Beyond the Barriers

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Bangladesh women changing the business landscape

The rise of Bangladesh women against all odds has changed the social environment and the value of doing business. Still, how far have they gained equitable positions? As drivers for change and fortune making, businesses need to recognise what women deserve and can offer to take the country to the next stage of development.


Doulot Akter Mala


Who could imagine the Bangladeshi women would emerge as a formidable force and reshape the social and economic landscape of the country within a generation? Once considered backward and helpless, the womenfolk have not only broken the shackles with a silent revolution but also proved their potential in a variety of businesses without creating probable tensions in families and society. In fact, two major successes that Bangladesh boasts of – readymade garments and microcredit – should be attributed to the widespread participation of the common women.


Unfortunately, the contribution of women to household activities and agricultural production remained unrecognised historically. Regrettably the merit, strength and potential of women in business were not taken into serious consideration until recently. The society still fails to seek a point-blank answer to the question: If the poor and unskilled women can change Bangladesh in two key areas of business, why would the middle class, educated women not be able to make their marks on the society and the economy?


However nowadays, the rise of women in various professions – ranging from medical to legal practice, from the media to civil service, from teaching to corporate jobs, and from business to development sector – has been noticeable, though not at the optimum level as yet. Given the social barriers and poverty, the women’s entry into the mainstream economic activities has stunned many, especially the foreigners.


Bangladesh scores 0.668 out of 1 in gender gap index prepared by the World Economic Forum. The country ranks 86th out of 135 countries, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012. But on the political empowerment sub-index, it ranks 8th among all countries, thanks to the leadership of women and their increasing participation in the political process. Since restoration of democracy in 1991, the women’s participation in parliament marked a steady rise – from 12.7% in 1991-95 to 13%, 12.4%, 18.6%and 20.0% respectively in 1996-2000, 2001-06, 2008 and 2012.


The country has also been acknowledged for its attainments in gender parity, considered globally one of major indicators of social and economic development of a country. Bangladesh has made significant progress in promoting the objectives of the women’s empowerment, said the progress report on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Yet, wage employment for women in Bangladesh is still low. Only one woman out of every five is engaged in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector. Female leaders say there is still a divide between urban and rural women in terms of accessing opportunities.


Trendsetter, change makers


Bangladesh has presented before the world a unique combination of women leadership – the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, the Speaker and the key opposition party leader are all women. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her predecessor Khaleda Zia have almost alternately governed the country since 1991. The two leaders also proved their ability to lead the people during the anti-autocracy movement and rose to the top position of power by amassing popular support. Their rise and leadership has set certain trends and examples for others although it is difficult to change the entire social fabric including the one related to women.


The other group of women that contributed to changing the society and the economy are poor and helpless women who played the role of unsung heroes in the growth of main export-earning garment sector and of micro and small enterprises financed with small loans. The apparel industry and microcredit have made Bangladesh well-known globally. These women have fought against all challenges of their own lives as well as in families and society.


‘A silent revolution has taken place in Bangladesh – women have grown by using the social traditions and indigenous knowledge,’ said Rasheda K Choudhury, a reputed development activist who was inducted to the former caretaker government as an adviser. She pointed out that with microcredit and loans for small and medium enterprises, the women have proved their potential investing in costume designing, poultry, agro-farming and some other businesses. ‘The Bangladeshi women have shown that they could be entrepreneurs and they have graduated to the present level.’


In microcredit, ‘women have proved that they are good borrowers and do not default in repayment,’ noted Rokia A Rahman, another former adviser and currently the President of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI). She also observed that the situation has also improved for the women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. ‘The central bank’s intervention has made it easier for them to access formal financing,’ she added.


Bangladeshi women also played a positive role in the spread of literacy and creating an urge for development. The quest for emancipation from poverty and social ills among the women proved to be amazing. The missionary zeal of both women and men to ensure the participation and empowerment of women in mainstream social and economic activities was also critical in this regard.


From caregiver to caring society


Historically, the role of mothers in Bengali society was important in terms of giving care to the children and running the family. At the same time, there was repression on women in many cases. With modernisation, we have witnessed some changes in the role of women – girls are being sent to school and women have become earning members of many families. The role of a traditional mother has placed more importance on education as the government started distributing food and money to the mothers for sending their children to school. That move proved to be very effective in establishing mothers as a trustee of money and care in families.


Rawshanara, a mother from Santhia of Pabna, lost her husband during the War of Liberation but she declined to give up hope of making her three children established in society. Banking on determination and hard labour, she fought against poverty and other challenges. Her two sons have become an engineer and an army officer and her daughter has been working as a schoolteacher. Rawshanara has recently been recognised by the Women Directorate as a successful mother. Yet there are still hundreds of thousands of mothers who are struggling in different parts of the country every day.


