"The evolution of society has brought women to the point where she realises at last her degrading position and vehemently claims redress" - Theresa Malkiel, 1909. More than a century later, the world is still struggling to ensure equal social, political, and economic rights for women.
Bangladesh, a country just making its graduation from the LDC class, has more challenges that must be solved with utmost priority.
The key for Bangladesh to achieve sustainable development goals by 2030 is to empower women economically. This empowerment boosts productivity and increases economic diversification. Although Bangladesh's dedicated efforts to increase women's participation in education, business, politics, and social movements have been successful, challenges persist. Women still face discrimination and often fall victim both in and out of their homes. Major factors that hinder women's economic empowerment are addressed below.
Unorganised informal sector
Data from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (2016-17) suggest that 91.8 percent of the female workforce in Bangladesh are employed in the informal sector. While this shows women's employment as an indicator of progression, the reality is far from that being true.
They are severely underpaid and inhumanly exploited. A female worker in a rice mill, on average, earns as little as Tk4,047 a month. Even in food processing, where the payment is comparatively higher, their monthly income on average is only Tk10,415 (Source: Rapid assessment report by BRAC).
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for them. Despite contributing to more than half of our country's total GDP, the informal sectors are neither legally nor contractually protected.
The pandemic resulted in massive unemployment, which significantly affected the majority of female workers. Those who still had their employment had a significant cut down on their payment. For example, a rice mill female worker's average monthly earning went down to Tk1,261. A female worker's average monthly earning in food processing went down to Tk4,588. We must recognise that the number of women employed is not everything. Rather, it is how many employments empower and protect them.
Unpaid care work (the heart of gender inequality)
In most discussions of economic welfare, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as well as employment rate, is used to analyse the economic growth. The definition of a country's GDP is "the total market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period." Persons involved in producing goods and services are typically considered employed. Hence, it is needless to say that these indicators to economic welfare discussions are quite deceptive as they do not include women's domestic labour.
Women in our country are involved in unpaid housework and care-work that create significant value. Regardless of the hours women put into the housework every day, their works have not been assigned an economic value.
SANEM says the monetary value of the unpaid domestic work done by women in Bangladesh is equivalent to 48.54 percent of fiscal 2016-17's GDP, and women account for 81.4 percent of the amount (The Daily Star, November 05, 2019). This disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on women is one of the biggest gender gaps.
Although Bangladesh could effectively close over 72 percent of the overall gender gap, according to The World Economic Forum 2018, there has still been a widening gender gap in labour force participation. Proper recognition, redistribution, and reduced unpaid care work can help transform women's lives and reduce the existing patriarchy.
The economic gender gap in the RMG sector
The ready-made garment (RMG) sector is one of the key contributors to the economic growth of Bangladesh where female workers constitute the majority. Nevertheless, female workers in the RMG sector face gender-based discrimination. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) 2017, while 61 percent of all workers are women, 85 percent of them perform low-paid tasks requiring low skills.
As for the wage, women workers earn 11 percent less than men, and this wage gap is 5 percent for women supervisors. Inequality is evident in the managerial position as well; there are only 5.8 percent female factory owners, 4 percent female factory managers, and 9 percent of supervisors are women in the RMG sector in Bangladesh.
Additionally, female garments workers are also victims of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and assault. According to a report by ActionAid 2019, 80 percent of garment workers in Bangladesh have either seen or directly experienced sexual violence or harassment in the workplace. Due to life-long discrimination and job stereotyping, women are over-represented at low-paying and lower-status jobs while having no decision-making or bargaining power. It is one of the major reasons why GBV comes at a high social cost.
Glorification of Affirmative policies
Existing affirmative actions are often praised to the extent where it delusionally feels adequate to many. Such policies include reserved seats in The National Parliament (10 percent seat for women), reserved seats in all public transport, entirely subsidised primary school education, scholarships, dedicated quota in public universities, scholarships, maternity leaves, etcetera.
However, these are barely giving any space to help women fight because women economic empowerment is often limited to these quotas. Affirmative actions are not a one-step solution to all existing problems. We must address the systematic patriarchal structure, the stereotypes, and inequalities of all forms.
Whether we talk about achieving sustainable development goals, or robust economic growth there is one fact that is undeniable: closing the gender gap and ensuring an equal economic opportunity for our girls and women are crucial. Now is the time for women empowerment, breaking the structural barriers, and recognising their contribution to the economy.
The authors are Research Associates at Youth Policy Forum. Ahmad Tousif Jami is a recent High School graduate from Dhaka College. Nabila Tasneem Anonnya is a student of the Department of Economics and Social Sciences, Brac University.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.