We're with the band

A white wristband does more than show support - it changes lives. Julia Stuart talks to the girls weaving their way to a better future
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The Independent Online

Selina Hasan, 18, lives in Mathertek, a slum in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, with her parents, two sisters aged 10 and 12, and six-year-old brother. Over 500 people live in the slums, and most families can't afford three meals a day. There is no access to gas, electricity, water or sanitation. There are no schools, and children as young as 10 are sent out to do domestic work or to pull rickshaws.

Selina Hasan, 18, lives in Mathertek, a slum in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, with her parents, two sisters aged 10 and 12, and six-year-old brother. Over 500 people live in the slums, and most families can't afford three meals a day. There is no access to gas, electricity, water or sanitation. There are no schools, and children as young as 10 are sent out to do domestic work or to pull rickshaws.

For years, like most parents of adolescent girls, Selina's parents considered her a financial burden. "I felt sorry that I couldn't do anything to help my family. My mother rebuked me every day. Sometimes I had the feeling that I should die," says the 18-year-old. Now, however, she is not only helping to buy the family's food, but she is also contributing towards her siblings' education. The change came after Selina started attending training classes at Nari Maitree, one of ActionAid's partner organisations in Bangladesh. Set up in 1983 by a group of local women activists, Nari Maitree aims to help deprived women and children who have migrated to the city from rural areas. The women are trained in batik, embroidery, candle-making, electronics and driving, in the hope that they will be able to earn a living. In addition, it provides a forum where the girls can meet every week to discuss problems, talk about finances and learn about women's rights.

For the last four weeks, Selina has been embroidering white wristbands as part of the British awareness campaign, "MakePovertyHistory". Supported by over 200 charities, trade unions and religious groups - the largest ever charitable coalition in the UK - the campaign urges G8 leaders to cancel debt, make trade fair and deliver more aid to developing countries.

Earlier this month, Nelson Mandela wore a white band when he addressed the crowds in Trafalgar Square at a MakePovertyHistory rally on the eve of the London meeting of G7 finance ministers. And they have quickly become the fashionable way to show that you care: Graham Norton, Lenny Henry, Dawn French, Stephen Fry, Shaznay Lewis, Will Young, Rachel Stevens, the Sugarbabes, Natasha Bedingfield and Katie Melua have all been spotted wearing white bands. The supermodel Claudia Schiffer wore hers to a meeting with Gordon Brown, while at the Brits, Lemar, Keane, Jamelia and Minnie Driver were all sporting them.

So far, 500,000 plastic wristbands have been sold in the UK since the campaign was launched at the end of 2004. The £1 donation goes towards the cost of producing them, and any surplus will be put back into the campaign. Part of a wider international campaign, "Global Call to Action Against Poverty", this year, 1 July (prior to the G8 summit hosted by Tony Blair at Gleneagles) and 13 September (preceding the UN summit) have been declared global "White Band Days".

ActionAid started selling the embroidered wristbands last week after receiving the first batch of 5,000 from Bangladesh, all made at the Nari Maitree project. The £2 contribution will go to the organisation, enabling more girls to be trained. Brendan O'Donnell, a campaigner for ActionAid, says: "MakePovertyHistory is a huge campaign this year, and we felt that, as the wristbands are going to be worn by so many people in the UK, they should directly benefit the people for whom we are campaigning. We are asking for a slightly higher donation for the embroidered bands because of the time and effort invested by the girls in making them."

Hand-sewn in cotton, the words "MakePovertyHistory" are embroidered across the bands. There are now around 630 girls aged from 12 to 18 involved in the project. It takes half an hour for each group to produce one, and 460 are made a day. If demand is high, more wristbands will be made.

With her new skills, Selina is now able to earn 25 taka a day (20p), in a city where a rickshaw-puller or labourer earns about 2,000 taka a month (£20). This money means that Selina can not only provide for her family, but also plan her future. "I'm saving money to spend on my wedding," she says. As Brendan O'Donnell explains: "If young women aren't wage-earners they are often forced into marrying as young as 12. Earning a wage means that they can have independence. This training empowers them as it gives them the financial ability to look after themselves," says Brendan. "Young women living in the slums don't have access to education or training, but Nari Maitree can provide that. It changes people's lives. The whole ethos of it is not about us being charitable, but about enabling people to make their way out of poverty themselves."

The campaign may well prove to be one of the most positive yet. This year, thousands of people in the UK are expected to send white band messages in the post, by e-mail or by text to Tony Blair. One doubts, however, that he will be seen wearing any of the wristbands sent to him, embroidered or not.

Get your MakePovertyHistory wristband at www.actionaid.org.uk

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