By Guest Blogger Robin Seyfert (Founder, Basha)
Mila* had worked in the garments factory for 3 months without being paid when she turned in desperation to a woman offering to help. This woman instead sold her to a brothel. Farhana’s* husband left her alone with their son and large loans. She could just eke out a living to survive, but as the money lenders became more and more persistent, she sold her body to put money towards the loans. Stories like these are all too common in Bangladesh. To make it worse, once your reputation is spoiled in the eyes of society, there is little opportunity to return to a life considered respectable.
In our research, we found a number of programmes were working to empower and protect women within prostitution. Other training programmes were helping women to heal and prepare for the workforce. The unmet need seemed to be more workplaces that were sensitive to the women’s need to heal and their vulnerability. In answer to this need, Basha opened its doors on 1 May 2011 with 14 artisans. We are now starting our fourth production centre and will be employing around 85 women from our target population by our fifth anniversary.
Basha exports textiles, jewellery and Christmas items to retailers around the world. We work hard to establish the Basha brand, to sell high quality handmade products consumers will love, and to maintain stringent quality standards. Our most popular product is the kantha blanket which is a household staple throughout the Bengal region. For centuries women have joined layers of time softened sari’s together with straight even rows of stitching. People around the world have fallen in love with the softness, colour and utility of this beautiful handmade blanket. We are now making a range of products from kantha including men’s bow ties, table settings, and cushions. We are continuing to develop new products using knitting and crochet techniques with sari cloth.
Our jewellery collection is completely handmade from copper, brass and silver wire and sheet metal and ranges from fine classics to bold statement pieces. Our seasonal collection combines both our metalwork and textile skills. We have brass and copper ornaments embroidered with seasonal motifs, kantha Christmas tree ornaments, and gorgeous wreaths.
Most of our retailers are fairly new online shops interested in telling the story behind their products and making a difference in the world through retail. We are thrilled more shops and more consumers want to spend their money well. We love for people to get a glimpse into the life of the woman who made the product they treasure. We also love those occasions where people show us how our products have brightened their room or commemorated a special occasion.
The challenges are many when your business has a social goal alongside a fiscal goal. We must be profitable in order to continue, but we also are employing women based on their hardships rather than on their production skills. Many women are very successful and we love watching them gain pride and confidence as they work. Others continue to struggle with mental illness, cognitive impairment and personal issues. It’s important to us that we don’t turn these women away since they are the ones who will never be able to work in the mainstream workforce. The struggle is to find the balance between allowing women some space to heal and getting our work done.
We try to impart a strong sense of ownership to everyone who works with us. We know that every single person makes a valuable contribution, whether it’s by sewing or washing sari’s or sweeping floors or becoming a manager. A great example is Parul, who began to work for us when she found herself homeless, living in a bus station with two daughters after her husband left her. She initially just begged for support for daughters, declaring herself beyond hope at age 23. Parul showed great tenacity and leadership potential and is now one of our product mentors, supervising other artisans.
We provide ongoing classes for an hour a day so they can learn to read and write their own language, speak basic English, develop their life skills, and pursue other dreams they perhaps didn’t realize they could ever obtain. We provide day-care for their children who receive nutritious meals, developmental play, and tutoring. We are committed to ensuring that the children of the women we employ never face the vulnerability that their mother’s endured. We love seeing how Basha products change the lives of the women who make them while brightening the lives of those who purchase them.
For more information about Basha visit: http://bashaboutique.com/