by Margie O’Connor
blogger, AMERICAN NOMAD
by Margie O’Connor
blogger, AMERICAN NOMAD
One woman’s small and seemingly insignificant desire to help the impoverished women of Bangladesh was the beginning of Basha Boutique. Robin Seyfert, founder of Basha, began her journey in 2006 when she moved to Bangladesh to work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to foster an HIV awareness-training program. Their efforts expanded to include a program focused on helping women transition from a life of street-based sex work to a more dignified means of employment.
As Robin’s term ended, she witnessed the joy and inspiration their training program had on many women. She knew she had to do more. Returning to the United States in 2010, Robin began the necessary preparations to start Basha. On May 1, 2011, Basha opened its doors for production, forever bringing a renewed hope to the survivors of such tragedies as rape, abandonment, prostitution and hunger in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Basha (Basha translates to “House” and asha to “Hope” in Bengali) Boutique offers these women alternative, honorable work, focused on improving the whole person. Women, many with young children, are often forced into lives of sexual prostitution or trafficking as a means to feed themselves and their young children, when left in a situation of hopelessness.
Garnering support from its partner organizations, Children’s Uplift Program (CUP) based in Dhaka and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Mymensingh, Basha invites women on the streets to participate in a rehabilitation and training program, where they receive assistance in healing both physical and mental wounds of the past. Participants remain in the program at CUP or MCC for one to three years. Once deemed ready for employment, the women then transition to Basha Boutique, where they begin creating beautiful items like the Chevron Brass Necklace.
Recently, Basha opened their own training program in a renowned brothel town called Tangail, where exploitation is prevalent. Here, they will continue to promulgate the message of hope by providing pathways for at-risk women to succeed.
A PARADIGM SHIFT FOR CULTURE CHANGE
Bangladeshi culture, although improving, still exercises gender-based inequalities in many facets of daily life.
As the father or husband typically assumes the role of guardian, women are left in vulnerable situations should their primary caregiver die or abandon them. With many relationships, the husband holds the role of main financial supporter and decision maker in the family unit, giving little credence to the rights, desires, or decision-making power of the female.
A woman’s plight may be further jeopardized by the inadequate working conditions prevalent in so many Bangladesh factories. Workers’ rights and conditions are inferior to production, as evident during the collapse at the Rana Factory complex in 2013, where over a thousand lives perished and thousands more were injured.
Basha Boutique offers the paradigm shift so urgently needed to produce lasting change. In a country where workers often receive poor wages while toiling in hazardous conditions, Basha offers artisans an honest wage, while working in a safe, sensitive environment.
Along their journey at Basha, women garner the tools necessary to assist in rebuilding their lives. Benefits, health care, on-site daycare, and ongoing training in topics such as Bangla literacy, English, life skills, and personal development, empower women at Basha to create a life filled with peace and void of past atrocities.
Artisans at Basha forge products like the Willow Kantha Throw by meticulously sewing washed, recycled saris together and backing with plain cotton. Many items, like the Blue Diamonds Kantha Cushion, use repurposed saris or other materials, artistically combined into one-of-a-kind home accessories.
ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY TO DIGNITY
Like the word kantha, which means “patched cloth”, the women at Basha, slowly mend the wounds of the past, replacing them with a moments of hope and peace. Nazma is one of Basha’s artisans on this journey of transformation.
Nazma left her husband, after he took a second wife and became severely abusive. Pregnant with her son, Nazma, and her five-year old daughter begged for food in the Mazur, a religious pilgrimage site wrought with criminal activity. At night, Nazma tied her daughter to her side, for fear she would be taken during their sleep.
A while later, an outreach worker and another woman invited her to CUP. Nazma received medical support and eventually gave birth to her son there. She continued in CUP’s training program and was among the first to begin work at Basha.
Today, Nazma continues to work, washing the cloth that will later become beautifully handcrafted kantha throws, pillows or bedspreads. Her face and demeanor hint at the life of abuse and trauma she once experienced. Nazma continues to work toward a life where her children will no longer face the dire prospect of undignified living she once endured.