Sadeka’s magic lamp: How a garment worker became an RMG CEO

March 23, 2023

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Eight years in the making, Sadeka’s life is the story of how an ambitious young girl changed her and her family’s life against all odds.

Sadeka Begum had a very busy schedule in Japan in the second week of March. She went there with her alma mater Asian University for Women (AUW).

Apart from delivering a key speech at a summit in the American Club Tokyo – where business leaders, ambassadors, financiers and other significant industry insiders attended – Sadeka also had meetings scheduled with various stakeholders and potential investors.

Dressed in a traditional saree, the story of Sadeka’s struggle and transformation captivated the audience. At the end of her speech, applause and cheers resounded from all corners.

The summit was a fundraising event for AUW and Sadeka spoke as an alumna. She shared the story of her dream project Aabha Limited, an all-women-led garment factory that she intends to launch with four partners.

Sadeka narrated her vision of genuine empowerment for women by offering them top management positions, which are traditionally occupied by men in Bangladesh. And she promised to ensure the respect and dignity of the employees that they deserve.

Her vision inspired the audience so much that a leading brand and global retailer promised to buy 150,000 blouses each month although her company won’t launch until July.

Sadeka Begum formed the all-women-led garment Aabha Ltd with four other AUW graduates who were once garment workers like her. Photo: Courtesy

“A Japanese girl who attended the summit with her parents came up to me and said ‘I want to be like you’ after I delivered my speech,” Sadeka told The Business Standard. “I received an overwhelming response from my Japan tour. Everyone loved my story – how I faced my challenges and overcame them to become what I am today.”

A young woman in her mid-20s, Sadeka is a commendable example of how ambition and opportunities can transform the lives of Bangladeshi women.

The story that started in 2015 when Sadeka just completed her HSC examination (with a partially paralysed father as the only earning member in the family) is now approaching its poetic transformation in 2023.

In eight years, Sadeka has overcome a plethora of challenges and changed her destiny, and that of her family. And she has succeeded in setting an example of what a village girl can achieve if she can get her hands on proper education and opportunities.

The girl who cried for a magic lamp

Sadeka’s father, a former migrant worker and carpenter from a remote village in Sunamganj district’s Jamalganj upazila became partially paralysed in 2014 after suffering from a brain stroke. Father of six children, he was the family’s breadwinner.

Sadeka was an HSC candidate at the time. Her sister, Fateha Begum (who comes immediately after Sadeka) had just started out as an HSC student. While their elder sister was married already, Sadeka and Fateha had three more younger siblings studying in junior classes.

But due to their father’s illness, it became very difficult to have food on the table, let alone bear education expenses.

So the relatives who extended their helping hands in the family’s crisis perceived a respite in getting Sadeka and Fateha married.

“But I had dreams that I will do something big,” Sadeka said. “Perhaps their [extended family’s] plan to get us married in the given situation was a solution. But I had my parents as my backup. Even though they were not educated, they supported our education and believed in our dreams.”

After completing her HSC examination, Sadeka came to Dhaka along with her sister. The plan was to work in the garments sector and find a way to continue their education.

Their partially paralysed father accompanied them. The family rented a small place in the capital where the father would stay with them as a guardian.

The daughters lined up before a garment factory and got the job.

Sadeka started as a cutting helper on a Tk5,600 salary. In the first month, she earned around Tk8,000 including overtime. “But soon I realised that this was not the future I wanted.

“The supervisors, who were all males, would treat me extremely disrespectfully. My fellow workers would laugh at my ambitions to continue studying,” she said.

“Almost every night, I would cry after I returned from work. I cried for a magic lamp so that this horror could end,” Sadeka reminisced.

In the meantime, back in the village, gossip and rumours about both girls living in Dhaka had spread. They were the first women from their village to work in a garment factory. Some even spread rumours that the girls were kidnapped.

Their mother had a tough time explaining the situation to people and stopping them from spreading ill-motivated rumours about her daughters.

An incredible transformation through grit and AUW

One day, Sadeka’s prayers for a magic lamp came true.

On that day, a team from the Asian University for Women (AUW) had visited the garment factory where Sadeka was working at the time. They told her about an opportunity for garment workers to study in the AUW with stipends.

“I knew this opportunity was meant for me,” she said. And her prayers were indeed answered. Sadeka stood first in the AUW admission test.

She graduated from AUW with economics as her major and development studies as a minor. It was a full scholarship from AUW, while the factory she worked at offered her stipends.

The AUW environment became the most influential and integral element that built Sadeka into the person she is today. “It was a diverse place. I even had roommates from Afghanistan and Syria,” Sadeka said, “Coping with such a different environment was the challenge.”

But Sadeka pretty soon improved her communication skill through the AUW’s Pathways for Promise programme. She learned English very quickly. And if you were to speak with Sadeka, you would be impressed.

She involved herself in various extracurricular activities throughout campus life. She shone brightly in academic education as well. She was the topper in her class. “I graduated as a valedictorian in 2020,” Sadeka said.

“The AUW’s curriculum is designed in a way that no matter where you are from – whether you are a garment worker or from Rohingya camps – you will shine bright,” she said.

Inching towards breaking the glass ceiling

Soon after she completed her education at the AUW, she worked a year of a paid internship with a UN organisation in Cox’s Bazar. And for the last two years, Sadeka had been the youngest business coordinator at IPDC Finance, directly handling the details of this massive organisation.

Fateha, who came to Dhaka with Sadeka to work in garments, is now a police officer. Her father’s health has improved. All her younger siblings are now studying in college.

Sadeka and her sister are now building a new house for the family.

Sadeka’s dream has come true.

But dreams can only grow bigger.

The girl, who dared to dream big in such remote haor land in a Sunamganj village has completely transformed herself and the destiny of her family.

But she didn’t forget the challenges she had as a girl. She didn’t forget her sleepless nights and her cries for the magic lamps.

And that is what has led her to form the all-women-led garment Aabha Ltd, which Sadeka is going to lead as the CEO. Her four other partners are also AUW graduates who were once garment workers like her.

A leading financial institution is providing them with the initial investment, Sadeka said. “In our garment sector, women only work in marginal positions. We will break the glass ceiling of real women leadership in Bangladesh’s garment sector,” Sadeka said.

“We will ensure the respect, fair wages and dignity that our workers deserve in our factory. We will create an example,” she added.

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