Stitching an income together

Learning to sew helps women along the Jamuna River in Bangladesh support their families amid increased flooding

Several women working behind treadle sewing machines

The water from the nearby Jamuna River in Bangladesh flooded the house of Mariyum Khatun and her family in September, causing them to evacuate, but it couldn’t keep her from coming to sewing class. 

She walked through water up to her calves until she could climb an embankment and get on the road that led to a classroom full of sewing machines. She tried to put her concerns about her children, who were with grandparents, and her flooded house out of her mind so she could focus. 

“I did not miss the class because I wanted to learn these skills for my future,” says Khatun. “After completing this training, I will work as a tailor and earn money for my family.” 

Seamstress holding child's dress
Mariyum Khatun shows a dress she made in sewing class. She attended every class even though her home was flooded, and she needed to walk through flood water to get to class. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir


Last October, Khatun was one of 12 women who were in the sewing class offered by Maitree Palli Unnayan Sangathon (MPUS), a development organization that partners with MCC. All of them live along the river, about 20 miles from the city of Bogura, where every rainy season, June through September, they face four to five floods. Sometimes the floods displace them from their homes; other times families stay in flooded houses until the water recedes. 

Families struggle to purchase food and fuel when floods come because day labor jobs in construction and agriculture disappear, along with men’s daily income. MPUS staff have been teaching people living on the riverbanks how to grow vegetables and house animals above flood waters, so they can still have food and a source of income when the river floods.


Hena Khatu tends her eggplant, which are planted in hanging sacks above flood level.  MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir

People who have little to no land are the ones MPUS chooses to learn a trade, says Abdus Sattar, MPUS executive director. By 2025, MPUS will have trained 52 seamstresses and sent 89 women and men to training institutes in electrical work, plumbing, driving, computers, mechanics and cosmetology.

Sewing classes are offered close to where the women live. They pay about 20% of the training costs, which covers the supplies. The women will be able to take their sewing machines with them once they are trained, so they can start a small business or get a job to support the family income.

“It’s hard for my husband to run the family alone with his income,” Khatun says. “That’s why he’s encouraging me to learn this skill … so that both of us can run the family together.”

teacher standing between two sewing students
Kakoli Khatun trains women who live in poverty in northwest Bangladesh to sew so they can support their families throughout the year. She inspires the women by telling them how she worked her way out of poverty by slowly saving a portion of what she earned from sewing.  MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir



In the sewing classroom, women work with brightly colored fabric – pinks, reds, oranges and blues – as they learn how to make traditional clothing for men, women and children on treadle sewing machines.

“My heart feels good when I make a dress for myself and I wear it,” says Khatun. 

Teacher Kakoli Khatun not only teaches them sewing skills, step by step, she listens to their life stories and problems. She encourages the women by telling them how she used sewing to support herself and her child. Kakoli Khatun says she was in an abusive marriage when she learned to sew from a traveling teacher who came to her village. Her mother gave her money for the lessons and sewing machine, which became a lifeline when her abusive husband left her while she was pregnant. 

“I started earning money and every month I saved 5 taka (about 5 cents),” Kakoli Khatun says. “At the end of the year, I gave the money to my father and said, ‘Do something for me.’ He bought me a goat.” From the goat’s offspring, she eventually bought a cow.

Eighteen months after her husband left, she and her husband reconciled. Yet Kakoli Khatun says she is the one who is earning money for the family. She paid the school fees for her daughter, who graduated from secondary school, and for her son, who is still studying. 

Over time she built a corrugated metal house with a cement floor using her earnings. By adding teaching to her income, she furnished it with a refrigerator, a gas oven and a rice cooker. She keeps them on an elevated platform during the rainy season, along with extra food she has saved, so she can still cook when it floods.

“The students feel sad when they hear my story of challenges,” Kakoli Khatun says. “And they get encouragement and courage to learn the techniques like me, so that they also can face the challenges in their lives.”

Using a treadle sewing machine that she received when she completed her MCC-supported sewing training, Lipi Khatun makes and sells clothing to customers in her community. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir




One graduate from MPUS’s sewing class, Lipi Khatun, 23, opened Tanzia Tailoring in her house in November 2022. Her sewing machine is set up between two double beds. She sews by the light streaming in through the open door. Behind her is a rack of clothing she has made for customers.

Tamanna Aktar, a customer who used to go to a tailor far away, says, “There are no other tailors nearby, and Lipi is doing good work in tailoring.” Aktar paid 100 taka ($1) for a kameez, a thigh- or knee-length blouse that is part of the traditional clothing in Bangladesh.

Lipi Khatun can sew a simple kameez in about 30 minutes, but she enjoys making new designs for them and the accompanying salwar, the loose-fitting pants worn under the kameez. She makes her own patterns on paper, using her creativity or ideas from the internet.

Abdur Razzak, an MPUS field organizer, says Khatun can earn 4,000 taka ($40) or more a month. With that money she buys medication and pays school expenses for her 8-year-old daughter. 

Lipi Khatun’s husband helps her by advertising her services as he sells fabric in different villages. But when her husband can’t travel because of flooding, she can use her savings to pay for family expenses.

“My husband is valuing me, also,” says Lipi Khatun. “My husband agrees with whatever I want to do for my family.”