A silken lifeline

Observations on Bangladesh

If it weren't for the silkworms, Feroza Begum's four-month-old son, Alam, might not have survived. When the monga - a seasonal famine that hits northern Bangladesh every year - turned acute last October, Feroza's neighbours were driven to eating leaves to survive, and yet there was always enough food in her house. "Because I could eat enough, there was also enough breast milk for Alam," says Feroza. "Ever since I started this business with the silkworms, this household has never known what hunger is."

Over the past five years, Feroza's village has experienced a revolution of sorts. In 2001, with micro-loans from a local NGO, she and four other women set up small home-based businesses to rear silkworms. They were landless women, two of them widowed, scratching a pittance by working as sharecroppers on others' land for a monthly pay of roughly £5. "Now I have two cows, I have just bought some land where I grow maize, and both my elder daughter and son go to school," Feroza says proudly, as we sit in the cool of their homestead of wicker walls under a tin roof.

The wonder lies in the simplicity. With initial capital from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee's rural development programme, Feroza, and thousands of women like her, plant mulberry saplings on roadsides. They tend the trees, fertilise them and make sure they are not eaten by cattle. When the trees sprout fresh leaves six months later, they buy silkworm eggs from BRAC and rear the larvae on wicker trays, feeding them on leaves from their plantations until the worms spin their cocoons.

The women sell the cocoons back to BRAC at guaranteed prices, whereupon they are bought by a different set of village women who spin them into silk thread at home on the hand-operated wheels also bought with micro-loans. With the thread, women trained by BRAC stitch and embroider hand-spun silk kurtas (shirts) and saris, which are eventually sold at one of Dhaka's top designer stores - a sister concern to the NGO. "In the past three decades, over 20,000 women have become dependent on this project as a livelihood," says Abdul Mannan, the project head.

The women earn up to £30 a month, well above the average in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line. What's more, the income is going to women, who, Mannan says, "as a rule, are more far-sighted and prone to saving money, and who otherwise would be looked upon as liabilities rather than assets to their families".