Meet the maker: Basha kantha blankets

The stories our makers share are always inspiring, but the story of Basha – the fairtrade organisation that makes our beautiful new Kantha Bedspreads – is so powerful that it actually took my breath away. We are so proud to be the only UK shop selling Basha kantha blankets, quilts and throws, all handstitched from vintage saris. Last week I interviewed founder Robin Seyfert, to find out more about the lives of the women she employs and the change that investing in one of their blankets can bring.

Kanthas handmade in Bangladesh Decorator's Notebook

What is Basha and how did you come to found it?

Basha is a social enterprise based in Bangladesh which provides long term employment to women at risk and survivors of trafficking. I came here in 2006 with the Mennonite Central Committee to promote HIV awareness and met many women working as prostitutes. I was shocked at how the overwhelming majority had been sold, coerced, or forced into sex work. You hear so much about cross-border trafficking but here it was happening right in the heart of their own community.  They were so painfully ashamed of their lives and desperate for options.

We started a job training program which provided women with a stipend to stay out of prostitution and to develop work skills for one year. We accepted 26 women, expecting half to drop out, but all 26 completed and went on to work for MCC projects. However, while it became clear that candidates were without limit, appropriate employment opportunities at the end of their training were sparse.  When I finished my MCC contract, I spent six months preparing to open Basha in May 2011 with 15 women and now employ 50.

kantha stitching blanket Basha Decorator's Notebook

Can you share some of the stories you hear from women you work with?

Vulnerability is the common theme – being poor, widowed, orphaned, abandoned – followed by someone stepping in to ‘help’ who leads them into lives with deep shame and little hope of redemption. In Bangladesh, once someone’s reputation is compromised, she is considered ‘ruined’ in the eyes of society and it is very difficult to be accepted again.  Here are a couple examples [names have been changed]:

“Madiha” was abused in her village when she was about 13 years old and after an aborted pregnancy, followed a neighbour to Dhaka to work in a garment factory.  After three months work, yet receiving no salary, she went to the Mazar (a religious site where many vulnerable people go for refuge) where she was approached and offered domestic work. Instead, was taken to brothel and sold. She was there for five months until a client helped her escape over the wall, but her family rejected her. Alone in Dhaka, she became a floating sex worker until she was imprisoned in a vagrants home for two years. Now Madiha is just completing her training and recently started to sew at Basha.

“Joya” married when she was young and gave birth to a son, but two years later her husband died. She married again but her second husband beat her and didn’t support her family. Joya started cooking at a house where several men lived, but the men there abused her and she was eventually led into prostitution. Joya’s son drowned when he was six years old but she continues to work hard to improve life for her two daughters. Joya wants her to get a good education so that she can support herself even if she marries a poor man. She would like to move to Basha’s new office with her youngest daughter when it opens next year.

handmade kantha blankets from Decorator's Notebook by Basha uk

How do women make the transition from the streets to a job at Basha?

Basha partners with two training programs that provide a year or more of rehabilitation and training. Pobitra primarily targets women in street based prostitution and the Children’s Uplift Programme works with mothers living on the streets. Both programmes provide financial support which allows the women to find suitable housing and walk away from their pimps or brokers. They receive counselling, literacy training, life skill development, and support to get their children into education. Once their lives have stabilised they are interviewed by Basha and begin work here for a few hours each week, until they eventually become full time.

Employing women recovering from such difficult lives must present challenges day-to-day?

It’s difficult to find a balance between being sensitive to the women who are still recovering and continue to face huge challenges, and yet also helping them rise above their past. Some women face abuse from their husbands and come to work in pain, while others struggle with depression or angry outbursts. We try to instill in them a sense of ownership in Basha and encourage them into leadership roles, so they aspire to new heights, for themselves and their children.

How do the women feel about making such a dramatic change?

One of my favourite responses is when they reach out to help others out of bad situations. We brought a woman off the streets once who had suffered a mental breakdown. She kicked her colleagues, spat on them, interrupted their work, but they stuck by her until she recovered. They continue to bring in others to the training programmes and have they found several who were in the process of being trafficked, taking women and children into their homes until they could get help. One of my biggest dreams is for them to be lights in their communities, so when I see these things, I’m most proud of them.

Kantha blankets from Decorator's Notebook made by women from Basha

Describe a typical day at Basha…

The women drop their children off at daycare and start the morning with a prayer. Everyone then gets busy with their work until they have snacks around 10am.  They have classes between 11-12am where they continue their Bangla literacy training, learn basic English, life skills, health education, and other topics. They go to the daycare and feed their children at lunchtime and there’s another break in the afternoon to do some stretching exercises. The day finishes at 5pm and they can do some work at home as well to increase their income.

child attending Basha daycare

How does the working environment at Basha differ from other places women might be employed in Dhaka?

Basha’s aim is to run more like a cooperative, so from the first day they arrive, women are told that Basha is our business; not the shareholders’ or directors’. Each person is responsible for making it work and we all have our part to play. We keep managers’ salaries at a reasonable ratio to those in production and pay a day rate for attendance plus a piece rate for each kantha they make. As women learn to work faster, they receive higher wages. Almost all earn well over the local average wage and some earn as much as a manager would in a garment factory. Last year we made a profit for the first time and all the women working in production received a share.

While the women are working we provide full-time daycare for all their children, support their schooling and provide food supplements throughout the day. We pay 75% of their medical expenses and in a few cases, provide psychiatric care too. Women are paid to participate in classes and counselling so they are not stressed about lost wages as they take part. The women here never have to worry about working in a dangerous place, being mistreated, not receiving their pay or working abusive hours, which are all too common in the local garments industry.

Kantha blankets made by Basha at Decorator's Notebook uk

Tell us a little about the kantha tradition and why you chose this product to make at Basha?

Kantha is a long tradition of stitching layers of discarded sari cloth together to create a blanket. Bangladeshis use these to wrap newborns, to cover a bed, to provide warmth in the winter, and so many other uses. It’s such a humble item of day-to-day life here, most Bangladeshis are surprised by the broad appeal internationally. We also realised it was a good product for our employees to make as it is familiar to them, even though they probably hadn’t made them to our standards and specifications before coming to Basha. The picture of something beautiful being created from something previously discarded also symbolises the change we see in women’s lives so perfectly.

How is a kantha blanket made?

Saris are purchased, washed, and matched with a coordinating sari.  A double kantha, such as Decorator’s Notebook sells, takes about 47 hours to make by hand. The cloth is cut and machine stitched side by side, then layered and held tautly with bricks on the corners. The edges are basted by hand while they are still stretched by the bricks. The women then start stitching the neat careful rows, also all by hand and finally they attach a label embroidered with their name. They are really proud of the work they do and that the products they make are going all over the world.

Kantha blankets uk Decorator's Notebook

What are your hopes for the future?

Basha currently has a steady stream of new women joining us from two training programs in two areas of Bangladesh. In a country of 162,000,000 people, we know there are thousands of women trapped in lives they are deeply ashamed of. Basha wants to be a brand that is respected and known as selling beautiful high quality products, so we can continue to grow to provide more jobs, freedom and dignity to thousands of women.

Thank you for this wonderful insight Robin… we are so proud to be the only UK stockist of Kantha bedspreads handmade by the brave women at Basha. Each one is unique and costs £165 (with free UK delivery) from the Decorator’s Notebook shop. We hope you love them as much as we do!

employee at Basha

{Photographs courtesy of Basha / Decorator’s Notebook}

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