Women’s participation in the workplace, leadership role in the political and social arenas and access to credit can be regarded as empowerment of women.[i] Women empowerment is the reflection of gender equality which is the precursor to moving the country forward, towards middle income status, towards inclusive and sustainable development. There is much for the world to learn from the experiences of Bangladesh. The ever-increasing contribution of women is clearly evident in every spheres of the society. Their increasing active participation in all sectors ranging from agriculture to politics has made great impact to the national development. The visible changes in women’s political and economic participation throughout the country testify the government commitment and to people’s aspiration to a more equitable society.[ii]
The Sixth Five Year Plan (2011-2015) of Bangladesh government, which is the national medium term development plan committed to transforming Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 (also known as Vision 2021), considers women’s engagement in political and economic activities as a cross-cutting issue with women’s empowerment as one of the main drivers of transformation.
The current government is committed to attaining the MDG 2015 of gender equality and empowering women as well as implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. The Constitution of Bangladesh also grants equal rights to women and men in all spheres of public life [Article28 (1) and 28 (3)]. Bangladesh has already substantially achieved the MDG3 as it has secured gender parity in primary and secondary education at the national level. This positive development has occurred due to specific government interventions focusing on girl students, such as stipends and exemption of tuition fees for girls in rural areas, and the stipend scheme for girls at the secondary level. Thus, the UNDP has commented that “Bangladesh has made significant progress in promoting the objectives of ensuring gender equality and empowerment of women”.
The current government has been working relentlessly for ensuring women’s overall development by affording them equal and active participation in the mainstream socio-economic activities and removing the various impediments to their empowerment. According to the “Global Gender Gap Report 2012 by World Economic Forum” Bangladesh was ranked 8th globally in terms of political empowerment of women due to government’s pro-women policies. Bangladesh outperformed its neighbours India and Pakistan in the Gender Inequality Index (GII), a composite index that measures the cost of gender inequality to human development. It ranks 111th on the GII compared to 123rd for Pakistan and 133rd for India.
Economic and social measures
To expedite women’s economic empowerment, comprehensive initiatives have been undertaken by providing extensive training, creating job opportunities, ensuring participation in labour market and providing support to small and medium women entrepreneurs. Extensive social safety net programmes have been undertaken to provide various kinds of allowances, such as destitute women allowance, maternity and lactating mother allowance, disabled women allowance, divorced women allowance etc. Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) is carried out for ensuring food security to vulnerable extreme poor women.
For the economic empowerment of rural women, collateral free micro-credit is given with 5% service charge. Women entrepreneurs receive 10% of the Small Enterprise Fund and 10% industrial plots. Currently more than 3 million women are working in the RMG sector alone. Bangladesh has enhanced its women labor force from 24% in 2010 to 36% in 2013. Like the year before, gender sensitive budgets were prepared for 40 ministries in the recently passed Budget 2014-15, and a special allocation of TK.1 billion was provided for development of women.
Women’s participation in agricultural production is facilitated through access to agricultural technologies and loans given for agro-processing, homestead gardens, nurseries, bee-keeping and other activities. Marginal and landless farmers, of whom 50% are women, are being given support. Enhanced participation and livelihood of rural poor women is a priority programme of the government implemented through the “One House, One Farm Project”, which gives priority to female households in every village.
To encourage women entrepreneurship, a number of financial incentives are provided. Between 2010 and 2013, banks and non-bank financial institutions has disbursed TK 67 billion to 57,722 women entrepreneurs from their own sources. In 2010, 13,831 women entrepreneurs received TK 18 billion; in 2011, 16,696 women entrepreneurs received TK 20 billion; and in 2012, 17,362 women entrepreneurs received TK 22 billion as SME credit. This indicates that disbursement towards women entrepreneurs has been increasing both in amount and numbers.
Women entrepreneurs can get advantage of re-financing both from ADB fund and Bangladesh Bank fund. Women are getting credit at concessional rate of 10% interest. Fifteen percent (15%) refinance fund is reserved for women entrepreneurs. Women are also entitled to SME loan upto TK 2.5 million free of collateral, only against personal guarantee. Moreover, all banks and NBFIs have opened women entrepreneur dedicated desks through which bank officials are providing information and service to women entrepreneurs.
Bangladesh government dreams for a democratic and inclusive society of Bangladesh. With the aim of making reality Vision-2021, the government has been taken some amazing initiatives that definitely deserve appreciation, JOYEETA is one of them.
JOYEETA, an initiative of the Ministry of Women and Children affairs established to empowering rural women of Bangladesh. It’s a business platform to support and facilitate the grass root women entrepreneurs to showcase and market their own arts, crafts, products and services. To promote the products of women entrepreneurs for the first time an independent sales centre was established at the Rapa Plaza of Dhaka under the programme of “Development Efforts of Women Entrepreneurship” of Department of Women Affairs. At present 180 entrepreneurs are being provided with 140 stalls. Disabled and oppressed women entrepreneurs are also provided with stalls.
