From Perils to Power | Farah Kabir, Country Director of ActionAid Bangladesh

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Farah Kabir, Country Director of ActionAid Bangladesh shares her insight into the development of women empowerment and climate action in Bangladesh, and the AAB’s ongoing effort to stand beside the women and youth of the country
With 14 years serving as the Country Director for ActionAid, can you give us a broad overview on how woman empowerment has taken shape in the country over the 50 years?

Bangladesh’s development story over the past fifty years is full of development surprises and extraordinary resilience of the people in the face of frequent natural disasters and manmade calamities. The country’s economic transformation has largely been driven by social changes, initiated by women empowerment, and providing a rare example of a development model under which social progress has far outstripped economic growth. In the process, the role of the state has been critical in pursuing sound macroeconomic policies, disaster management, and investments in public health during the pandemic. Investment in the education sector beyond enrollment remains a concern. There is a level of partnerships with NGOs and civil society, mainly regarding social policy agenda.

With Bangladesh’s vision of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2031 and a high-income country by 2041, the key to success will be to integrate three development dimensions covering desirable structural changes with an emphasis on risk assessment taking into consideration the planetary crisis, growth to reduce income and productivity gaps (convergence), and enhanced equality. For Bangladesh, interactions between structural transformation and social development are critical since technology has radical impacts on social interactions, leading to adaptation and regeneration of social relations critical for social cohesion. These developments indicate the need for embracing a multi-sectorial and interdisciplinary view on structural transformation in Bangladesh for just and green transition.

Only about 36 percent of Bangladesh’s women participate in the Labour market. The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating these challenges and a UN survey highlights that, in Bangladesh, about 25 percent of female respondents reported losing informal jobs, while another 24 percent saw decreased working hours. How are these challenges being mitigated?

According to the Labour Force Survey 2016-17, 91.8 percent women are working in the informal sector whereas only 14.9 percent working in the formal sector. Workers in the informal sector are the most affected in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In 2020, ActionAid Bangladesh conducted research which has shown that 42 percent of small enterprises lost 75 percent of their income. A joint survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB) showed that around 3.5 lakh garment workers in Bangladesh lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Women, particularly young women workers, therefore should be reached by the government stimulus package and social protection (social security) mechanism to enable them to bounce back to a better life.

Alongside, a comprehensive database is required to develop CMSMEs and their workers to bring them within the coverage of the stimulus package and social protection mechanism offered by GoB. This will create a support mechanism plus initiatives for the future.

Incubation centers need to be developed for the women entrepreneurs and youth entrepreneurs particularly at the district level where they can support through financing and marketing. The government should develop a policy for CMSMEs to provide them support for enhancing decent employment for women and young people. Re-skilling and upskilling initiatives should be taken for the women and young workers engaged in the informal sector.

 

Can you briefly tell us about the initiatives undertaken by ActionAid to ensure the adverse effects of the pandemic on women are being addressed?

ActionAid Bangladesh is advocating with the private sector and various government stakeholders, including the various Ministries and Bangladesh Bank, to address the effects of the pandemic on the young and women. Thereby emphasizing on access to stimulus packages, developing databases, social protection, and social security, developing a national policy for the informal sector, effective implementation of National SME Policy 2019 etc.

On the grassroots level, ActionAid Bangladesh is providing seed funds to young women to develop small scale entrepreneurship. We are also providing training to young people, including young women, on entrepreneurship skills development and accounting. In AAB working areas we are facilitating Women Led Communication Matrix (WLCM) to collect grassroots level data and responding to GBV cases through developing community led mechanisms during COVID-19. SVAW networks in coordination with other networks have implemented remote case management mechanisms to combat violence during COVID-19.

Moreover, AAB has taken many more initiatives during the pandemic, such as raising awareness on COVID-19 for 150,000 people in all its working areas. AAB has also provided food and MPCG (Multi-Purpose Cash Grants) support to 8,254 families. They also supplied PPE and Hygiene material to service providers and volunteers, and donated Hygiene Kit to 2,938 families.
AAB as part of its National level advocacy engaged frontline partner NGOs on different issues for instance to address the increasing cases of GBV, UCW and livelihood related matters. AAB conducted several studies in 2020 with the intent of taking up evidence-based advocacy in regards to the impact of COVID-19, unemployment and economic insecurity on young people in Bangladesh: A Spotlight on Young Women and Rapid Analysis of Care Work during COVID-19 Pandemic in Bangladesh was another study of AAB.

