Students in the Bangladeshi capital participate in a practical session at MAWTS, a technical project run by the Catholic development agency Caritas. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Nomita Murmu, a Catholic who belongs to Bangladesh's traditionally spirit-worshipping Santal ethnic group, believed for years that her family's poverty had sealed her fate as a day laborer with no way out of this economic trap.
Like many Bangladeshis from impoverished communities, she had to drop out of school early to help her parents feed her three siblings and saw no glimmer of hope in the absence of state-run support schemes.
"I thought my chances of finding a dignified job and a prosperous life were gone forever," the 27-year-old from northern Rajshahi district told ucanews.com.
Her good grades counted for little as the reality of having to put food on the table saw her yanked out of college in 2011.
But Murmu's life changed four years later when Caritas Rajshahi, a local branch of the international Catholic development agency Caritas, threw her a lifeline in the form of a vocational training course.
Before she knew it, she had completed a six-month course on tailoring and dressmaking and landed a short-term contract working for World Vision, another Christian charity organization.
When the 45-day contract ended she took her salary of 15,000 taka (US$176), and used the money to buy a sewing machine so she could eke out a living of her own.
Now she runs a tailoring shop in Hargathi, the village where she was born, and earns up to 4,500 taka a month. This enables her to support her family and also covers the costs of education for her younger siblings.
Importantly, it has also empowered her with financial independence and given her good reason to dream of a better future as she makes plans to extend her business in the near future elsewhere in Bangladesh, one of the world's most populous nations.
"I have a good life now and the future looks promising," she said. "Poor and marginalized people like me can have a better life if they receive the kind of support I was lucky enough to get."
A Bangladeshi student in Dhaka learns technical lessons about how to operate a machine at MAWTS in this undated file photo. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
From rickshaw to production line
Proshenjit Dev, 20, is a Hindu boy and the son of a rickshaw puller from northern Dinajpur district. The eldest of three children, he left school in grade six to help his father earn enough money to scrape by from one month to the next, and thought that he had already hit the end of the road.
"I thought my life was finished already, same as my education," Proshenjit told ucanews.com.
In 2016, he stumbled across an advert for a Caritas Dinajpur training program seeking applicants. He spent the next six months learning how to weld and realizing that, with a little bit of encouragement and support, the future was not bleak as a whole new world of opportunities opened up before his eyes.
Caritas officials helped him to find a job at a China Bangla Industries factory in Naraynganj district near the capital Dhaka, where he now earns 7,500 taka a month as a machine operator and enjoys free meals and board.
After deducting his expenses, he still manages to send about 60 percent of his salary home to feed his family and cover the costs of his siblings' schooling, similar to Murmu.
As a badge of pride, he also recalls how happy his parents were when he informed them that he had been able to repurchase some land the family had been forced to sell off a few years earlier due to their financial straits.
"There are many poor helpless people in my country living miserable lives without any sense of direction or support," he said.
"I just count my lucky stars I got the support I needed to turn things around. Now the future is bright," he added.
Nearly a quarter of the 160 million people who live in this Muslim-majority South Asian nation are mired in poverty. Of that number, over half are deemed “extremely poor” (living on less than US$1.25 a day) according to the World Bank.
The country is also wracked by horrendous unemployment figures, especially among young people.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, there were 46.6 million unemployed people in 2015-2016, and about 48.28 million in 2016-17.
Caritas Bangladesh has focused on alleviating poverty by helping local people to learn new skills through technical and vocational training since the 1970s.
Two projects in particular have provided life-changing courses for thousands of landless, poor, unemployed and illiterate Bangladeshis, not to mention school dropouts and abused or divorced women.
They are the Mirpur Agricultural Workshop and Training School Trust (MAWTS) and the Caritas Technical School Project (CTSP).
So far nearly 41,300 graduates from the former program have ventured overseas to find work and not returned, suggesting they succeeded, while
CTSP has provided training for 50,000 people, according to Caritas.
Dhaka-based MAWTS started out as a mechanical workshop and training center in 1973. It currently offers a three-year course with the curriculum developed in conjunction with Caritas Switzerland.
It recently started offering a four-year diploma in engineering under the state-run Technical Education Board. This year it ranked first in terms of academic excellence among all private institutes in the country offering a similar diploma.
CTSP was the brainchild of late American Holy Cross missionary Donald Backer, who started offering free technical training to poor and unemployed people in both urban and rural parts of the country in 1983.
Today, the organization runs 20 mobile and 11 permanent technical schools in the country overseen by Caritas' eight regional offices.
The Catholic charity's courses include training on solar panels, auto mechanics, electrical engineering, refrigeration, mobile phone servicing, wielding, tailoring, embroidery and livestock rearing, said Dominic Dilu Peris, manager of the Caritas Technical School Project.
"About 80 percent of our students are able to find a good job. We've got a 10 percent dropout rate. On average, we see about 2,000 students undergo training at Caritas technical schools every year," Peris told ucanews.com.
It costs the charity 8,000 taka to cover the costs of one student's training for a month but it charges them less than 10 percent of this in fees, he said. This means they have to pay 750 taka each month. The courses run from three months to half a year.
However, there are concerns about what lies in store for such programs as foreign donations keep declining.
"Every year the donations from overseas fall by 10 to 20 percent," Peris said. "Sixty percent of our CTSP initiatives are funded by local sources while 40 percent comes from foreign donors, so this funding crunch is a major concern."
In recent years, Caritas has merged a number of technical projects and brought them under the MAWTS Trust for better oversight.
MAWTS charges each student around 8,000 taka for a three-year course — about 20 percent less than what it spends one their training and living costs for just one month.
MAWTS Trust director Akhila D'Rozario said the institute fills a crucial gap in the country's education system by providing technical vocational training.
"There is a huge demand for a more technically competent workforce both in our country and overseas, but there are few training organizations [in Bangladesh] to support this," D'Rozario told ucanews.com.
"We are determined to keep training poor and unskilled people so they can land decent jobs and escape the shackles of poverty."
The Bangladesh government is aware of these gaps and has increasingly prioritized technical training in recent years, said Dr. Nurul Islam, director of the state-run Vocational and Technical Education Department.
There are now 3,500 state-run technical training institutes and 4,500 privately run institutes in Bangladesh, he said.
"We see technical skills training as a way out of poverty and unemployment but we face many challenges," Islam said.
"These include a lack of qualified teachers and institutes, scant funding and a scarcity of equipment. By 2020, Bangladesh aims to develop 20 percent of its workforce to be technically skilled."