A Brief Account of BRAC’s Approach Towards Sub-Sector Development for the Economic Empowerment of Women in Manikganj – Part II

This blog is written as part of the BRAC History Project (BHP). Professor Shahaduz Zaman and Dr Imran Matin lead this initiative.

In part one, we discussed the background of the Manikganj Integrated Project (MIP), which had a greater focus on targeted activities for marginalised women (part one). The overriding concern was to figure out what could work for poor rural women. BRAC determined that the first pillar of any kind of empowerment would be organising them into self-supporting groups. Second, the skills possessed by rural women needed to be put to use as much as possible. The groups in Manikganj formulated various business schemes, including pickle making, poultry rearing/cock exchange, animal husbandry, collective agriculture, paddy husking, and rural artisanal works such as embroidery and sewing.

However, there were specific issues associated with many of these activities. Pickle making, for example, required a lot of technical expertise and innovation when it had to be scaled up. The problems included figuring out and maintaining a standard recipe that could preserve the quality of the pickle for a long time in the packaged form. On the other hand, generating income from paddy husking meant having access to large enough dry land. The roads were often the only area available to poor women. Gender norms were a big issue in the case of collective agriculture activities by women. The other alternative income-generating activities that they could potentially tap into were cottage businesses such as basket making, spice grinding, bidi making (locally produced cigarette), embroidery, eri/sericulture, and block printing. After relentless trials and errors, some trades such as embroidery, block printing, and eri/sericulture proved to be more adaptable and scalable from both technical and gender perspectives.

In our interviews with early participants of the MIP and employees of BRAC in Manikganj, the stories of getting involved in embroidery work, block printing, pickle making, and eri/sericulture were featured very prominently. Through a door-to-door approach, BRAC personnel sought to organise the rural poor into groups. A big portion of these women groups was involved in Food for Work (FFW) projects of the government. It was efficient to target these women since their involvement in FFW projects meant that they were willing to participate in outdoor and hard work such as earth digging and reconstructing canals, ponds, and other rural infrastructures. They were some of the first women organised by BRAC.

A group of dedicated BRAC workers, including Martha Chen and Ayesha Abed, along with Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, travelled extensively through Jamalpur and Manikganj. Md. Aminul Alam, a prominent figure of BRAC since its early days, managed the operations in Manikganj (see Ahmed, 2022). Khushi Kabir was heavily involved in Sulla, where she would stay for months at a stretch. All of them, like their other field colleagues, would have dialogues with rural women and try to learn what skills they possessed and what they had been doing traditionally.

It often emerged that village women had some experience in making kantha (quilts) and other sewing works. Women traditionally did hand embroidery on various mats and sheets. On the other hand, although eri/sericulture is an old profession in Bengal, rearing silkworms and spinning silk were new to many of these marginalised women.

To capitalise on these potentials, it was necessary to not only organise rural women and circumvent social norms but also engage in extensive technical experimentation and innovation. Block printing, for instance, went through numerous trials and errors as some of the local techniques were discarded in favour of more progressive ones. The point, however, is that once block printing and embroidery were operationalised, they promised a small but consistent source of income for many women.

So, the development of backward and forward linkage was crucial for the development of any sub-sector. If we take eri/sericulture as an example, several factors were at play. Firstly, there was scepticism about whether mulberry trees could be grown outside of Rajshahi, where they were usually cultivated under the Bangladesh Sericulture Board. Md. Aminul Alam, the famous “field marshal” of BRAC and former manager of the MIP, learned how to properly plant mulberry trees and taught the rural women by himself. Soon, it became clear that these trees would survive and grow in Manikganj as well.

Secondly, the people at the Bangladesh Sericulture Board helped BRAC spread this enterprise among rural poor women. Moreover, no vested interest systematically obstructed BRAC, except for localised forms of resistance that the rural women faced, which we hinted at before (see part one). Thirdly, BRAC had to find ways to access land for large-scale mulberry cultivation in an agricultural-intensive, land-scarce area. Fourthly, women had to learn techniques and technologies such as properly rearing the silkworms and extracting silk threads with a hand-powered spinner (charka). For this reason, in eri/sericulture and other trades, women had to be given training in various ways.

Additionally, a group of para-professionals was created from the group members who acted as the intermediary between the community and BRAC personnel. For instance, some became sikkha sebika who taught functional education classes, while others became sasthya sebika who received training from BRAC, performed diagnoses of common illnesses, and sold simple drugs for curing the ailments. BRAC had to develop extensive infrastructure to train these para-professionals and community women both in the project site and beyond. Fifthly and finally, BRAC had to find ways to properly market the products produced by women, including silk and other value-added clothing items such as block-printed and embroidered items.

In the beginning, the finished products were supplied to Karika, a store based in Dhaka. However, there were some issues associated with this. Karika would only pay the craftswomen after the product was sold, which often meant waiting for 2/3 months before receiving payment. Moreover, in some instances, Karika rejected the entire lot due to quality issues, creating a huge burden on the already vulnerable craftswomen (Ahmed, 2022). To overcome these issues, BRAC opened its own store in Dhaka in 1978 and named it “Aarong,” which would go on to influence and shape the ethnic-urban clothing industry of Bangladesh. Further, the women’s production centres, where early block printing and embroidery works were going on, would later come under the umbrella of the Ayesha Abed Foundation in 1983. The foundation was established to commemorate the untimely demise of Ayesha Abed, the first wife of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and a BRAC staff member who devoted herself to the rural women of Sulla, Jamalpur, and Manikganj. The foundation currently runs 15 main centres and about 736 sub-centres, involving nearly 25,000 rural women. However, what acted as a guiding force behind all these attempts for women’s economic empowerment was the drive towards building a sub-sector that worked for rural women. Martha Chen, who oversaw the Jamalpur Women’s Project (JWP) and was heavily involved in Manikganj and Sulla, eloquently describes this process in an interview for BHP taken recently:

Well, I call them sector or sub-sector models of building out the whole chain of what’s needed. The backward and forward linkages are needed. It’s not just the forward linkages to markets, but it’s the backward linkage. […] Like the eggs for sericulture and all of that. There was a market [for the product]. You just had to figure out a way to transport the eggs and all to the market because there was a growing middle class. So, the model was what I call a sub-sector. But that’s what we were doing. The difference was, if I may, that the sub-sector groups, techno serve and other groups, they always look at sunrise industries that are growing and how do you break the bottlenecks and move up. We started with where women were concentrated- where are the skills and things that women do. And whether it’s sunrise, sunset, we just wanted to build it. We saw the bottlenecks in the supply chain from the perspective of the women. We were building a lot of the backward linkages.

This sheds light on what was happening in Manikganj and, more specifically, regarding women’s economic empowerment. In this piece, we have tried to outline some of the processes and deep learnings that were operative in those simple yet complex activities. On the one hand, it was important to learn about the life conditions and work of rural women, and their potential; on the other hand, it was crucial to figure out ways through which BRAC could meaningfully support them in their aspiration for a better life.



Ahmed, R. (2022, October 11). আমিন ভাই ও ব্র্যাক: চলার বেগেই পথ কেটে যায় (প্রথম পর্ব). আমিন ভাই ও ব্র্যাক : চলার বেগেই পথ কেটে যায় (প্রথম পর্ব).


Md. Shafiqul Islam is a Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). He is involved in the ongoing BRAC History Project, a joint initiative of BRAC and BIGD. The project is currently being coordinated by Jumana Asrar. Golam Ahmed Rabbi is also involved in this project.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Golam Ahmed Rabbi and Jumana Asrar for their assistance with inputs and analysis during draft preparation. They were very integral to the process of the write-up.