Silk is for woman and woman is for silk

WOMEN consume almost 80 percent of the silk produced in the world today. Women are also playing a major role in producing silk as they constitute about 60-70 percent of the labour force in sericulture and silk industry, right from mulberry cultivation to silk weaving, without having any role in decision making. Under the circumstances, empowering women in sericulture assumes great importance.
Silk is a natural protein fibre produced from cocoons made by the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori. The shimmering appearance for which silk is prized comes from the fiber's triangular prism-like structure, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles. It has a smooth, soft texture that is not slippery, unlike many synthetic fibers. It has a good moisture regaining capacity of 11 percent. Silk's good absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in warm weather and while active. Its low conductivity keeps warm air close to the skin during cold weather. Silk's elegant, soft luster and beautiful drape makes it perfect for many furnishing applications.
Silk, the queen of fabrics, was miraculously discovered by a woman (Chinese Queen Lei-tzu, wife of emperor Huang Di) about 3000 B.C. The legend is that Lei-tzu was in her garden when she picked some cocoons from a mulberry tree and accidentally dropped one into her tea. When she pulled it out, she found it unwound into one long filament. For her discovery of the silk producing process, Lei-tzu is also sometimes called Si Ling-chi, or Lady of the Silkworm.
In China, silkworm farming was originally restricted to women, and many women were employed in the silk reeling industry. The right to wear silk was reserved for the emperor and the highest dignitaries. Later, it gradually extended to other classes of Chinese society. The monopoly was defended by an imperial decree, condemning to death anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs.
Around 300 AD a Japanese expedition team succeeded in taking some silkworm eggs and four young Chinese girls, who were forced to teach their captors the art of sericulture. For more than four thousand years, this cloth produced from the cocoons of caterpillars, has been associated with crowned heads and riches throughout the different ages. A fashion designer once said: "Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand.'
Producing silk was a lengthy, complex process. Men took responsibility for the mulberry trees, growing the only food of silkworms, but women were responsible for the critical task of feeding the leaves to the silkworms. Women brought baskets of mulberry leaves during the final few days before the worms spun their cocoons. At this point, the worms might need to eat ten times a day. For simpler weaves, one woman could operate a treadle loom, using her foot to raise the heddles.
Various activities in sericulture result in employment of 13 persons/ha/year, out of which 60 percent are women. The work involved in the industry, such as harvesting of leaves, rearing of silkworms, spinning or reeling of silk yarn and weaving, can be done by old women and young girls. This enhanced role of rural women in sericulture is significant since it is in contrast to other agricultural or agro-based provision, where the participation of women is comparatively lower. The higher proportion of women participation has so far been a natural and self0regulated phenomenon in sericulture. Therefore, appropriate intervention and assistance can expand the option for improving the status of a woman in family enterprises.
Since, sericulture provides gainful employment to women in agriculture and industrial sectors it has occupied a significant place in development strategies and programmes of the government of Bangladesh. The role of women in various activities involved in rearing of silk worms and reeling of cocoons is worth mentioning. This supports the argument that sericulture is a highly profitable income generating activity to elevate the status of rural poor especially women.
Having realized the key role of women playing in silk production, India has taken many innovative initiatives to empower them. The Central Silk Board (CSB), India had constituted a sub-group comprising of women members of the Board which has identified many areas that need an attention in all solemnity. The major ones are, change in perception while researching, planning and implementing the programmes; redesigning training programmes suiting to women needs; revamping of micro-financing; creating a mechanism for better opportunities in entrepreneurship and land accessing, single window system for women beneficiaries for better reach of the schemes' benefits and sensitization of researchers, technologists, extension personnel and grass root level workers in the issue.
The strategic approaches suggested to tackle these issues include development of women friendly technologies; launching of sericulture technology parks for women; women run technical service centres, chawki rearing centres; health insurance scheme for women workers; creation of women development fund to provide subsidized credit to women sericulturists; exclusive cocoon marketing facilities; reeling, twisting and weaving units like crèches, rest rooms etc.
Sericulture has an enormous potential in Bangladesh, provided it is made available to rural people, especially women, and its marketing is organised independently. It can serve as an excellent mode for employment generation and augmentation of income. This requires not only providing fresh technological inputs to primary producers but, more importantly, also evolving and establishing new systems of organising production and marketing.
Bangladesh Silk Development Project (1997-2003), financed by the IDA and GoB, has been implemented to help increase the incomes of small-scale silk producers, mostly poor women, the primary beneficiaries of the project. The project had a positive impact on the empowerment of the rural poor, particularly women, not only to become financially self- sufficient but also to be established entrepreneurs.
Silk production, a highly labour intensive activity, has strong potential to increase employment opportunities for the poor, particularly women. As there are problems associated with the women in sericulture, especially in rural areas, there is a need for a long-term integrated approach to ensure a change so that women would be assured of a better income and social life. A smile on the face of women sericulturists would mean the financial soundness of their families.

Dr. Abdul Aziz Sarkar is Director In Charge (on LPR), Bangladesh Sericulture Research and Training Institute.


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