However, their contributions to household activities remain unaccounted and many would argue a mother’s love cannot be measured in monetary terms. Against this backdrop, it is also true that the contribution women provide to their family has not been appreciated in most cases. Their contribution to more tangible economic activities such as agriculture, too, has not been recognised although, according to a study by Food and Agriculture Organisation, 59% Bangladeshi women are engaged in agriculture sector.


Neighbouring India has last year introduced a bill in parliament proposing salaries to the housewives. The move evoked mixed reactions. This is an area where Bangladeshi women, too, need recognition in whatever forms socially, politically and economically that are possible to help keep a harmonious family and society. A mother can be not only a great homemaker but also the symbol of a caring society.


Women in apparel industry


It is the women that have made the growth of the garment industry possible and the nation proud of their contribution. This export-earning sector has also attracted the largest pool of female employees with inherent skills and the skills they attained over the years. Rural women have become part of the formal workforce and empowered themselves financially and socially. They have been an independent voice in the family as they can maintain the family expenses.


According to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the number of female workers increased to 2.88 million in 2010-11 as against 1.92 million in 2006-07. Bangladeshi garment entrepreneurs once received orders for making garment items due to the availability of cheap labour and as a result women’s pay was relatively low. However, most of the female workers have attained skills and showed sincerity in the workplace and the issues of better pay and healthy working conditions have come to the fore at present.


Some large RMG units are laying emphasis on workers’ welfare as part of their ethical practice and also Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The matters of welfare and compliance are issues related to gender discrimination which needs to be addressed with proper care. Meanwhile, a handful of businesswomen came forward with investment initiatives in the RMG sector. They are competing in the export market with skills, competence and competitiveness. Women’s participation in RMG sector, both as workers and owners, could be a constant blessing for the sector in the coming days.


Women as wage-earners


Wage employment is an area where the women have the least participation, excepting the case of apparel sector. Women have started joining such jobs and more conspicuously, they are searching for overseas jobs. Was it believable in the 1970s that the Bangladesh women would be earning remittances? In the Middle East countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, UAE, Oman and Qatar, Bangladeshi female workers are mostly recruited for household assistants and garments workers. Recently some nurses also got overseas jobs. Bangladeshi workers receive relatively lower wages than the ones from other exporting countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. The export of female workers doubled in the last five years despite negative growth in overall remittance earning recently. About 56,000 female workers went for overseas jobs in 2013 as against 22,214 in 2009.


Year Number of female migrant workers
2013 56,000
2012 37,304
2011 30,579
2010 27,706
2009 22,214

Source: BMET


Female migrant workers account for 12.64% of the total manpower exports in 2013 and there are huge prospects of growth in the sector. However, there are issues of rights and security of female workers on foreign lands that need to be taken care of by both of the governments.


Surge into service sector


The growth in service sectors brought women workforce in rolling the economy. The women stepped into the telecom sector, banks, hospitals, the media and non-government organisations. In fact, teaching has been the most common profession of the educated women who are responsible for building the future generations.


With the recent boom of corporate culture, the female executives are joining in large numbers various corporate houses. They are playing a significant role in improving the working conditions with gender balance and changing social values.


Also, development of modern medical facilities has created the necessity of nurses in hospitals. Female nurses have already proved themselves skilled to work at home and abroad. The demand for nurses is particularly high in Gulf countries.


Women in business


The emergence of women entrepreneurship, especially in SMEs, has added a new dimension to the Bangladesh economy. They are everywhere — from handicrafts to light engineering, beauty parlours to manufacturing and export-import business.


Globally, women-owned entities in the formal sector represent approximately 37% of enterprises. In Bangladesh, the women entrepreneurs’ economic activities are higher at 41.6% in manufacturing and trading, 10.6% in the export sector, 6.2% in wholesale, 13% in retail and 12.8% in service, according to the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) study-2010. Last November, the European Parliament approved a draft directive setting a deadline of 2020 by which large companies would have to fill at least 40% of their board seats with women.


The situation in Bangladesh is different. Sincerity and dedication to the profession have made the women successful entrepreneurs. They show their excellence in handicrafts with natural talent. Since the time immemorial, women have been showing expertise in poultry and horticulture sectors. Women are making the best use of micro-credit in rural Bangladesh. This is the sector that brought the country its first Nobel Peace Prize and the Bangladeshi rural women have also been duly recognised.


