One of the first lessons those who sew garments for mass markets learn is that they must follow the pattern. It’s a tedious, repetitive process with little margin for error and less for change.
So too, do the lives of countless women who toil at this work follow a pattern. In countries such as Bangladesh, while many daughters dream of pursuing studies that would ultimately lead to alternative careers, without the wages they contribute, their families simply cannot get by.
It’s estimated that 60 to 80% of the garment workers who create goods for such outlets as Walmart, H&M, Next, Gap, Marks & Spencer, and Target are women. While their male counterparts have traditionally been groomed for management positions, the educational divide meant girls were destined to toil at factory jobs for low wages in unsafe conditions because they had no other option.
But a program launched by the Asian University for Women (AUW), Pathways for Promise, seeks to change that trajectory by identifying women who show academic talent and offering them both an education and a stipend that lessens the burden of financial obligations that leaves them free to study.
While the Pathways for Promise met with some initial skepticism, as women who’ve gone through AUW’s earlier initiatives have achieved success, the program is being met with increased acceptance.
“The impact they can have on being an example in the community and propelling others to follow suit is much more impressive and persuasive,” university founder Kamal Ahmad told NBC News Asian-America. “Being the first one has a way of altering the pathways of the family.”
Since its inception in 2016, roughly 470 students have enrolled in the program. Of those, 430 matriculated to AUW’s Access Academy pre-college prep program. The first class of 25 undergraduates graduated in May of 2020.
In addition to reading comprehension, writing, and business studies, another integral component of the students’ curriculum is the performing arts. For women from underserved communities, especially those from conflict areas, learning to express themselves freely and without fear of recrimination instills a sense of self-confidence and opens a new world of possibilities.
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“They are very much underprivileged students, and what happens, the environment for most of them makes them introverted. Performing arts helps them to become more extroverted and communicate well and express themselves,” explained Masud Rahman, a teacher of dance, music, and performing arts. “It is giving the students a new language to express their rights without any hesitation and fear.”
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“When I first started at AUW, I felt nervous because I thought my English was not good enough,” said Pathways for Promise alumna Chuma Chakma. “However, I quickly made friends and my teachers were very friendly and supportive. I feel much more confident now, and I believe the opportunity to come to AUW has been the greatest gift of my entire life.”
While the immediate goal of the program is to give talented women the opportunity to better themselves through education, the bigger picture is about breaking a systemic pattern. The graduates who return from their studies armed with the knowledge to catalyze and implement much-needed change in the garment industry bring the hope of a brighter future to its workers.
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“We might be able to help end the tragedy of these women being perennially represented by someone who has no sympathy for their lived experience,” Ahmad said in an interview with Glamour. “These smart, talented women might finally give a voice to people who have never had one before.”
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