Bangladeshi women changing the business landscape

Staff Correspondent
Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Bangladeshi women have also made their mark in corporate companies (Photo - Tonmoy Fahmee)


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 has 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.

Unfortunately, the contribution of women to household activities and agricultural production remained unrecognised historically. The merit, strength and potential of women in business were not taken into serious consideration until recently.


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 job, 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 appreciated 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).


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 example 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 and the 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-firming and other 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 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 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.


Women in apparel industry


It is the women 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 women 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 availability of cheap labour and as result women’s pays were relatively low. However, most of the female workers have attained skills and showed sincerity at the workplace and the issues of better pay and healthy working conditions have come to the fore at present.


Surge into service sector


The growth in services sector brought women workforce in rolling the economy. The women stepped into 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 significant role in improving the working conditions with gender balance and changing social values.


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


A number of women associations are working in Bangladesh for protecting women’s rights and promotion of 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 trainings 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 hobby. Now, their hobby has turned to profession.


‘Women entrepreneurs have grown more in recent years. A system has developed to facilitate them,’ said Selima Ahmad, the founding president of BWCCI.


Access to financing


With the support of the Bangladesh Bank (BB), women entrepreneurs in urban area 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 collaterals or high interest rate. The situation in district towns, too, has not changed much,’ said Selima Ahmad.


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 subject 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 – 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 problem in getting big loans without 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.


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 come a long way showing the path to the future women to make progress in a society of shared prosperity.

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