Mohammad Sharif, Md. Abul Hossain, Nazrul Islam, Farhtheeba Rahat Khan
Mohammad Sharif, Md. Abul Hossain, Nazrul Islam, Farhtheeba Rahat Khan

Without prioritising the provision of sexual and reproductive health care services for female garment workers, there is no other choice to see the country’s RMG industry stronger, sustainable and more productive. About two-thirds of the garment workers are women. Therefore, government officials, development agencies, ready-made garment owners and doctors believe that it is important to ensure the physical and mental health of female workers, especially sexual and reproductive health, to maintain and increase the rate of production in the industry.

According to them, there must be proper healthcare accessibility inside and outside of the factory and especially during the COVID-19 crisis. If the workers are not healthy, the production of the factory will be disrupted. Stakeholders in the sector expressed these views in a virtual discussion on 8 October 2020.

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Funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Working with Women Project-II of SNV in Bangladesh and Prothom Alo partnered to organise a 6 episode virtual discussion series - ‘Media Café: Reproductive Health Services in the RMG Sector’. Mohammad Sharif, Director, Directorate General of Family Planning (DGFP), Nazrul Islam, Director, BGMEA, Farhtheeba Rahat Khan, team leader of SNV's RMG Inclusive Business Programmess and physician Md. Abul Hossain from Al Hera Hospital joined the first episode of the series. The session was moderated by Abdul Qayyum, Associate Editor of Prothom Alo.

SNV is working in the RMG sector since 2014 on how to build awareness and ensure sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing for female garment workers under the Working with Women project. With the successful completion of the first phase, phase-2 came in action since 2017– Working with Women-II.

With support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, we have been running this project and many factory owners and managements are now aware of the importance of workers’ health. Extended support from the government in this regard is expected to strengthen services and make this institutionalised and sustainable.”
Farhtheeba Rahat Khan, Team Leader of SNV's RMG Inclusive Business Programmes

This discussion series was organised to focus on sector-wide adoption of such initiativesto do more and better for the workers and the RMG business.

Even though some owners and garments management are taking their business as ‘Responsible Business’, a large number of factories are still left out of all the awareness building and healthcare services that we are offering, said Farhtheeba khan. She added that most of the health and wellbeing programs in the garment sector are run through donor or buyer support. Positive changes are only found in thosefactories where such programmes are in place. Not justawareness building but also to make the health service accessible to the workers we need to work together and play everyone’s part.

She appreciated the initiatives from DGFP and BGMEA and added a major observation that strengthening proper referral system is a crying need as most of the factory doctors are not female and doctors are not available every day in a week, there is a big concern around the quality ofprivate clinics and hospitals in and around the garment belts and government services are not accessible after factory working hours.

Workers face time restriction, economic crisis and misinformation regarding diseases. That’s why when they come to us for treatment we are left with very limited options to apply”
Dr Md Abul Hossain, Al Hera Hospital
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Comparatively, the healthcare situation has improved over the last two years. With SNV and Insurance service provider’s support, garment belt hospitals and clinics are providing services to workers. Unfortunately, that’s not enough because the support is not sustainable and more awareness-raising is needed to increase at large scale. Combined effort along with government’s initiative can play a major role in this regard. To ensure overall quality healthcare management and a healthy lifestyle we have to do more, said managing director of Al Hera Hospital, Md Abul Hossain, expressing his concerns.

Food security is a major concern for these workers and as BGMEA has experience inproviding food ration if the government support us, we are very much able to re-initiate that programme for the workers' nutrition.”
Nazrul Islam, Director, BGMEA

According to BGMEA, they have divided factories in zones and established 12 health centres and one full-fledged hospital at Chittagong and another one is under construction in Mirpur for garment workers, said BGMEA Director Nazrul Islam.

He added that, apart from services from the health centres, BGMEA provides awareness training as well. Especially now in the COVID-19 crisis, frequent safety and awareness training are arranged. But the challenges remain when they go back to the community from the factory as its unknown whether they practice what has been taught. Canteens with healthy and affordable food are also placed in some factories which can be exemplary.

The government has initiated three ‘adolescent-friendly health corner’ under union health and family welfare centres, starting this year. If we can work honestly and sincerely through a joint effort combining all the stakeholders, then our government has enough allocation to provide full support to the cause.
Mohammad Sharif, Director, Directorate General of Family Planning (DGFP)

Like Rana Plaza, COVID-19 also has given us a hard lesson. Financial concern is not the major one, it is the learning that we take with us and to act upon it, said Mohammad Sharif. He added that in some factories there is brilliant and praiseworthy health care management whereas other factories offer no such service at all. The government has been providing free birth control pills and condoms in 354 factories. Nutrition, SRHR, MHM, family planning – all these areas are as important as to focus on simultaneously.

Prothom Alo associate editor Abdul Qayyum- moderator of the session said that when it comes to garment factories in our country, it floats in front of the eyes that female workers are rushing to work in large groups. They are the lifeblood of this sector. Hence, if the health and nutrition of these workers are not ensured, the production of the factory will be disrupted obviously. Nutritious food including eggs, milk, bananas can be supplied by the factories to ensure their nutrition considering the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, at least 5-10 minutes can be allocated to the employees for breathing exercises at any break. This exercise is helpful to stay healthy during the coronavirus epidemic.

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