In 1977, the United Nations (UN) recognised and declared March 8 as International Women's Day. Since then, the UN and its agencies have been working tirelessly to secure gender equality worldwide. The latest outcome is the inclusion of Goal 5 'Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Bangladesh is a little late in initiating the celebration of the Day. The country observed International Women's Day in 1988 for the first time. Since then, in harmony with the international community, Bangladesh has been celebrating the Day to recognise women's achievements in the social, economic, cultural, and political spheres.
This year, UN Women has chosen the theme 'Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world' to recognise the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier Oxfam, an International NGO, developed a program of Women's Economic Leadership to empower women economically and socially through securing economic resources for women, favouring the access and gaining of power of women in the markets, and changing cultural attitudes and practices that discriminate against women in economic decision-making.
In the light of this framework, this opinion piece intends to assess the progress of women in Bangladesh, identify the main constraints and challenges they face, and eventually provide a way forward.
Over the past decade, Bangladesh has set a credible record of sustainable economic development with a stable macroeconomic framework and political stability. Thus, the country has not only made significant progress in reducing poverty but has also emerged as a medium human development country by UNDP's ranking and lower-middle-income country by the World Bank category, in 2015. Now, if everything goes well, Bangladesh will graduate as a non-LDC country in 2026.
Several global reports, in recent years, have shown significant improvements that Bangladeshi women have made in terms of education, participation in the labour force, economic activity, and political empowerment. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Bangladesh (with a score of 72.6%) is the only one of the South Asian countries to be featured in the top 100 list of the Global Gender Gap Index.
In terms of women's political empowerment, Bangladesh is one of the few countries with women as prime minister, parliament speaker, opposition leader, cabinet ministers, secretaries, and high commissioner. Women are also leading a number of business organisations such as Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI).
Women with little or no education make up a larger part of the informal labour force of Bangladesh. In rural areas, women played an important role in improving the economic stability of their households by participating in farming activities. On the other hand, educated women are employed in various jobs, especially in urban areas, such as educational institutions, government offices, healthcare sector, banking sector and so on. Over the past decade, the number of women physicians, engineers, pilots, lawyers, and military service holders is on a continuous rise.
Despite the above-mentioned progress, the status of women's economic leadership is not satisfactory. The gender gap is wide in Bangladesh. Women and girls from poor families are in a worse position than male members. Female labour force participation is low, the wage differential between male and female remains significant, and nearly two out of every three women in the country are victims of some form of violence.
Several studies since the coronavirus outbreak have found that women are the most affected group, both economically and socially. According to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, rising unemployment has not only caused a lot of uncertainty, stress, and frustration among many people, but also increased violence against women and children in Bangladesh during the Covid-19 lockdown.
During this time, women entrepreneurs are struggling hard to survive and many small entrepreneurs have been forced to close their businesses without finding any other alternative. According to Khatun (September 06, 2020, The Daily Star), "women, being at the frontline of the crisis as healthcare workers, as caregivers at home, and as managers of the household, are having to bear the brunt of the coronavirus crisis more intensely than anyone else. Girl children are being married off by poor parents as educational institutions are closed."
It is observed that high-interest rate, rigidity in loan-related analysis and collateral are the major barriers for women entrepreneurs in getting access to finance. Many women have a lack of financial literacy and do not even know how to apply for getting loans from the Commercial Banks (CBs).
On the other hand, it is not lucrative for CBs to support women's entrepreneurship as they feel that women entrepreneurs are not only less diverse, many women entrepreneurs are not real entrepreneurs either. In most cases, despite having a license in their names, the businesses are operated by other family members such as their husband, son, and others.
There is also a wide gender gap in the digital sphere. According to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA)'s 2019 Mobile Gender Gap Report, Bangladesh has ranked bottom among 58 economies in the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs for 2020. Some 58% of adult women in Bangladesh own mobile phones while only 13% use the internet. This exposes that Bangladesh is among the toughest places for female business owners.
Economic transition of the country from agriculture to service-led industries has brought more economic opportunities; created scope for labour exploitation, especially of women. They are not getting a decent work environment, dignified lives, and gender equity in the industrial sector of Bangladesh.
Although women-led SMEs in Bangladesh make up about 22%, they are facing socio-cultural barriers and problems directly related to financial access. Socio-cultural stigma often prevents them from engaging in business activities. In fact, women do not feel comfortable engaging in business ventures without support from their husbands or other male family members.
It is unfortunate that despite preservation of rights of women in the Constitution of Bangladesh as free and equal citizens, women are still on the streets fighting for equal rights. This remains true even after 50 years of independence. The presence of deep and systemic gender inequality cannot be denied in every sphere of the economy, in the family, workplace and elsewhere.
Therefore, on the eve of the special day of March 8, let us remember the contributions of the hard-working people including women with honour in the achievement of the high economic growth in Bangladesh.
Accordingly, let us conclude the piece suggesting the following to protect and enhance women's economic leadership: (1) to craft government policies through a gender lens; (2) to train women entrepreneurs and enhance their access to information for capacity-building ; (3) to increase government budgetary allocation funds for women entrepreneurs under the Covid-19 pandemic situation; (4) to support women who face domestic violence through providing legal aid by governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and (5) to increase the government's monthly stipend for girls and other facilities to stop the increasing trend of early marriages due to economic hardship during Covid-19.
Dr Hasina Sheykh is a Professor, Department of Banking and Insurance, Faculty of Business Studies, University of Dhaka. She can be reached at [email protected]
Dr Foyasal Khan is an Economist and an adjunct Faculty, School of Business, Uttara University, Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]