By Rashna Mahzabin
Professor Fahima Durrat discusses the need to recognize the role of women in the big scheme of poverty and development.
Do you think poverty is a multidimensional facet? How do women fall into this?
More than anything, the cause of poverty is relational. The way we are connected to other people socially as well as economically makes us vulnerable or increases our resilience. Gender is one relation of power that may make a person vulnerable. For example, women tend to own less property, get paid less, women tend to have less control even on their own labor e.g. they stay at home more to take care of someone and sometimes have to work at home and outside at the same time, there are many opportunities women cannot avail due to mobility restrictions. How societies view women’s paid work also varies from place to place. Even when they are working they do not always control the fruit of their labor, these things make them susceptible to the poverty-creating mechanism. For example when the men in her life cannot or would not support her any longer. We have to remember that gender is one of the factors. Women from different backgrounds live differently.
In the midst of infrastructural and economic development mental wellbeing is not counted as a variable of development. How does poverty affect women’s wellbeing and what measures should be taken in the development initiatives to ensure this?
We may define poverty in terms of wellbeing. In that case, we are all a bit poor due to the quality of air that we breathe in Dhaka. Air quality also influences mental health. Mental health problems prevent one from being productive. These things are all connected. Measuring wellbeing allows us to be more inclusive of women because measuring income and wealth doesn’t always tell us about the gender difference in access. This way we can look at individual lives and whether they are able to live according to their full potential. Our society usually devalues women’s potential and defines it narrowly. We need development initiatives that aim to reduce the exclusion of women and creating a healthy environment for working and living for everyone.
Bangladeshi women’s employment rose by almost a third over the last two decades, to 38% in the 2019 index. Manufacturing became more important, while employment in agriculture shrank. How can we rely on home-based work and SMEs through microcredit and relaxed public lending opportunities to justly recognize the contributions of rural women to our economy?
Employment in agriculture is shrinking in general, it’s a global trend. It’s better if a country’s economy is now dependent on the production of primary products. We would like the manufacturing and tech-intensive service sectors to grow. The latter is especially good for women because it allows working from home, flexible hours and easy re-entry after a break, which works well for child-bearers and people who take care of children and the elderly. There should be a lot of focus on technical training. More than providing loans, SMEs and microcredits i.e individualizing the process, the government should focus on developing industries, for example, it can employ people to provide training, search for new areas where those training could be marketed, build new sectors. There is a lot to gain from skill development of men and women, urban and rural and from creating jobs domestically as well as helping skilled people find paid work online and abroad. There is also a lot to gain from research, especially participatory and other forms of qualitative research so that the voice of the targeted women would inform policies.
UN has stated that given the key role that language plays in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias. To achieve this, what should be our initial steps as a nation and how can we achieve this?
We usually imagine a world where the main actor is male. That results in various biases. Anything that we say and write should assume that the targets could be of any gender. I think it’s also important to remember that gender does not automatically mean women. While drafting any text we should keep in mind that they are directed towards people in their gendered bodies i.e. people participate in life as men, women and even people who are neither. That would guide us to being inclusive of everyone and addressing different needs of different people.
Bangladesh is going to be a middle-income country soon, but gender inequality persists in societies even in policies, which hinders the progress of achieving Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. How can women play a role in achieving vision 2030 and what should be probable government initiative towards this?
Gender equality and poverty reduction are two different goals. We should not assume that one would automatically lead to the other. We have seen many incidents where household solvency pushed women inward; we have seen women not being able to spend their own income. There is no guarantee that freedom from material deprivation would translate into a greater role in decision-making processes or better control over life and surroundings. So we would need separate policies aimed specifically at reducing gender inequality. Bangladesh has obligations to its constitution as well as various international instruments in this regard, including SDGs. Ensuring security at the workplace and provisions to share childrearing responsibilities and facilitating re-entry to the workforce would go a long way. Women would then find their own ways to contribute to achieving those visions.