Many adolescent girls in South Asia are forced to choose work over school to support their families that live below the poverty line. This means, at the age of 10 or 12, they drop out of school to work. Since they cant get an education, they are forced to continue working throughout their lives as laborers, making just enough money to survive.
BLISS (Business and Life Skills School) is a social enterprise based out of Pakistan and the USA and offers business, vocational and literacy classes, providing participants with training to launch their own micro-enterprises. The profits of this social enterprise fund education and provide savings for the community, breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
BLISS works with adolescent girls, children of Afghan refugees who have crossed over the border into Pakistan. There are over 30,000 Afghan laborers in Attock, Pakistan and over a million in total throughout the country.
Bringing Girls to School
The refugee girls currently earn $1 to $1.5 per day while working 14 hours per day weaving carpets. In order to get them into school, BLISS knew that they would have to compensate them financially.
Saba Gul, founder of BLISS explains:
“We had to come up with a model where it made financial sense for the family to send their girls to school. So we decided to compensate girls for wages lost when choosing to attend school over work.”
BLISS pays the girls $12 a month to compensate for reduced wages as a result of choosing school over work. This amount is actually slightly more than what the girls would make if they dropped out of school to work in a carpet loom.
Care is taken to only enroll girls over the age of thirteen. BLISS works in partnership with Barakat which manages the schools. The girls attend after-school classes teaching English, Math and Urdu, as well as embroidery, craft-making and business skills.
Sustaining education via enterprise
BLISS began their pilot program in the summer of 2009 by enrolling 30 girl students in after-school class. When enrollments began, there was so much demand that many families had to be turned back.
The compensation paid out by BLISS was initially funded by grants. However, BLISS aims to set itself apart from other cash incentive programs by reaching self-sustainability. This will be achieved by the sale of embroidered handbags (see picture above).
The girls are trained to design and create embroideries, which are sent to Karachi to be made into handbags. BLISS needs to sell about 1100 handbags in order to achieve financial sustainability for the pilot program.
The road ahead
Financial incentives and practical education has made schooling more appealing to the communities that have traditionally struggled to realize its importance. It is hoped that many girls will be empowered to operate their own micro-businesses with the life and business skills they learn at BLISS. In the future, BLISS hopes to expand to other areas of Pakistan as well as South Asia and replicate the model. Quoting a UNICEF statistic Saba tells us:
“South Asian women make up 21% of the world’s female population but also account for 44% of the worlds illiterate women. There is so much work to be done here.”
The first line of BLISS handbags is expected to go on sale in January 2011, and will be sold in stores and at exhibitions in Pakistan, as well as online on Etsy.com.