the one
corner of the male domain that women
have not yet penetrated. Currently,
women market their produce either
through male members of their family,
BRAC field staff, or a middleman. Some
groups have been cheated by the mid-
dlemen and thus have had to learn to
negotiate for adequate terms and

The Impact on the Women
The BRAC experience has significant
implications for those who wish to design pro-
grams to increase the incomes of rural women.
But before analyzing the lessons, let us turn to
the women for whom the program was in-
tended. What has been the impact of BRAC's
economic and social programming on these
women? What has begun to happen in their
lives and in their villages?
In the ten years since it first began rural
development work, more than 20,000 women
have been organized by BRAC into over 800
active groups and 10,000 of these women are
involved in viable economic activities. Some of
the benefits of a group to its members are
highly visible and quantifiable, some less so.
Some women's lives have changed a great
deal, others less so. But no woman's life is
every quite the same after joining a group.
BRAC field staff can describe visible
changes in the huts and homesteads of the
women. Some homesteads have been cleared
and cultivated. Porches, sheds, and tin roofs
have been added to many huts. There are
more hens, goats, and even cows to be seen.
There are also visible changes in the women
themselves. Many women have lost their
veneer of shyness and become assertive and
outgoing. In the words of one staff member,
some of the women are "sophisticated 100
It is the women themselves, however,
who have the most to say; they can describe
concrete changes in their lives. Before they
had little access to or control over cash in-
comes, now they are earning personal in-
comes. Most women spend their first earnings
on the most immediate need of their families-
food; then they spend for shelter and clothing.
Once they are able to meet these minimum

requirements of their families, they take several
steps to ensure the security of their family: they
begin to repay debts, they redeem mortgaged
goods, or they repair their homes. Once they
have saved a little, the women invest their earn-
ings in certain assets such as poultry, a goat, a
cow (in that order) or an addition to their huts or
an agricultural implement. Only then, and only
very rarely, will the women spend a little of their
personal income on themselves.
On the strength of earning some income,
combined with the strength of belonging to a
group, the women have begun to negotiate
new roles and opportunities for themselves.
The women describe these less visible and
less concrete changes in these ways:
They have greater opportunities to
meet and socialize and, as a result,
have developed new loyalties and
"If another person does something
bad to me, another member of the
group will come forward to protest it
.. I was alone, but now with me
there are ten other members. They
give support to me."
They begin to earn more affection and
respect within their own families.
"Now my husband does not beat me.
Our friendliness is increasing. My
husband is taking lessons from me.

Betore he did not know how to write
his name. Now he can write his
* They are able to avoid being deserted
or divorced or, in some cases of de-
sertion, they are reunited with their hus-
"There is another girl who was aban-
doned by her husband for three
years. We asked him to take his wife
back home. This year we asked him:
'Tell us whether you are taking your
wife back or not.' He said: 'Well, as
you are asking, I will take her.' Then
he constructed a house and took her

* They are able to reduce their depen-
dence on the rich and powerful of the
village for advice, loans, and work op-
"Everybody used to bad-mouth
against me. I did not listen to them.
They are the rich. Why should we
listen to the rich? They walked on our
bodies. We should not listen to them.
They should listen to us. I was very
poor. I could not eat properly and
buy any clothing. We started study-
ing in the (functional) education clas-
ses. We discussed our problems,

etc. .... Now, everything seems
good to me."
* They are now able to participate in local
judicial (informal courts), initiate legal
proceedings, even call for retrials.
"We will not allow that. Already he
has got a wife, so why should he
marry again? The way we will punish
him, he will give up notions of marry-
ing again. We will call a shalish (in-
formal court)."-But aren't shalish
convened by the men? "A women's
shalish will be convened by women.
And from now on, we will hold our
own shalish."
* They have begun to exercise their right
to vote or withhold votes in their own
"I do not cast any vote. Why should I
cast my vote? I understand everyone
has the right to cast a vote. Before
the election they call us Mia-bhai
(affectionate title). After the election
they forget us. They come and say:
'We will give you rice and wheat.'
They offer us bettle-nuts. After they
win the election and we say: 'Mia-
bhai, please give us a ration slip so
we can buy cloth.' They say 'Not
now, come later on' or 'I do not have
time now, come at night.' We go at

night for the slip. 'I work the whole
day and at night. And, you all come
for a slip.' This is how they win the
election and how they behave. That
is why I do not cast my vote for him.
We will select a poor person and vote
for him."
* They have begun to demand their right
to public goods and services.
"This year we have gotten ration
cards. The ration dealer gives us half
the allotment of rice, flour, and salt. If
we say anything the ration dealer
says: 'I only have this much. Wheat is
coming.' Before we could not even
ask about the wheat. If all the group
members go to the local government
officer and complain to him about the
(ration) dealer, then what will happen
to him?"
* The women also describe significant
changes within themselves. They
speak of new-found wisdom and con-
"Before we were blind, although we
had eyes. We used to work in other
people's houses, but we did not get
the correct wages. Now we rear
poultry, plant trees, and cultivate
other people's land on a sharecrop-
ping basis. We grow paddy, jute,

wheat, onions, and potatoes. We
make a profit from this cultivation.
We do not go to work in other peo-
ple's houses anymore. Whatever we
know how to do, we do that sitting in
our own houses."
"I had no such courage before join-
ing the group. I know what is right
and wrong now. Now, if anyone says
anything wrong I answer back, be-
fore I used to keep quiet. Where did I
get my courage? From my self-con-
fidence and wisdom. If there is a
quarrel with the men in our village
and if we, the members of the group,
go there, they will not be able to face
us. We are 90 members and we have
a strength."

