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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - In Cox’s Bazar, making eco-friendly bags helps ‘change lives’ of Rohingya women
COX’S BAZAR: Rashida Khatun spends about four hours most days making grocery bags, a skill she learned with other Rohingya women in the Kutupalong refugee camp to help support her family.
The whirring sounds of a sewing machine fill her work shifts, as she lines up fabric upon fabric made out of vegetable fiber called jute on the table, before she lets the machine do the stitches. The work brings her joy, Khatun says.
“I have been working here for the last three years, here my job is to sew the grocery bags. I am very happy to learn this skill,” the 38-year-old told Arab News.
Khatun is one of 150 Rohingya women currently working at the Jute Bag Production Center in Cox’s Bazar, an initiative by the UN refugee agency and its partner organization, the NGO Forum for Public Health.
The coastal district, which has for decades given shelter to Rohingya fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar, has become the world’s largest refugee settlement with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of them following the 2017 Myanmarese military crackdown.
The world’s largest stateless community has been cut off from formal work and education opportunities, as they await their fates with growing uncertainty. Though their return to Myanmar has been on the agenda for years, a UN-backed repatriation process has not taken off until now, despite pressure from Bangladesh amid dwindling financial support to host the large community.
At the center, women like Rashida earn less than half a dollar per hour, which accumulates to around $35 per month. The meager income, however, offered them a little taste of freedom.
“I have three children. With this money, I have been able to provide education for my children. I could bring happiness to them, buy them rice, and manage to buy new dresses for myself. All these things made me very happy,” she said. “In fact, this earning gives me the liberty to do many things.”
Urbi Chakma, who has been managing the center since it opened over three years ago, said the center has focused on working with vulnerable Rohingya women, including those who are disabled, divorcees and victims of gender-based violence.
“Another objective is to involve women in economic empowerment to provide support to their families. In this production center we have 150 women working here, we produce 500,000 bags each year,” she told Arab News.
Made out of natural materials, the jute bags are degradable and therefore an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic. The center also produces other items besides grocery bags, including gift bags and file folders.
“Women who are working here, they changed their lives after coming here. You know, with the incentive or the payment or money they get with this, they buy food for their children, clothes, and for their families,” Chakma said.
Women and children make up over 75 percent of the nearly one million Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh. More than six years into the refugee crisis, humanitarian aid has dwindled while the needs remain urgent.
In January, the UN’s World Food Programme said it will increase food rations for all Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, after severe aid cuts that led to a rise in malnourishment in the refugee camps. But there is still a $61 million funding gap for the UN body to restore the critical food assistance to the full amount.
For Halima Khatun, the money she earns from making the jute bags goes to supporting her family.
“Earlier, my life was fully dependent on the food (aid) rations, and it was very tough,” she said. “All the money I get from this job, I spend to bear my family expenses … With this, I provide food and education for my family.”
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