Shahnaz Khanam, a former garment worker.

This post is part of a sponsored collaboration between the Ethical Writers Coalition and the Asian University for Women.

It has become fashionable to be a feminist, no doubt.

Emma Stone and Dakota Johnson wore Planned Parenthood pins to the Oscars, and NYFW was saturated with feminist political statements. But the big problem with typical feminist statement tees is that many are made by young women in sweatshops, which completely undercuts the message. It’s like when a male CEO says he supports diversity, but pays female employees a lower salary – because he can and it benefits his bottom line. Yeah, it benefits your bottom line to buy a cheaper feminism tee, but don’t expect to get applause until I flip the tag over.

Still, what to do instead? Advocates for the rights and wages of female garment factory workers in Asia find themselves caught in a moral double bind. On the one hand, we don’t want to financially support companies who are exploiting these vulnerable ready-made garment (RMG) workers, subjecting them to dangerous, abusive, and long hours of work for pay that won’t feed their families. So we try to avoid cheap clothes made in developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar. But on the other hand, RMG work – as dirty and cheap as it is – often represents a step up from these young women’s other options, which include rural subsistence farming and sex work. We can’t just take it away.

A promising new program might show there is a third way to change the paradigm: educating female garment workers, so they can change the system from the inside out.

The Glass Garment Ceiling

Like many South Asian women, Rubina Yeasmin traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh to find a job so she could help her mother support her family. Once she arrived, she found a garment factory job, where for two years she worked 12-hour days, six days a week, and was often required to work on her off day as well. Even though most garment workers are women, she noticed that all of the managers and workers in the factory above the level of quality inspector were men.

Then Yeasmin heard about the new program, called Pathways for Promise. Launched in 2016, the initiative by the Asian University for Women identifies talented women among Bangladesh’s four million female garments factory workers and provides them with the academic, financial, and professional support to enter the Bachelor’s degree program and become leaders in their chosen fields. Pathways believes that that a woman’s potential is not defined by the parameters of the factory floor on which she currently works, and that female garment workers deserve to break the aspirational barriers that impede the millions of women currently working the ready-made garments industry from daring to dream of advancing beyond their current circumstances. This intensive, one-year residential program, which feeds into the undergraduate AUW program, is tailored to the needs of students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to achieve an undergraduate degree.

AUW collaborated with a select group of factory owners to offer admissions tests on the shop floors of factories. Even though participating factory owners offered a huge incentive – workers accepted for admission would continue to receive their monthly wages for all five years at AUW – nobody knew if any of workers would sign up.

Yeasmin’s mother, who had always hoped she would be able to continue her education, encouraged her to apply to the program. Pathways for Promise doesn’t believe that knowing English is a heuristic for intelligence, so Yeasmin and the more than one-thousand did. Applicants were interviewed and selected based on their demonstration of academic ability, commitment to one’s community, and leadership potential – measured by empathy, courage, and a sense of outrage at injustice. Now, more than 30 former garments workers are enrolled in the program, including Yeasmin.

The program, which is financed by the IKEA Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, isn’t just a business school. It seeks to empower this select cohort of women to become leaders in their communities and careers, and to dismantle prejudices against women and, more generally, the working-class. Each scholar will complete one year of intensive English language study, one year of Access Academy, and then three years in AUW undergraduate program, plus will participate in conferences, internships, competitions, media coverage, and community service. The hope is that these women break out of their caste and demonstrate that no sector of society has a monopoly on talent, and that even a woman from a garment factory has leadership potential. They’re not required to return to the RMG industry after graduation, but the combination of their personal experiences on the factory floor with their Bachelor’s degree and leadership training will uniquely position them to contribute to the industry’s sustainable development.

Asian University for women is an international university that educates and empowers women representing 15 countries, over 35 ethnicities and 25 languages across Asia and the Middle East, including Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. The 500 students live and study together in Chittagong, studying Environmental Science; Economics; Public Health; or Politics, Philosophy and Economics, plus the optional minor in 13 different disciplines ranging from computer science to gender studies to math and fine arts. The goal is to help students expand their worldviews and embracing cross-cultural diversity as a regional strength – not a cause for division and strife.

Since opening its doors, AUW has graduated over 440 students, with plans to increase enrollment by nearly 150% over the next seven years. At least 90% of reporting alumnae secure gainful employment or enter a world-class graduate school program within one year of graduation. They work in nonprofit organizations, research institutes, private companies and schools. While the majority of alumnae pursue graduate studies outside their country of origin due to the availability of scholarships, 85% of employed alumnae go on to work in their home country, limiting “brain drain” in the region.

Now Rubina Yeasmin is in that same pipeline, and was delighted at how helpful the AUW student volunteers were during her orientation, saying that they, “have never hesitated to help with every detail.” She wants to break the glass ceiling and join the management in her factory after graduating.

 

Refugees Welcome

The AUW program includes 50 women from the Rohingya community – an ethnic minority that have been victimized as unrecognized citizens in Burma and then as unwanted immigrants in Bangladesh. Upon graduation, they will quite possibly represent the largest single cohort of Rohingya women educated to such a high level. One scholar is Halima Akter, who says refugees are often ignored in Bangladesh and do not have proper health facilities or the opportunity to pursue higher education. She hopes to develop an education and health infrastructure for all the girls in her refugee community. “I want to get established and inspire everyone. I want to prove that girls [and refugees] are just as capable…in every aspect of life,” she says. “I want to pave the way for other girls my age so they can do something with their lives. I feel really fortunate to be studying in such a good international university.”

The program is young, but early signs are encouraging. During its inaugural year, Pathways for Promise student retention rate was 96%. And now there is an extension program, Education Cells, where current Pathways for Promise students and recent graduates offer weekly classes to garment factory workers and women in low-income communities, following a curriculum that mirrors the Pathways program: English, math, and computer literacy. As enrollment grows, they’re hoping to add special sessions on health and well-being, as well as martial arts.

Education Cells are one way that Pathways presents current factory workers and other community members with examples of successful and determined women as role models, to help dispel any inhibitions garments workers and community members may have in believing that they too can aspire to more.

Have an Impact

So if you’re looking for a truly feminist statement to make, consider donating to the Asian University for Women, who is lifting up our sisters across the world, and helping create a more just system for your clothes.

Read more:

“When women receive a secondary education and beyond, they are more likely to prolong marriage and childbirth, to seek prenatal care and a skilled birth attendant, to immunize their children, to have access to better nutrition for themselves and their children, and to send their own daughters to school.” | Walking With Cake

“MY POINT: THERE AREN’T ANY CLEAR REGULATIONS WHEN IT COMES TO ‘CONSCIOUS CONSUMERISM,’ WHICH LEAVES A LOT OF ROOM FOR US TO GET DUPED, DESPITE OUR GOOD INTENTIONS.” | The Peahen

On the one hand, I reluctantly agree with the “vote with your dollar” rhetoric that pervades the conscious consumer movement, but I am uncomfortable with the implication that merely consuming more or better would lead to long term solutions for garment workers. | Style Wise