Fahim Shahriar Tasnim
“We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.”
The socio-economic conditions of women in Bangladesh have improved dramatically since the country’s independence. If we look at their participation in education, the labour force, corporate sectors, sports, RMG, and other relevant sectors, the depth of women empowerment becomes visible. Nevertheless, the contribution of women in official estimates of GDP is much lower than that of men.
The lower contribution of women in national income is due to their excessive participation in the informal sector where there is little to no monetary benefit. According to ILO, women account for one-third of the workforce in the informal sector. In Bangladesh, the representation of women in different sectors is irregular — 3.25% in the public sector, 8.25% in the private sector, and finally 89.5% in the informal sector. Childcare, household chores, volunteer work, eldercare, and nursing are usually done by women without any remuneration. Due to the nature of their work, the contribution of women to the GDP is often under-represented.
Ignoring women’s unpaid work leads to under-evaluation of their economic contribution. It also lowers their social status. There are very few comprehensive studies on the economic value of all types of activities performed by women in Bangladesh. Regardless of the previous facts, the increasing participation of women in economic activities can be attributed to four causes. The first is the implementation of family-planning policies in the late 1970s by the Bangladeshi government. The policy helped create jobs for women in the health and community sectors. The second cause was the microcredit revolution in the mid-1970s. Women were the main target of microcredit loans because they were deemed more reliable to repay the loans. As a result, many women in rural Bangladesh engaged in entrepreneurial activities and got out of the cycle of poverty. The third was the industrial policy aimed towards revitalising the export-oriented industries in Bangladesh in the early 1980s. The majority of the workers in the RMG sector are women. The fourth is the Food for Education Program engineered in 1980. As a result, many poor families sent their children to school. This program helped reduce the gender gap in education at the primary and secondary levels.
Despite the progress, women are still lagging behind. According to “Voices to Choices: Bangladesh’s Journey in Women’s Economic Empowerment”, women’s participation in the workforce is less than half of that of men in Bangladesh. The country can progress faster if more women engage in higher-quality and higher-paid jobs. More than one-third of women in the labour force are unpaid family helpers. Bangladesh’s female labour force participation is lower than that of Nepal (80%) and Vietnam (77%) but lifting social and economic barriers can help Bangladesh unlock a significant part of its productivity.
Gender gaps exist in asset control, financial inclusion, and entrepreneurship. In rural areas, women own land at much lower rates than men; agricultural land ownership by men is about six times higher than ownership by women, and non-agricultural land ownership by men is about twelve times higher than it is for women. In terms of financial inclusion, only 36% of women have bank accounts, compared to 65% of men, and most women do not control financial assets. The rate of female entrepreneurship has been growing in recent years but women still only own 1.7% of enterprises in the formal sector which is among the lowest rates of women’s enterprise ownership in the world.
On the bright side, the government is focused on creating a favourable environment for women in order to unleash the potentials of women in the labour and entrepreneurial sector. 29.65% of the budget of 2018-19 fiscal year has been allocated for women’s social and economic empowerment activities. The government is bringing women to the forefront of all economic activities as 10% of posts in judicial, administrative, civil service, armed forces, and law enforcing agencies are reserved for women. The government has introduced six months’ paid maternity leave for working women, while the central bank is providing collateral-free loans up to Tk 2.5 million to female entrepreneurs. About 15% of funds of the refinancing scheme, 10% industrial plots, and 10% small entrepreneur funds are allocated for women. Every bank and non-bank financial institution has dedicated a desk to women entrepreneurs.
Women’s participation in our economy is increasing. Over four million women are employed in the ready-made garment industry. The government aims to ensure 40% participation of women in every sector by 2021 and 50% by 2030. In the end, collaborative efforts from all segments of society are needed in order to ensure effective participation of women in the development of our country.