Lessons Learned
BRAC developed its current approach to
building rural institutions and rural employment
for poor women through several years of ex-
perimentation. Others who wish to create simi-
lar employment opportunities and institutions
for poor rural women can learn a number of
useful lessons from BRAC's experience:
1. A project to help poor women
should begin with activities that produce
quick, tangible results. It is best to address
women's most immediate needs and concrete
activities first. Additional activities can then be
sequenced, moving from addressing basic
economic needs to more complex social and
political constraints.
2. In societies where the class hier-
archy (or differences between women) is
pronounced, it is better to organize women
into economically homogeneous groups. In
such societies, the constraints and needs of
women will most likely differ by class. Orga-
nizing women across classes often may not
reflect the priority needs of, or even reach, the
poorest women.
3. Before undertaking economic pro-
grams for women, study the overall eco-
nomic situation, women's traditional skills
and occupations, available resources and
raw materials, and existing and/or potential
markets. With each group of women, one
should assess their particular circumstances,
their daily and seasonal work schedules, their
skills, their priority needs and problems.
4. Those schemes which build on
women's traditional skills and occupations
have a greater chance of proving viable than
those which require training in new skills.

When creating new jobs for women by training
them in new skills, a wide range of assistance is
required: management, skills training, tech-
nology and equipment, and marketing. Those
schemes that build on women's traditional
skills and are geared to local markets generally
prove less complicated to manage.
5. Before providing skills training to
women, establish systems for refresher
training and technical and managerial sup-
port systems. Generally, skills training is the
simplest component and a minor element in
the success of a program. Far more critical to
the success of a program are the systems that
are developed for technical and managerial
support. The critical elements of such systems
include: raw material supply, technical back-
up and supervision, production planning, cost-
accounting, design, and marketing research.
6. It is important to "subsidize" the
experimental phase of many schemes, the
phase that includes skills training and test
production. If one wants to benefit the poorest
women, they are precisely the ones who can-
not afford the opportunity cost (i.e., their daily
wages) to attend training or to engage in ex-
perimental production. Although groups of
poor women can pool individual savings to
generate a group fund, few groups of poor
women will be able to mobilize enough funds to
finance any but the smallest economic
7. To develop viable economic
schemes, technical expertise often found
outside existing staff resources is required.
What is required by way of staff capabilities is
not just the generalist promotional skills of
community development workers but special-
ized technical and managerial expertise. In the
initial phase of any economic scheme, ar-
rangements should be made for appropriate
technical assistance. Once a scheme proves
viable, the technical capacities of field staff
and of the women themselves should be built
up. Generally, appropriate technologies exist
and need only be identified whereas too few
appropriate technologists exist so that more
need to be trained and developed.
8. Payment should be calculated on a
piece-rate basis and should be paid in cash
on delivery. Too often with profit sharing sys-
tems, efficiency and quality of production can
slacken and internal conflicts can arise (e.g.,
workers accuse each other of being lazy).
During test production, unless the women are
paid at least a small amount, their interest will
drop. Moreover, in the early stages of com-
mercial production, when efficiency is general-
ly low, the women may need to be paid sightly

more for their labor (as an incentive to produc-
tion) than they will receive once their efficiency
is up. While subsidizing test production and
providing incentives for women's work, the
women should be trained in cost-accounting
and be told that their wages are tied not only to
output but to competition in the open market.
9. Small amounts of working capital,
taken on loan with formal terms of interest
and repayment, can launch many economic
schemes. Lack of working capital is typically
the major constraint to production in rural
areas. Some schemes require larger loans for
fixed capital expenses and recurring costs.
But the amount required is seldom very large.
BRAC-financed individual production schemes
averaged only $20 each. BRAC-financed col-
lective production schemes averaged $200
10. Because women seldom own
property or collateral in their own right,
group guarantee credit schemes are recom-
mended. Under such schemes, the group

serves as the umbrella for outside support and
the group members guarantee each others'
loans. If one woman defaults then the whole
group suffers. Initially, the loans can be funded
through project funds but ideally, once the
group guarantee system is working, the
women should be linked up to formal credit
11. Individual economic and/or social
schemes for women should not be carried
out in isolation but in the context of broader
policies and plans. It is important to link
women with support services beyond those
offered by any specific project, especially
government services which should be made
more accountable to the needs of women.
Similarly, it is important not simply to work with
women in one location but to lobby for policies
which will guarantee women's overall access
to credit, technical and support services, pro-
tective legislation, adequate wages, raw mate-
rials, etc.

Design: Ann Leonard
Typography: Village Type and Graphics
Photos: Marty Chen
Printing: Graphic Impressions, Inc.

Marty Chen is currently the Oxfam-America field representative for India and
Bangladesh based in New Delhi. During the 1970s, she lived in Bangladesh and
worked with BRAC on the development of its projects. Fluent in both Hindi and
Bengali, she has traveled widely throughout the Subcontinent and written numerous
articles on women and development.
Marty Chen has recently written a book that outlines in greater detail the BRAC
experience in designing projects to assist low-income women in Bangladesh. It is
titled, A Quiet Revolution: Women in Transition in Rural Bangladesh, and is avail-
able from: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., P.O. Box 349, Cambridge, MA
02139, U.S.A.

We invite your comments and your ideas for projects which might
be included in future editions of SEEDS. If you would like additional
copies of this issue or would like to be included on the SEEDS
mailing list, please write to:
Ann Leonard, Editor
P.O. Box 3923
Grand Central Station
New York, New York 10163 U.S.A.




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