ODES OF A WOMAN ENTREPRENEUR

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Melinda Gates has famously been quoted in saying, “When we invest in women, we invest in the people who invest in everyone else.” Gates has long been an advocate for women and girls around the world whose role is just more than that of a philanthropic donor but also that of a role model.

The data behind Gate’s claim is irrefutable. A World Bank study based on multiple developing nation found that every year of secondary school education is correlated with 18% increase in the girls earning power. But the study doesn’t stop there, it also delves into the positive multiplier effect of educating women and girls in particular. A better education for female population translates into a healthier overall population where more women are participating in the formal workforce and earning higher salary, marrying at a later age and choosing to have fewer children and finally raising healthier and more educated children.

However even with such stark examples abound, investment in women lead organizations are scant. One reason being the societal attitude towards women lead businesses. In a recent interview with ICE Business Times, Farhana A. Rahman, CEO and Chairperson of UY Systems Ltd. has posited that this lack of interest can be assigned to the way women have been perceived in our society. She has stated that many of her peers and industry partners were simply unwilling to work with a female CEO as they believed that the business was a mere hobby for her, to be discarded once she tires of it.

The immediate next problem that follows is that of unavailability of credit to these women. According to a report by Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), traditional methods of acquiring funds through bank loans is often not possible. The report surveyed 130 women entrepreneurs from 11 districts in Bangladesh, out of which only 2% of the respondents had received finance from a private or public commercial bank.

This data is truly disheartening given that active efforts by the Governments of Bangladesh does not seem to be sticking. A Bangladesh bank circular titled, ‘Refinancing Scheme for Women SME’ was issued to all banks and financial institutions in 2007. The circular provided TK 2 million for women entrepreneurs, but there were hardly any takers. While it is easy to point fingers at the banks, it is also important to identify the poor dissemination of information regarding the circular. A resounding 65% of the respondents of the BWCCI report has stated no knowledge regarding this circular.

The status quo of the women labor force does not exactly inspire confidence. Majority of the female labor force are employed in the ready made garments (RMG) sector of Bangladesh where their skill sets can be classified as low skill to semi skilled. Or in the case of the rural sector, these women are hired help to work in the fields. While the education sector has made great strides to educate the female population (Bangladesh achieved a female literacy rate of 69.90% by 2016 according to UNESCO), this has not translated directly into a highly productive female labor.

Government initiatives have been taken to counter this problem. To achieve Vision-2021, importance has been placed on hands-on training for women and as such the activities of Bangladesh Industrial and Technical Assistance Center (BITAC) have been expanded and to date, 4,436 women have been provided with technical training under the project titled ‘Extension of BITAC for Self-employment and Poverty Alleviation’. Of those, 1,824 women have become self-sufficient.

Entrepreneurs who are willing to establish industrial units in small, medium and cottage industries are being trained by the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC). From 2009-10 to 2013-14 (July-February), 42,188 people were trained. The number of female participants here is unclear and a trip to the BSCIC website would leave you more confounded then before.
With all this training and investment talk, it is also necessary to ask if the training being provided is relevant? Simply put, since machines are slowly replacing workers in all fields it is inevitable that the same should be true for the RMG sector. Since that is the case, shouldn’t our workers be trained to handle the challenges of the future? Some would say that I am skipping two steps ahead, but no economy has faced crushing unemployment while being accused of having foresightedness.

The World Bank Group and the Global Financing Facility (GFF) are investing heavily in adolescent girls. In Bangladesh, the GFF is working to stem early marriage and early pregnancies, reduce maternal and neonatal deaths, and improve adolescent health and well-being. The country is reducing dropouts among female and disadvantaged students, and together these interventions will help keep girls in school, delay the age of marriage, and postpone the timing of their first birth to increase the chances of survival for both mother and child. All this in the hopes of creating a more equitable population in Bangladesh.

With such show of support from the global community, perhaps it’s time that the local business leaders also stand up for the female counterpart. Put to rest the idea, that women belong behind closed doors, because the door has steadily been demolished. The sooner we assimilate the 50% of the workforce into building the country, the faster we grow.

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