Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – In the world’s largest refugee camp, dozens of Rohingya women work diligently, their small factory a hub of activity; they’re making sanitary pads and women’s underwear to be distributed to Rohingya refugee women like them.
The one-room factory near Kutupalong refugee camp is buzzing, the quiet chatter of conversation barely discernible over whirring sewing machines set up in rows. Workers crouch on the floor, drawing patterns with white chalk on black fabric stretched down the middle of the room.
Others cut fabric, sew and iron sanitary napkins.
“It’s very much needed for the women,” Hasina Begum, the factory’s supervisor told Al Jazeera, referring to the washable and reusable napkins.
“If they do not use them and rely instead on dirty cloths, they will fall sick.”
The 40-year-old, who is from Cox’s Bazar, said before the production, Rohingya women were afflicted with a number of diseases including leukorrhea, gonorrhoea and other vaginal infections.
“We are distributing these products to women and also instructing them on how to use them,” she said.
Kutupalong camp’s population has swelled to more than 650,000 since August 2017, which marked the beginning of the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees fleeing a bloody campaign led by the Myanmar army in Rakhine state.
While several initiatives have been set up in the camp offering men and women vocational training in carpentry, soap-making and electrical appliance repair, only registered refugees who arrived in previous influxes are able to work.
According to the UN refugee agency, only 34,000 out of 1.1 million Rohingya are registered as refugees in Cox’s Bazar. The more recently displaced Rohingya are not.
Hafsina Begum – no relation to Hasina – is a registered refugee. She was born in the camp after her parents fled their village of Fukira Bazar in Rakhine in 1999, and has been working in the factory for five years – since she was 15. Her family is now dependent on her income, which she says has earned her a degree of financial independence.
“Before coming to the factory, I was not skilled in professional work,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now I have learned how to tailor. I can sew anything.”
“Before that, we used simple cloths that were not comfortable,” she said. “But these sanitary napkins we make feel much better.”
The factory is part of a project under the Technical Assistance Inc., funded by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and established in 2011.
According to the supervisor, UNHCR sets the production target, while supplies and raw material are provided by TAI.
“On average, we make more than 6,000 sanitary napkins and up to 3,000 panties per month,” Hasina said.
“There’s the physical benefit, and for the women who make the products, financial benefits too,” she added.
The products, along with antiseptic cream and bathing and laundry soap – the latter two also produced by Rohingya workers in adjacent factories – are distributed to more than 4,000 Rohingya women – including the workers – between the ages of 13 and 49 every six months.
“The latest distribution to 4,296 women was in June,” Hasina said. “We had a surplus of production, so we hope that the products will also be given to some of the unregistered Rohingya women in the camp.”
Hasina said interest in this income-generating project among women trained in sewing and tailoring was beyond expectations, far in excess of the 40 positions available in the factory.
“We formed groups and gave them all a chance to work by following a rotating schedule,” she said. “Every three or four months, the working group was replaced by another so that everyone interested received the opportunity to work.”
According to a TAI official, the women working in the factory all underwent a six-month training course before starting. He added all the women selected are extremely vulnerable individuals.
“This includes adolescent girls from the age of 15 until the age 35 and single mothers, widows, divorcees, girls who have elderly parents or large families that need supporting,” the official explained.
He added unmarried girls need to have the approval of their parents, but there was no requirement that the workers have completed their schooling.
A similar programme has also been set up in the Nayapara refugee camp, which is located in the other sub-district of Teknaf.
Hafsina’s average output target is 600 sanitary napkins and 300 panties a month.
“The work gives me some financial support,” she said. “I can give money to my parents. And when I need to, I can use my own earning. This is the benefit of working.”
For each sanitary napkin and undergarment, the workers make TK15 each, or $0.18. The monthly income for a worker is between TK2,500 and TK3,00 ($30 to $35). The higher the output, the more they earn.
“With the latest swell of Rohingya refugees in the camp, workers earned between TK5,000 to TK7,000 ($58 to $82),” Hasina said. “It depends on the target.”
The factory offers another advantage for the working women, who use the space for socialising and constructive interactions.
“These women live in tiny one-room shacks,” Hasina the supervisor said. “When they come here, it is like a respite for them and lessens the financial strain on their families.”
As for her, Hasina said the work was rewarding in bridging the gap closer between the local women in Cox’s Bazar and the Rohingya.
“My role is an example of positive engagement with the Rohingya, where we teach them how to better their lives in the camp,” she said.