Educating and Organizing: Nazma’s Journey to building a women and labor right’s movement in Bangladesh

Through finding her own power to create change at a young age, Nazma is redefining success for women across Bangladesh.
Nazma Headshot
Source: Nazma Akhter

“From the very beginning, I always wanted to do something special and different. When I was young, I thought I needed to build something – maybe an airplane or car – to engineer something. I didn’t have that chance because I had to leave school and work when I was a young girl.” Instead, Nazma built a movement, a movement for women to embrace their agency, live a life of dignity, and thrive as drivers of their own and unique futures. As a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow (elected 2019), Nazma is revolutionizing the garment industry across Bangladesh.

Nazma Akhter has devoted her life towards ending exploitation in the ready-made garment industry through social innovation as a combatant against gender-based bias unsustainably low paid wages and unsafe working conditions. With historically male-dominated labor rights movements and organizations, Nazma founded the Awaj Foundation in order to center female leadership, knowledge, and organization towards the framework and structural changes across Bangladesh. Her multi-faceted strategy permeates every level of workers' livelihoods in and out of factories and into home lives by offering leadership training programs, normalizing financial literacy, and instituting political representation.

Unsurprisingly, Nazma’s 32 years of nationwide organizing and eventual founding of the Awaj Foundation, stems from a childhood of unwavering devotion and courage towards changemaking. Born to parents from the southern region of Bangladesh, Nazma grew up in the crammed and poverty-ridden slums of Dhaka. Despite financially strenuous circumstances and the gendered abuse she witnessed in her own household, Nazma recounts as a young girl to have remained carefree, full of laughter, and skeptical of the status quo.

However, it was at 11–years-old in which she was forced to end her education at the fifth-grade level and start working in a factory to support her family. Laboring 14-hours a day for 7 days a week, Nazma became one of the millions of young girls and women toiling in the garment industry with inadequate compensation and unlawful working conditions. Experiencing the injustices of exploitative companies firsthand, young Nazma protested in labor movements and even quit in solidarity with outspoken adult colleagues at the mere age of 12-years-old.

When she was 14, she joined a labor movement as the only female member, participating in the first-ever strike in Bangladesh protesting for fair wages for garment workers. Her desire for change became even more abundantly clear when newspaper outlets captured her image while demonstrating in the streets, causing her to be unemployable in the industry.

Nazma quickly found herself stuck in a revolving door, starting a new job one day and being let go the next, once her employer found out she was “a rebellious leader and fighter,” a threat to the social order of the factory. Blacklisted, Nazma was banished from factories across the city, but refused to accept delayed salaries, poor working conditions, and harassment from local “goons” who were hired by the companies to suppress unions and employees.

Throughout her early teen years, Nazma shifting focus from nonviolent organizing into larger scaled, long-term structural strategies for change. There on, Nazma started building a network of workers into a collective effort of negotiation, knowledge, and ideas while identifying other rebellious, independent women to join her.

Her mentors, such as fellow workers and her mother, openly supported her in her endeavors while risking public backlash in addition to their jobs and, in turn, their livelihoods. Her mother especially ignored societal pressure to prepare Nazma to marry early but instead offered her space to challenge gendered expectations by questioning authority and standing her ground when she experienced injustice in the workplace.

Instilled with confidence by her mentors, Nazma hinged on her community-building skills to create the Sommilito Garments Sramik Foundation (SGSF) - a 70,000-member large foundation with 65 trade union partnerships and 13 collective bargaining agreements with established factory management. It was, however, on the steps of SGSF in which Nazma was able to establish the Awaj Foundation.

Namza currently focuses her social entrepreneurial efforts through the integration of factory management and female leadership with training courses, health services, and legal aid as threads into the larger fabrics of mindset shift. Nazma proposes that through the empowerment of workers in all facets of their daily existence, the Awaj Foundation cultivates a generation of young female leaders to occupy managerial, political, and governmental spaces as mavericks for policy negotiation devoid of the patriarchal hierarchy of factories and society at large.

Thus, her organization attracts young, like-minded workers who want to see factory management that openly negotiates and listens to worker vocalization in the prevention of exploitation. Namza’s introduction of such thought changes has revolutionized the dignity and mindset of garment workers, especially young female leaders, cultivating 3000 new trade union leaders, training 27,000 trade union members, and creating a number of worker-led committees. The Awaj Foundation has thereby become the direct channel of worker-to-government interaction as opposed to strict control of communication set by the barriers of garment corporations. 

As a child in school, Nazma dreamed of a career as an inventor – a career with the power to create a tipping point of revolutionary change like an engineer for cars or airplanes. In every moment of her struggle as a worker, organizer, and foundation builder, Nazma has held a long-standing desire for transformation. While she has unfortunately never had the opportunity to pursue her dreams as an aerospace engineer, her spirit of invention remains in every interaction, every negotiation, and every training course. She offers unrelentless support to garment workers, especially in a period of immense financial distraught under the coronavirus. 

Energetically dedicating her life to "fighting for her rights," Nazma shares that she has always felt young because she started her journey early. Time does not deter her as she sees “change as a forest, not as a one-day thing."

Changemaking means planting seeds to cultivate a movement over a lifetime. For Nazma, a better world for women means achieving justice, dignity, and quality of life. The anger that stemmed from injustice compelled her to act when she was 11, but hope for a better future compelled her to continue leading for a world where all young people across Bangladesh can find power in their work and learn to advocate for themselves. 

This story was written by Alyce Yang, Ashoka Campaigns Intern