"Women are the majority of the fashion industry's workforce, so it's important that they have a voice in order to exercise their rights. I'm proud to be able to fight for improving working conditions and to end gender-based violence in the factory where I work", says factory union leader Salma Khatum, from Bangladesh.
I had a very simple childhood. I was born in the district of Jessore, Bangladesh. My father was a trader, my mother- a housewife. I shared the household chores with her before heading out to play in the street with my friends and baby brother. When I was a child, I dreamt of becoming a doctor to help people. My parents were very concerned about passing on to me values they thought were important in life: they always said it was through studying that I'd become a good human being. They told me not to be greedy, to respect my elders and to love those younger than me. Lastly, they believed I should help others according to my abilities, and that I did what I was able to.
Eight years ago, my parents chose the man I would marry. I was 18 years old. My husband didn't want to take on the responsibilities of my studies, and that attitude created an uneasy situation between us. When I found out he was having an affair with another girl, I decided to file for a divorce. However, the separation led to an uncomfortable atmosphere in the village. People started judging me; I heard horrible things about myself, and I made up my mind to leave. I moved to Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, and I got a job as a seamstress in a clothes factory. It was there that I took my first steps towards changing in my life.
The first steps to fighting for gender equality
At the start, I was a worker like any other, but then I was invited to take part in workshops on labour rights at the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS), an organisation supported by C&A Foundation, which fights for gender equality and human rights. With the training I received, I was able to join the Workers' Participation Committee, a representative body for those working at the factory, and it became apparent that the rules imposed could be changed if we acted together.
Standing up against exploitation in the factory
My struggle started when, one day, I was verbally assaulted by a man at the factory. I complained to my manager, who did nothing regarding the incident. At that moment, I started demanding better working conditions and showing other women that they could also defend themselves. That they can take action to prevent situations of harassment from occurring.
There was also a lot of pressure in the factory, and we were being exploited. At the committee meetings, I was increasingly talking about labour rights and the issues necessary for improving our environment. I managed to get a large number of women to join the movement, and I became a union leader. We gained power for systematically fighting against repression, and a transformation was underway. Earlier, when we needed time off for a doctor's appointment, our wages for the day were deducted. Now, we've won the right to have paid sick-leave.
I never imagined I'd be able to bring about a change such as this in my workplace. The textile industry's workforce has few qualifications, and most haven’t had formal training. I'm tremendously proud of serving as inspiration for these women. My dream now is to guarantee a decent wage for female factory workers and I want to see the factory free of gender-based violence. Women are the majority of the fashion industry, so it's important that they have a voice for asserting their rights. I hope the women of the next generation keep on fighting.
“It's very important that they have a voice for asserting their rights. I hope the women of the next generation keep on fighting.”
My work with female workers in the factory and the skills that I have developed has also led to change in my own life, that of my family and the people around me. I'm 26, and I live with dignity, knowing I'm making a difference. As I once dreamt of being a doctor, I'd like to see my son, nine years old Tamim Mahmud, study medicine. I'm a single mother, and I think a lot about his future; I'd like to set an example. I'll pass on all of the values and lessons my parents gave me, and I know he will respect female workers and help them any way he can".