Despite being the top in South Asia, Bangladesh has slipped 15 notches to the rank 65th among 156 countries on the WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2021 resulting exclusively to a step backwards in closing economic participation and opportunity gender gaps. How can the government ensure better economic participation and opportunity?

The government has enacted numerous policies over the past decades in Bangladesh keeping women’s rights in focus. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs advocated for an increase of the allowances for widows, and to ease the burden on lactating mothers in urban areas and to provide an allowance. Skills development and job training in fields such as agriculture and electronics have also been implemented.

The National Women Development Policy of 2011 aimed to establish equal rights for men and women and included specific goals such as assistance for female entrepreneurs. To oversee the implementation of the development policy, the government formed a 50-member National Women and Child Development Council chaired by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Prime Minister supported women’s empowerment in global forums such as the UN. The problem we have identified is lack of effective implementation of policies and accountability across the board instead of discrimination found in the behaviour and practices of those in authority as well as society at large.

A report by WEF suggests that workplace equality will be reached in 267 years – what kind of policy support, infrastructural support, and knowledge sharing is required for a faster acquisition of women among professional and technical workers?

Women and the young face various kinds of harassment and impediments in the workplace, therefore, the government should ratify the ILO C 190 to address workplace violence and harassment. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) should strengthen their inspection mechanism to monitor the workplace environment.

The SME sector is largely propelled by women and youth entrepreneurs however the pandemic has seen the sector slip. What are the setbacks holding the SME sector back? What measures are required for banks and the government to realize the potential of this sector?

According to a study by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), though the government allocated funds for women entrepreneurs under the stimulus packages designed for CMSMEs, 58 percent of them have not heard about it, and 93 percent women led enterprises have not applied for any loan under the government support scheme. A separate stimulus package should be implemented for the woman entrepreneurs. The study further recommended extending the loan repayment deadline to three years for SMEs to fight the fall out of the COVID-19. According to the same study 94 percent of the beneficiaries of loans under the stimulus package provided by the government were male and 6.0 percent were female.

The government should reach out to the unbanked women and young entrepreneurs who are currently facing difficulties as they do not meet the criteria as per the existing guidelines for stimulus package distribution. An ecosystem should be developed for young and women entrepreneurs to support them in entrepreneurship development covering all aspects and dimensions for effective contribution. Engage the various trade bodies at all levels to disburse stimulus packages to the young and women entrepreneurs. Banks and financial institutions need to be advised to form Women Entrepreneurs Development Unit and Dedicated Desk in the regional offices including the head office of banks and financial institutions. We recommend arranging necessary training facilities for women entrepreneurs. Bangladesh Bank has allocated 15 percent of total refinancing scheme for women entrepreneurs.

Can you briefly touch upon the innovations Bangladesh has come up with to combat the climate crisis over the years?

Bangladesh has come up with agro economic interventions to combat the effect of the climate crisis. Supporting circular economic intervention has also been a great initiative. Youth led mitigation and adaptation process, i.e., tree plantation, community mobilization for protection of embankment, supporting the climate resilient sustainable agriculture, etc. are also some of the notable initiatives against climate disaster. However the challenge lies with the private sector especially in the areas of infrastructure development and energy projects that are being rolled out.
Women leadership in emergencies is visible, women are leading on multiple fronts. We find that women are taking on challenges and taking on new occupations. They are trying to be innovative. Women leadership in all aspects of our lives have grown in the last 50 years and organizations like ours find it so true on the grassroots level because we work with communities in the far flung areas in the country. Having said that we continue to struggle with the mindset of the political actors, the practitioners and society itself.

On one hand we have so much progress to showcase yet on the other hand we have the patriarchal mindset coupled with the global rise of rightist forces that nurture the concept of power and outright obstruction of women rights refusing to recognise women and girls as humans thereby refusing to acknowledge their contributions, competencies, and abilities.

We see the need for system change whereby institutions will be required to change. Institutions are so embedded in gender discrimination practices that they find it difficult to rise above that. 50 years of independence is being celebrated yet women question whether they are independent and equal citizens of this country?

I celebrate the strides we have made to get where we are today. I celebrate this for women who came before us and for the young women today who are showing their strength and leadership. I believe there’s no stopping us.

It’s the young people, their leadership and their vision of the country and the world that excites me leaving me with hope. I want to see more women leading with a feminist lens in climate justice, equity, rights, and dignity.

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