Is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic disrupting women's empowerment in Bangladesh? The response is affirmative because the pandemic-induced socio-economic scenario is not complementary to women's empowerment. Let us discuss why this socio-economic scenario will agitate women's empowerment, disrupting the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 5: gender equality.
Among the 17 goals set in 2015, by the United Nations as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, the fifth goal is gender equality, aimed at the empowerment of all women and girls. The term "women's empowerment" simultaneously refers to the level of control possessed by women and the process of increasing control over the decisions that have an impact on their livelihood, social status and self-respect.
The four facets of women's empowerment in a country or society are women's power, autonomy, status and subjective equality with men. Moreover, the three pillars of women's empowerment are education, the ability to earn and security. In relation to these, goal 5 of the SDGs has set nine targets for gender equality.
The objectives are to end discrimination against women and girls; end all violence against and exploitation of women and girls; eliminate forced marriages and genital mutilation; value unpaid care and promote shared domestic responsibilities; ensure full participation in leadership and decision-making; universal access to reproductive rights and health; equal rights to economic resources, property ownership and financial services; promote empowerment of women through technology, adopt and strengthen policies and enforceable legislation for gender equality.
Loss of jobs and decreased incomes are common consequences of the pandemic in Bangladesh. Women face financial hardships as a result of the loss of income they or their partners' encounter. The rapid assessment survey of the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19 of women's and men's economic empowerment of UN Women has reported that about 50% of women either lost their jobs or dealt with lower income in the informal sector in Bangladesh, while the statistic for men was about 40%.
However, among respondents employed in the formal sector, 83% of women reported a reduction in their income, compared to 14% of men. Financial support from the government and NGOs for women dropped after the pandemic. Compared to men, income rates have declined further among women who used their savings to get through financial difficulties, running businesses and farms since the onset of the pandemic.
Violence against women has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia reported significant economic, psychosocial, and physical risks faced by women and their families across the economic strata in rural Bangladesh. Emotional, physical and sexual violence rose by about 68%, 56% and 50% respectively. During this time, income rates dropped, poverty escalated, and food insecurity increased among families. Studies conducted by the Manusher Jonno Foundation and Ain O Salish Kendra have shown similar findings.
Speakers at a digital dialogue organized by BRAC in October 2020 said that child marriage has significantly increased due to girls' staying at home as schools are closed during the lockdown. The South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (Sanem) reported that more than 45% of high school students might drop out because of economic difficulties caused by Covid-19. One might suppose that the lion's share of these students will be female students, who may end up being forced to marry at an early age or be involved in unpaid domestic work. Similar consequences are expected for women pursuing post-secondary education.
Women in Bangladesh are facing a higher workload during the Covid-19 lockdown. Islam and others in their research paper, published in Progress in Disaster Science, specifically mentioned the burden of women's work in Bangladesh during the lockdown. They observed that working women from all walks of life had to spend longer periods of time performing household chores, in addition to their regular jobs because most of their employers resumed regular operations by having employees work from home.
Workers who had to perform extra household chores during solitary confinement will presumably have to continue to do so. Because husbands and other family members leave the house for work, they may now consider domestic work a woman's responsibility. This will certainly bring additional stress and conflict into the lives of working women. Many of them may have to sacrifice their careers post-pandemic.
Bangladesh has made remarkable progress concerning gender equality and women's empowerment over the past 25 years. The Government of the Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has accepted gender equality and women's empowerment as a priority for sustainable development.
The 7th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) of the Bangladesh Government has emphasised women's engagement in political and economic activities as a cross-cutting issue, and one of the main drivers of transformation to a middle-income country. As a result, the participation of women in the workforce increased, women entrepreneurship flourished, women's protests against domestic and other violence gained social support, and women's leadership in society was accepted. Bangladesh ranked 50th worldwide, and first in South Asia in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hampered the progression of women's empowerment in Bangladesh. Though there is no comprehensive and large study yet, some existing studies have depicted a depressing scenario. It has had a negative impact on the pillars of women's empowerment.
The post-pandemic scenario predicts fewer girls in schools, decreased ability to earn an income and a lack of security, due to increased emotional, physical and sexual abuse. With less education and less wage capacity, women may not have their emerging power, autonomy and status in the post-pandemic era. Therefore, the gender gap in Bangladesh is likely to widen.
Of the nine targets under Goal 5 of the SDGs, seven are expected to face setbacks in Bangladesh. Women in Bangladesh may experience more discrimination, violence, exploitation, an increase in forced marriages, more unpaid domestic responsibilities, less participation in leadership and decision-making, due to lack of education and earning capability, unequal rights to economic resources, and limited empowerment through technology. Consequently, Bangladesh may experience a decline in women's empowerment during the post-Covid period.
Sayada Jannatun Naim is the assistant director – EDC of Brac Institute of Governance & Development (BIGD), Brac University and she can be rached at [email protected]