When Kajal was a baby, a sudden attack of untreated fever left her legs immobile. Unable to handle this pressure, on top of the extreme poverty they were already suffering from, Kajal’s father fled. Kajal grew up profoundly isolated.
“I felt like a burden to my mother,” she says.
“I dropped out of school after class 2 because the other children were unkind to me. I had no confidence in myself. I could not imagine a way out.”
Given the lack of options in her tiny world, Kajal agreed to get married, hoping this might bring her mother some relief. Options for poor girls with disabilities are slim, so she ended up marrying a man many years older than her, who was also very poor and illiterate, and even then, her mother had to pay a dowry.
Despite her indispensability, Kajal is now self dependent by cultivating mushroom
Kajal is 30 now and the mother of two children. Her husband is a mason who doesn’t get work on a regular basis. Luckily, Kajal was able to join Access Bangladesh Foundation, where she learned how to sew and earn some money.
Later she learned that Access Bangladesh, with support from International Labour Organization (ILO), was providing technical support for skill-based activities for persons for disabilities. She decided to give it a shot.
Access Bangladesh was searching for stay at home jobs suitable for people with physical disabilities. They conducted a market survey and discovered that mushroom cultivation might be a way forward.
The National Mushroom Institute in Savar was a supportive partner, explaining that mushrooms have many positive health benefits – lowers cholesterol, supports immunity, maintains healthy skin, contains natural insulin, increases metabolism, contains anti-oxidants, inhibits cancer, thins blood and is rich in zinc.
Also, mushrooms can be cultivated in a ‘green’ way – requiring no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Best of all, mushrooms can be grown at home, providing meaningful work for mothers with children and persons with disabilities whose mobility is challenged.
With assistance from the Canadian funded ILO B-SEP project, the National Mushroom Institute provided a one day training for a batch of women with disabilities – teaching them how to make a ‘mushroom house’ – a bamboo structure in which mushroom seeds could be placed and watered, to grow. The training and support cost 15,600 taka per head.
Now Kajal earns 2500 to 3000 taka monthly. She says demand for her mushrooms is high. Growing the mushrooms takes her only 10 to 15 minutes of time a day, watering the mushrooms with spoons. This leaves her ample time to do her other activities and looks after her sons and husband. Kajal is very happy with this second source of income and wants to continue it for as long as she can.
‘Now life is going good,” says Kajal.
“I can send my children to school. I can feed them well. We sometimes eat the mushrooms too! I am no longer dependent on my husband and so he treats me differently, with more respect. I wish my mother had known about mushroom cultivation when I was growing up. Then perhaps things would have been different, as they will be now. I feel more confident and proud, because it is nice to contribute to the family and provide for the children. My disability is no longer a hindrance. My neighbours come to see the mushrooms. They see I am the regular earner of the family and this has made them respect me too. Now many women in Shadhapur village would like to grow mushrooms. I hope all women learn to do something that earns money. Otherwise we are at other people’s mercy. With money, we can pave our own lives, towards our own dreams.”
Mushroom cultivation appears to be a perfect model of a green enterprise that can be set up at low cost and replicated easily to empower those with challenged mobility to earn from home.
Access Bangladesh plans to form cooperatives and a brand name to promote this product in local supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. Such initiatives should be scaled up to benefit people with disabilities and the country as a whole.
The Bangladesh Skills for Employment and Productivity (B-SEP) Project is an initiative of the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) funded by the Government of Canada and executed by the International Labour Organization with support from the GoB.
The project aims to accelerate the current efforts being undertaken by other organizations, donors and government to make skills in Bangladesh nationally recognized, accessible to all, higher quality and directly linked to jobs.
Tanzina Nitol is an independent researcher working in University of Dhaka, Bangladesh in Deaprtment of Women and Gender Studies