As part of our 10th Anniversary celebrations, we interviewed a number of individuals from organizations partnering to implement HERproject. This interview is with Nazneen Huq of Change Associates, an implementing partner in Bangladesh.
What motivates you to work with HERproject?
I have always wanted to work for the people and to bring about positive changes in their lives. I first started working in the development sector, and later I was working in garment factories as a social auditor. I worked in that position for three years, and I found out that I preferred to build the capacity of people, rather than following up on them and finding what does not work. My work in the development sector also showed me that, while people in general are in need of capacity building, it is the women who need it the most. So when I got the opportunity to work with BSR in the garment sector, I thought that it was the perfect opportunity, because I really wanted to work with that age group of women – the most vulnerable group.
Why are they vulnerable? The women who work in the garment sector come from the villages, and in Bangladesh the education level is very low; if you compare with the men, the women are even lower. So, when these women come into the garment sector at the age of 18, they do not really know how to manage their lives. They do not even have the safety net of their grandmas and sisters, unlike in the villages. Changing like that to the urban setting, they are not really aware of the risks they face.
What successes have you seen?
One of the areas where we have made most progress is in the provision of sanitary napkins. When we start HERhealth we do a baseline, and we found that in the eight factories, almost 70% of the women were suffering from reproductive tract infections. Why? There are two reasons. First, during their menstruation, the women had been using scraps of cloth from the factory as sanitary napkins. And those scraps were unclean, mouldy, and so on. Secondly, the women do not even know that they are suffering from an infection. Imagine, as a woman working in a factory, if I share something about my health with you, and then you say, ‘Oh, it is the same with me,’ and then you go to another person and she also says, ‘It is the same with me’, eventually we would all think that an infection like this is just normal for women. That’s what was happening.
In our first training, when we talked about this, the women also told us that they don’t use sanitary napkins because “it is something that the rich women use”. Others said: “If we want to buy it we have to go to the local pharmacy, and young men always loiter around there, and the salesman is a man, and we do not feel comfortable to ask for that.” So, just imagine: such a basic thing. I got an introduction to a manufacturer of sanitary napkins and I talked about HERproject. Women in factories constitute a large potential market for them, and I found out that they had been trying to enter the garment sector anyway. So I said to them: “Okay, give HERproject a discount: give all the girls in the factories a discount.” But I also thought: why should they be the only ones giving a discount? So I told the factory management: “You share some of the cost, and the girls will share some.”
It took a long time, but now more and more factories are getting connected with the manufacturer and they are delivering sanitary napkins at a discounted rate. They are delivering at their factories and the women are buying them and using them.
What is your vision for a better future for women?
When I look to the future, I have a vision in which every factory has nearby what I call a “one-stop service center”. Each center would have dormitories with space for families, and there would be a communal kitchen, along with some kind of catering, so that women can buy their lunch and take it to the factories. There would also be a day-care center, a grocery shop, and a health service, all forming a unit. The workers could live there and know that they would be leaving their children in a safe place. They would not have to worry about cooking or anything like that, and would have health products at a subsidized rate.
That’s my vision, with the land being provided by the government and with factory owners from that area contributing to the development of the center. We’re obviously not there yet, and factories aren’t necessarily eager to contribute. But if we can’t create that vision, maybe we can take elements from it. For instance, we have just started a grocery store in one factory, where workers get their groceries at a discounted price. And we are going to give them points, like they get in superstores—we will partner with a health-service provider, and if the women reach a certain number of points, they will get health services at a reduced cost. So this vision is starting to become a reality.