Five years ago, Sadeka Begum was working 12-hour shifts in a garment factory as the main earner for her family in Bangladesh.
Today, the 23-year-old is one of the first graduates of a special university programme that aims to inspire female workers to become leaders and boost women’s rights across industries.
Begum now interns for the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) and hopes to use her economics degree to launch a project to improve the lives of the children of Bangladeshi textile workers by addressing a lack of schooling and childcare.
“I am an example of how education can change a person,” said Begum, one of four former garment workers to graduate from the Pathways for Promise course at the Asian University for Women (AUW) – based in the southeastern port city of Chittagong.
“Garment workers are the reason why Bangladesh’s economy is doing well,” she added. “Their children deserve better.”
About 470 disadvantaged women including tea pickers and refugees have enrolled for the free degree programme since it started in 2016, and receive a monthly stipend while they study.
Dozens of ex-textile workers are part of the cohort and the AUW’s vice chancellor, Nirmala Rao, said the university was involved in creating internships to tackle a “dearth of female middle and senior managers” in Bangladesh’s garment industry.
While up to 80 percent of garment workers are women in largely junior positions such as seamstresses, the majority of senior management positions are taken by men, UN data shows.
Rubana Huq, who heads the