Sister Mary Lillian from the Associates of Mary Queen of Apostles (SMRA) at Jagoroni handicrafts center at Tejgaon in Dhaka on Oct. 23. The center has helped thousands of poor rural women to become self-reliant. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)
On a busy Wednesday in late October, Sister Mary Lillian moves like a butterfly from one point to another at Jagoroni (Awakening), a handicraft showroom, sales and training center at Tejgaon in the center of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
The 90-year-old nun from the Associates of Mary Queen of Apostles (SMRA), a local Catholic women’s religious order, still has exceptionally good eyesight and physical stature.
All day long she remains busy in overseeing operations including management and training mostly poor rural women in sewing and handicrafts.
“With a little support, poor people can transform their lives and this is what we have been trying to do,” Sister Lillian, Jagoroni’s director, told ucanews.
Under her leadership for five decades, the center has trained and supported 10,000 to 12,000 poor and underprivileged rural women to gain socioeconomic empowerment through alternative employment.
From Monday to Saturday every week, the center collects products including jute handicrafts, clothes, handbags, woven baskets, candles, table mats, rings, earrings, hand-painted squares and terracotta figures from hundreds of women in different corners of Bangladesh.
These products are sold and delivered to buyers in foreign and local markets with the support of CORR — The Jute Works, a trust of Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh.
The center makes profits from sales, which are distributed among the women in the network after putting aside some amount for maintenance costs.
“We never wanted Jagoroni to turn into a commercial enterprise. It is a lifeline for downtrodden women, enabling their capacity to have enough money to eat, educate children and have a dignified life,” Sister Lilian said.
Two women make handicraft products at Jagoroni handicrafts center, which is credited with empowering thousands of rural poor women in Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)
In the late 1960s, when Bangladesh was the eastern part of Pakistan, the country was in social and political turmoil. Extreme poverty and unemployment forced many poor women and children to starve and to beg alms for survival, and many failed to get treatment for sicknesses.
“The suffering of women and children, often knocking at the gates of churches and complexes of religious congregations for help, saddened and moved me. I wondered what we could do to end their miseries,” Sister Lillian recalled.
In 1968, Sister Lillian paired up with American Holy Cross nun Sister Michael Francis to start Jagoroni on a small scale to train and support poor rural women.
The need felt even greater after the 1971 Liberation War between Bangladesh from Pakistan, which left the country in ruins and many women in helpless conditions after losing their husbands in the conflict.
The two nuns decided to expand their services for women, winning support from prominent American Holy Cross missionary Father Richard W. Timm and Baptist missionary Peter McNee of New Zealand.
The missionaries secured initial finances for the center and brought in local and foreign trainers to teach women skills for making products from jute, clothes and other local materials.
Beginning with only nine women, the center at one point had a network about 6,000 women in 64 groups across Bangladesh. It still has 2,000 women, most of them non-Christians, in the supply grid.
“Many women we trained up have come out of poverty and have a better life. In coastal areas, poor families hardly managed to get one full meal a day, and now they have become self-reliant,” Sister Mary Protibha SMRA, assistant director of Jagoroni, told ucanews.
The nun says their only challenge is maintaining the quality of products.
“We don’t publicize or advertise our products, but we will have good orders, which we would like to see increase. The center will continue the mission of serving poor people,” said Sister Protibha, who has been involved with the center since 1973.
Sister Mary Protibha is assistant director at the center that fosters the socioeconomic emancipation of poor rural women. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)
Transforming lives of rural women
Despite good socioeconomic progress in recent decades, more than 22 percent of Bangladesh’s over 160 million population still live in poverty, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
Latest bureau figures show a 4.5 percent rate of unemployment in Bangladesh, with a high level of joblessness among rural people, especially females.
A Planning Ministry study found female employment in rural areas dropped to 11.6 million in 2018 from 12.6 million in 2010.
Meanwhile, Jagoroni has not only developed women through training and supply network but has also encouraged them to form savings and microcredit groups so that they can save money for times of need.
Such efforts have been a life-changer, says Rebeca Gain, 50, a Catholic mother of four from Satkhira district, one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas in the south. She joined Jagoroni five years ago and on average earns 5,000 taka (US$60) a month by selling her products.
“My husband is a low-income porter and I used to weave mats with leaves of date trees and the hogla plant. The demand for mats decreased and we struggled to maintain the family with three sons studying in schools. I joined Jagoroni’s training and changed the situation,” Gain told ucanews while getting her payments at the center.
Three out of her four sons have married and the other son studies at a college in Dhaka.
Gain recently took a loan from a microcredit group so that her husband can start a business involving religious statues.
She says she is having the happiest period of her life since getting married at the age of 14.
“My family was poor and my mother struggled to feed and educate us by working as a cook in the local church. Now I have a happy life because we all work and earn, and my contribution has been vital all these days,” she added.
To watch a video on Jagoroni click here