Motorcycle girl

In Bangladesh, one girl is defying the odds to work and earn. We meet the NGO that helped her get this far

There is nothing immediately unusual about the workshop in Poba, a sub-district of Rajshahi city in western Bangladesh.

Battered jerrycans and tattered posters are stacked on rusting shelves and tacked to rough walls. A mechanic is hard at work, grasping occasionally for a spanner, hammer or wrench amid the tangle of a toolbox, hands slick with oil and grease. Wherever you are in the world, repairing broken motorcycles is dirty work.

The surprise comes when the mechanic looks up, a beaming smile illuminating her face. Khadija wields her wrench like a contestant on Star Academy might clutch a microphone: it’s both an invaluable tool, and a symbol of her aspiration.

“When I repair something and customers praise me I feel very happy,” she says. “I work and earn for my family, and that’s what I enjoy most. I have the chance to be a helping hand to them.”

Khadija is not the first of her family to don a mechanic’s overalls. The 17-year-old’s father worked at a truck garage in Bagmara, a largely agricultural sub-district of northwest Bangladesh. With no land and a small income, however, he could not afford to support his family. Khadija was forced to drop out of school, and faced becoming just another statistic: only 55 per cent of children in Bangladesh complete their primary education.

When girls drop out of school they usually work as domestic helpers, in the home or as poorly paid maids. It seemed as if Khadija might be forced down the same road, until she was selected for a vocational skills programme – Skills Training for Advancing Resources (STAR) – run by the development organisation BRAC.

“If I hadn’t joined STAR, I’d probably still work as a domestic help,” she says. Instead, Khadija works in the Raja Automobile Shop in Poba, under the mentorship of her ustad (teacher), Mohammad Raihan Raja.

STAR pairs young people the state classifies as hard-to-reach urban working children, like Khadija, with entrepreneurs like Mohammad. Students, or shagreds, spend six months concurrently learning a trade and working as an apprentice with their ustad. The programme also helps link STAR graduates to employers. “In most cases, the ustad keeps the student as a full time employee after the training period,” says Riful Jannat, STAR’s programme manager.

“At first I wasn’t that positive about a girl coming to work in my shop,” admits Ujjal Hossain, owner of the Raja Automobile Shop. “But Khadija was keen and willing and she had a log book in which her expertise was clearly documented. This helped me to trust her skills and so I hired her.”

Young women in Bangladesh face considerable obstacles to advancement and empowerment. School dropout rates are high, youth unemployment is rising, and cultural mores mean women are limited in the choice of career they may pursue. STAR is attempting to make inroads into all three areas, providing students with incentives to complete their training, paying them an allowance, and even helping them to set up their first bank account.

 “I learnt how to save money,” Khadija says. “Like my father, I too can now help my family. During Eid I can buy gifts for them.”

Unemployment is a challenge in a country that must create enough jobs for a workforce predicted to number 100 million by 2020. Vocational skills, particularly, are in short supply: 10 years ago there were only 5,000 women in Bangladesh with vocational qualifications. Last year the government adopted a national policy to encourage skills development, however, more can always be done to provide young women with the best possible chance of being able to earn – and save.

“The students get training on financial literacy and communicative English once a week. The training is designed in such a way to not only develop a specific trade, but also their life skills,” says Shamsul Alam, STAR programme organiser in Bagmara.

Women are a growing force in Bangladesh’s job market. However they are concentrated in the garment sector as a consequence of societal tradition. STAR offers a wide range of vocational trades to students including mobile phone repairs, embroidery, electrical wiring and tailoring, but it was Khadija’s father who chose this unusual line of work for his daughter.

Why did her father select motorcycle servicing? “I don’t know,” she laughs, “but he wanted me to learn this trade. Everyone said, ‘This job is not for girls, people will laugh’, but my father was very determined.”

By the end of the apprenticeship Khadija had changed attitudes: diligent and capable, she got a job immediately after she had finished her apprenticeship. Her boss is certainly convinced. “Would I employ another girl now? Definitely I would, especially after seeing Khadija’s level of interest,” says Hossain. “Whatever she does, she does with complete dedication. Her best skill is motorcycle wiring and she is, in fact, better at it than me.”

“At first customers are surprised. But when they find out I can work well, they appreciate it,” adds Khadija. “They say, ‘Khadija’s work is good.’ If they come back, they look for me, asking ‘where is Khadija?’”

BRAC has been operating within Bangladesh since its inception more than four decades ago. STAR was launched last year in collaboration with global children’s charity UNICEF, the International Labour Organisation and Bangladesh’s Bureau of Non-Formal Education. Since then, more than 990 shagreds have graduated from the programme and 983 of those are currently employed.

BRAC has a three-year plan to scale up STAR, starting next year.

“One of the main challenges of STAR is to make it both cost-sharing and sustainable,” says Alam. “The target beneficiaries’ economic background holds them back from a cost-sharing approach. If this could be managed then STAR would be a truly replicable design.”

Khadija hopes she can free her whole family from the poverty trap. “I want to learn more, earn more, and help my family,” she says with a smile. “Also I have not tried riding a motorcycle yet, but if I have the chance I might try.