Icebreaking with associations


A number of women’s associations are working in Bangladesh for protecting women’s rights and promoting their empowerment. Some of them are Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), Women Entrepreneurs Association (WEA), Nari Uddog Kendra (NUK), Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE). Such associations are imparting training and creating scope for women in both urban and rural areas. Women entrepreneurs can raise their voice, point out problems and seek solutions to business issues using those platforms. Members are attending local and international fairs to get market knowledge and exposure. Earlier, women used to produce handmade products at home as a hobby. Now, their hobby has turned into a profession.


Women entrepreneurs are producing varieties of items targeting occasions such as Eid, Puja, Pahela Boishakh (first day of Bangla new year), Pahela Falgun (beginning of the spring), the Victory Day, Independence Day, International Mothers Language Day, and even Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. With the support of the associations, the women entrepreneurs can develop market network with local and international buyers. Government agencies like Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) and SME foundation have been supporting female entrepreneurs.


‘Women entrepreneurs have grown more in recent years. A system has developed to facilitate them,’ said Selima Ahmad, the founding president of BWCCI. She mentioned that there is a huge demand for capacity building training and skills development. The BWCCI launched a training programme in 64 districts of the country. It is titled ‘Empower 5000’, aimed at bringing in 5000 women entrepreneurs in the SME sector in the next five years.


Access to financing


With the support of the Bangladesh Bank (BB), women entrepreneurs in urban areas have overcome the barriers to access financing facilities. ‘But, the female entrepreneurs in rural areas, especially in lower and lower-middle income families, are facing the problem of financing as the banks demand collateral or high interest rates. The situation in district towns, too, has not changed much,’ said Selima Ahmad.


In a meeting in October 2013, women entrepreneurs of the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, raised the difficulties in getting financial support as a hurdle in their businesses.


Many of the private commercial banks have come up with SME packages for women entrepreneurs but the field level isn’t yet properly responding to the women’s needs.


Need for diversified sectors


Educated women are moving around some selective sectors that are relatively soft in nature – teaching for example. They are often discouraged to opt for challenging jobs, fear that undermines their career goals. Choosing journalism or new businesses as a profession was not so welcoming in society.


As in a patriarchal family culture, women are largely considered as homemakers to give birth and take care of children and manage household chores. They have to give priority to the family, not the profession. The number of dropouts from both professional jobs and academic sessions are higher amongst women.


The society allows educated women for some selective jobs which they can do comfortably alongside a regular family job. So, the actual potential of women’s careers remains widely untapped. They cannot show skills and expertise in their desired profession the way their brothers and husbands do. A social transformation is required for accommodating the women’s aims and aspirations and thus building a better society.


Security concerns


Many families in Bangladesh feel quite uncomfortable to see the female members going outside of home at late night. The women are much more vulnerable socially than the men. There are many incidents of physical harassment and even rape. Such unpleasant incidents panic the parents and guardians while allowing their female family members outside home for professional duties at night. The women are also subjected to sexual harassment in some offices.


Insufficient security measures, social ills and lack of proper education are responsible for barring the women from free movement. Such a situation requires a two-fold step – a change in social attitude towards women and the strict policy by the state to protect women – for ensuring equal participation of women in various activities in society.


Areas that need attention


Rasheda K Choudhury, who also heads Campaign for Popular Education, said women entrepreneurs in the middle income group face problems in getting big loans without any link or connection to influential quarters. ‘Women need capital, market access and smooth supply of raw materials. But the intervention of the middlemen must be checked,’ she told this author, emphasising the need for recognising the women for their contribution to the economy from grassroots to the national levels.


Unfortunately, some 87% of women have faced domestic violence by their husbands, according to a study of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the findings were revealed at a time when Bangladesh has made significant improvements in bringing women to the mainstream. Violence against women is not often considered a national issue and poor enforcement of law and social stigma are responsible for the persistence of such violence. In some cases, women in well-off and educated families hide domestic violence to protect their social status while the issues of the poor women are not entertained properly. Of the repressed women, some 40% felt legal action unnecessary while 20% kept mum considering their children’s future. According to the survey, some 16.2 per cent of women face violence in the working place. Dowry is still prevalent in Bangladesh society in different forms and in some parts of the country, early marriage is widespread.


Despite the problems faced by the women, they are no longer considered merely homemakers. They rather have proved themselves in multi-tasking. Since the independence of Bangladesh, the women have broken many barriers and have come a long way showing the path to the future women to make progress in a society of shared prosperity. Rokeya A Rahman referred to the theme of the international women’s day, 2014 — ‘Inspire and Change’. ‘Women are coming to the mainstream economic activities banking on the successes made by other women.’





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