Success story comes to a grinding halt
Before the pandemic hit, a group of women with disabilities were living a respectable life, working for a handloom workshop in Mymensingh's Kanchijuly area.
They produced various items, including wall mats, carpets, and floor mats, which were in high demand both locally and abroad.
But as business slowed since early last year due to the pandemic, the group is finding it hard to bounce back, even as the world slowly inches towards normalcy.
Hailing from Durgapur upazila in Netrakona, 35-year-old Nopali Chambugong, who uses a wheelchair, said she has been supporting her family from the income generated from the workshop for the last 15 years. "But the pandemic has left us in dire straits," she said.
The workshop was started in 1997 by the women-only "Protibandhi Community Centre" at Mymensingh city, with only five workers.
Over the years, the centre has trained 500-odd workers, most of whom can now provide for themselves.
The workshop currently has around 20 artisans, who are paid on a production basis, earning an average of Tk 8,000 to Tk 9,000 per month.
Shefali Aktar, assistant director of the workshop, said Brother Eric initiated the workshop for betterment of people with disabilities. Shefali herself joined it in 2004, and was later made the supervisor.
The workshop is now run by Protibandhi Atma-Unnayan Sangstha, a forum led by Shefali. With its 20-worker strong team and 10 handlooms, it has the ability to produce around 15 to 20 items per month, worth around Tk 2 lakh.
But just as things were looking up, the workshop faced a serious blow with the arrival of the pandemic, as its production and delivery lines collapsed completely, said Shefali.
Wall mats, carpets and floor mats produced at the workshop used to sell in droves at plush stores in the capital and were exported to the US, the UK, France, Australia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Thailand and Japan.
The prices of wall mats range from Tk 2,000 to Tk 10,000, carpets from Tk 4,000 to Tk 20,000, and floor mats from Tk 1,000 to Tk 15,000.
"Many tourists come to visit the workshop and buy items straight from us," Shefali said. "Japanese and American visitors are particularly keen on our collection."
Shefali credited their high-quality materials and eye-catching designs for the demand. She said the materials are collected from Dhaka's Sadarghat.
Director of Protibandhi Atma-Unnayan Sangstha Shahadat Sarwar said as the pandemic brought a wave of order cancellations, they now have a stock of around Tk 10 lakh worth of unsold products.
"We are still continuing production at a small scale, mostly for the workers' interest, but we haven't got any new orders, from home or abroad," said Sarwar.
He said Mymensingh houses around 5,000 people with disabilities.
With financial and technical support from the government, enterprises like their workshop can generate enough jobs for all of them, Sarwar said.
He sought the government's help by providing them a piece of land to set up a new workshop, saying this would be a great way to assist people with disabilities in the region.