About 2,000 men toil over huge, half-finished ships in a shipyard on the coast of southern Bangladesh. The clatter of grinders, drills and hammers fills the air and the smell of fuel, dust and sweat is everywhere. Workers are building vessels that will be used to ferry thousands of passengers along the maze of waterways that make up the delta that runs through the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.
One of the workers is a little different from the rest. Her long dark hair is tucked into a hard hat, her elegant hands are encased in thick gloves and her sparkling eyes are hidden behind safety glasses. 23-year old Nupur Howlader is the shipyard’s only female tradesperson. She is also about to become Bangladesh’s first nationally-certified female welder – the result of a skills training programme run by the ILO and funded by the European Union (EU) that provides technical skills to young and under-employed people. In a country where women’s participation in technical and vocational education is strikingly low, Nupur is an important role model.
“When my husband and I told our families what we wanted to do they were in total confusion. It caused a lot of tension, and they kept questioning why we wanted to take risks,” said Nupur. “I just kept thinking that if I learn how to do something useful I can make much more money than working at home. If more people start thinking this way our country can really progress. I can take my skills anywhere, they are mine forever”. In just six months Nupur has raced through her theoretical lessons at BarisalTechnicalSchool and College and her practical placement at the Sundarbans shipyard. She is now in the last stages of her practical training at Linde Bangladesh, a local branch of the international industrial gas and engineering company. She is now nationally-certified at Level 1, meaning she can weld steel plates, make sheet metal and interpret technical drawings, among other skills. She will soon be nationally-certified at Level 2, meaning she will be able to do arc welding, join different metals and have an understanding of metallurgy.
But, as well as her technical success, Nupur is also takes pride in the way that she is challenging the status quo. “The traditional mindset is that people should pursue general education in Bangladesh. What we have realized though is that job possibilities after getting technical education are as good as after general education,” she said. “I am a welder and my skills are needed by many businesses. Being a woman has not held me back either – women can do anything. I want to see all women in jobs. Women should not be begging on the streets of Dhaka; they should have skills and be working”.
Srinivas Reddy, Director of ILO Country Office for Bangladesh agrees. “This is a great move towards breaking gender stereotypes and I hope that success of Nupur will motivate more and more women to take up non-traditional skills with decent work opportunities”.
Nationally-recognised qualifications are part of Bangladesh’s new National Technical and Vocational Qualifications Framework. The framework ensures training meets current industry skill requirements and is delivered in the shortest possible time. The ILO-run skills training programme, from which Nupur is about to graduate, is part of a comprehensive package of initiatives called the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Reform Project, that is working to make skills across the country relevant, high quality and quickly deliverable. The TVET Reform Project, funded by the EU, also focuses on making skills more accessible to women in Bangladesh. Female participation in technical education is strikingly low, ranging from 9 to 13 per cent in public institutions. The Government of Bangladesh, with support from the ILO, last year drafted the National Strategy for Promotion of Gender Equality in TVET, which was the first of its kind in the technical education sector.
“Promoting gender equality is a key aim of the TVET Reform Project and through our programmes we are seeing more and more young women like Nupur learning skills and challenging conservative attitudes about gender,” said William Hanna, Ambassador, Head of the EU Delegation to Bangladesh. “Bangladesh has made great progress in promoting gender equality by closing the gender gap in gross and net enrolment ratios in primary and secondary education. This success now needs to be replicated in the technical education sector”.