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Water plants bring prosperity to Bangladeshi women

Dec 19, 2011

Poor women are trained to produce paper from water hyacinths and make them into Christmas decorations to be sold in the West.

Dhaka: Ask a farmer in Bangladesh's Deep South about the water hyacinth and he will say it is a curse. The floating plants form broad green blankets that strangle waterways and create a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. But for Minati Mondol, a 55-year-old widow in the Agailjhara area of Barisal district near the Bay of Bengal, the hyacinth stands for the hope embodied by Christmas.


Mondol is part of a group of artisans who turn the stem of the plant into Christmas figures, stars, streamers and gift cards for buyers in Europe and North America.

"My family was so poor we used to boil and eat the roots and flowers of the water hyacinth," said Mondol. "Now we make stars and angels out of water hyacinth, and eat rice three times a day."

Although most of the women have never seen the inside of a church, they have plenty to cheer about during the festive season. "It's good that the things we make help people celebrate Christmas," says Mondol's co-worker Rasheda Begum, 42. "We're also happy because the money we earn helps us plan for the future."

Southern Bangladesh is criss-crossed with rivers and water hyacinth is abundant. A group of Mennonites trained women, mostly from poor backgrounds, to produce the handicrafts and gave them loans to start workshops.

"We didn't give them handouts," said Suraiya Chowdhury who has been withthe project since its inception and now holds the position of design director. "Instead, we gave them a hand up." Now the project employs around 2,000 people.

The working women are finding their income gives them greater clout in the local community. "My husband, a day labourer, listens to me now," said Sunitee Kar, 40. "We are planning for the future. My eldest son is now in college."

Sitting in her modest office surrounded by a medley of shapes and colours, head designer Chowdhury says the demand for their Christmas decorations is on the rise. "I am always working on new designs. But we deliberately stay simple, sustainable and low-tech."

Mondol smiles when asked whether she knows anything about Santa Claus. She holds out a little figurine she made. "We have Santa here."

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