The workshop is called the Jagorani Handicraft Centre. Sr. Mary Lillian, the founder started working with poor women in 1968; now it works with 3,000 people, mostly non-Christians. The products are also exported abroad. For the sister, “if women can be independent, they can make a difference for their family.”
Located in Tejgaon, a predominantly Catholic district in Dhaka, it came into being in 1971 thanks to Sister Mary Lillian, 88, a nun with the Associates of Mary, Queen of Apostles (SMRA).
Sr. Mary Lillian explained how the centre was established in the aftermath of the War of Independence from Pakistan.
In Bangladesh at that time, “many people were out of work, and they were in dire need of food. I realised that we had to do more for these poor people and get them involved in person.”
In 1968, Sr Mary Lillian had begun working with three Catholic women with physical disabilities who could not speak.
“After the war, Christian Organization for Relief and Rehabilitation-Jute Works (CORR-JW), helped us organise courses. We ourselves were trained and went to remote villages to teach.”
From small beginnings, the Jagorani Handicraft Centre (Jagorani means awaking) began to grow fast, until it involved some 6,000 people.
Today it works with about 3,000 people, most of whom are not Christian, making handicrafts like terracotta figurines, jute products, woven baskets, candles, rings, earrings, handbags, hand-painted squares, rugs, wooden trays, and typically Asian garments.
“Many people have overcome poverty thanks to the centre’s training, which offers not only courses, but also helps producers to sell the fruit of their labour,” sr. Mari Lillian said.
Compared to the past, “when the jute market was not thriving, today we find ourselves in a more favourable economic context. Several craftspeople bring their products to Dhaka, then I and other nuns go out to sell them in local markets.”
The products are also exported abroad to industrialised countries. Foreign visitors were a common site in Tejgaon “before the attack on the bar in Dhaka in July 2016. After that incident, unfortunately, visits have decreased due to security considerations”