Maternity and Health
Keeping in mind the needs of mothers, the current government extended maternity leave for expecting mothers from four months to six months. Bangladesh has made tremendous success in cutting down maternal mortality rate (MMR) drastically. MMR has declined by more than 66% over the last two decades and is dropping around 5.5% each year which makes Bangladesh highly likely to achieve the target of 143 deaths per 100,000 live births under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 2015.
According to a 2013 survey by different UN organisations, the estimated MMR in Bangladesh stood at 170 per 100,000 live births. The current government plans to reduce MMR to 63 per 100,000 live births by 2030. Steps have been taken for delivery of primary healthcare services through community clinics to rural, marginal and vulnerable women. Model women friendly district hospitals have been established. Maternal Health Voucher Schemes provides a voucher package of three ante-natal checkups, safe delivery under skilled birth attendants, one post-natal checkup and transport cost.
Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia to achieve gender-parity in primary education. Achieving this milestone is a result of effective public policy, resource allocation and strong commitment from public and non-government sectors.
Primary education is compulsory and free for all children aged between age 6 and 10. All children attending primary and secondary schools receive textbooks free of cost. The education of girls up to grade XII in public institutions is also free. To encourage girl students to continue their studies and also to reduce drop-out rates, stipends are awarded. This proactive strategy for girls’ education resulted in gender parity. For example, in primary schools, female enrolment is now 51% and in secondary schools it is now 53%, while male is 47 percent, a sharp departure from even just a few years ago when male was 65% and female was 35%.
Combating violence against women
In December 2010, Parliament passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, which was the first express recognition of the problem of domestic violence in Bangladesh by the State. This Act signified Bangladesh’s fulfillment of state obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as well as Article 28 of the Constitution, guaranteeing special measures for the advancement of women and children. In order to effectively implement this law, the government has formulated the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Rules 2013.
Other laws enacted by the current government for combating violence against women include Prevention and Restraint of Human Trafficking Act 2012 and the Pornography Control Act 2011. In addition to enactment of laws, One Stop Crisis Centers in 7 divisions are providing medical treatment, legal support, policy assistance and rehabilitation to the victims. DNA profiling lab and DNA screening labs have been established in few national hospitals for effective investigation of gender based offences such as rape. Continuing that total 80 One Stop Crisis Cells are established, among them 40 in district hospitals and 20 in upazilla health complex.
Victim support centers are run by trained, professional women officers making the center more approachable for women victims. Training on international laws and conventions are being imparted to judges, and law enforcement agencies to make them conversant with the existing international framework on violence against women and gender sensitivity. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA) operates a Central Cell to ensure coordination of work on prevention of violence against women and children and extends necessary support to the victims of violence. The MOWCA now maintains a helpline (10921) to provide legal, medical, rehabilitation and counseling help to victims of violence.
Women in politics, administration and security
In order to enhance women’s empowerment, the number of seats reserved for women in the National Parliament have been increased by 5, and made 50. There has been a sharp increase in the number of women parliamentarians elected (20% of total seats) in the last national election. To create opportunities for women’s increased participation in politics, reserved seats for women in union council, Upazila Parishad and municipalities have been increased to one third of the total and women are to be directly elected to those seats. More than 12,000 women were elected as public representatives in the last round of local government elections. Women’s participation in local level elections was perhaps one of the greatest milestones for Bangladesh.
At present in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Speaker and Deputy Leader of the House are all women. Number of women among the Justices of the Supreme Court, top positions of the administration – secretaries, additional secretaries, joint secretaries, deputy commissioners, top positions of police, armed forces and UN peacekeepers, indicates improvement in women’s empowerment. This has been possible due to a reserve quota created by this government for women employment at every level of administration to enhance women participation in government jobs.
Gender perspective has been integrated into Bangladeshi peacekeeping missions too. Bangladesh is now the top contributor of female police officers to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations as Formed Police Unit. Bangladesh female peacekeepers have placed themselves as key driving force to reduce gender-based violence, conflict and confrontation, providing sense of security especially for women and children, mentoring female police officer in the local area and thus empowering women in the host country and promoting social cohesion. Presently 190 female officers from Bangladesh are working in different peace keeping missions around the world.
In its recent report to the UN General Assembly the Government of Bangladesh has identified the critical importance of addressing both poverty and inequality and putting gender equality and women’s empowerment at the centre of the new post-2015 development agenda. The goals set out in the report include a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment with four main priorities: eliminating violence against women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, participation in decision-making including in the home, and eliminating child marriage. If performance in the recent past is any indicator, then it is safe to be optimistic that Bangladesh would also be able to achieve the post-2015 goals for women’s empowerment.
[i] Bhuiyan & Abdullah 2007, Women Empowerment through Entrepreneurship
Development: Bangladesh Perspective, Daffodil International University Journal of Business and Economics, Vol. 2, No. 2