Bangladesh’s Women Entrepreneurs Push Forward
November 18, 2015
Bangladeshi girls start their lives at a disadvantage that for most only increases as they grow up. Though more than half of the population is female, women and girls are still viewed as second-class citizens whose identities are based on who their father or brother or husband is. Many girls are married long before their 18th birthday and, with marriage, their educations and childhoods abruptly end. For many, domestic abuse by husbands, mothers-in-law, and sisters-in-law is considered normal, even expected and acceptable, and pressure to have children before their bodies are fully developed often results in serious health concerns for mothers and children.
Slowly, though, the situation shows signs of improving. The number of girls enrolled in school has reached parity with boys, a significant achievement for the Government of Bangladesh and the many nongovernmental organizations working to promote the importance of education for girls. Women continue to be the primary focus of microfinance schemes, and have repeatedly demonstrated greater responsibility for repayment of loans and for investment in their families, including the education of their daughters. While according to a 2015 report by the Asian Development Bank, women own less than 10 percent of businesses in Bangladesh, that number is slowly increasing, and Bangladesh’s government has made critical commitments to encourage and support the role of women in the private sector.
Tomorrow, November 19, the United Nations will mark Women’s Entrepreneurship Day – the world’s largest celebration of women entrepreneurs that shines a spotlight on their achievements and challenges. At the heart of The Asia Foundation’s work in Bangladesh is a recognition of the important role women can and do play in the inclusive growth of the country’s economy. A cornerstone of this work is ongoing support for district women’s business forums. Initially, this work focused on expanding loan opportunities for women entrepreneurs outside of the capital, Dhaka, and successfully secured commitments from the Bangladesh Bank and several commercial banks to provide collateral-free loans at concessional rates for women entrepreneurs. Implementation is slow, in part due to lack of training for bank officers, but there is progress and, more recently, the Foundation began working through the business forums to empower women to utilize ICT tools to expand their markets and improve their business practices.
In 2012, The Asia Foundation initiated the South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium (SAWES) program to connect women entrepreneurs and women’s business associations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to discuss their challenges and successes, and find ways to learn from each other regarding how to overcome barriers to domestic and regional trade. In September 2015, a SAWES public-private dialogue in Dhaka brought together representatives from the Government of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Bank and several commercial banks, women’s associations, and women entrepreneurs and business owners to discuss the government’s commitments to improving women entrepreneurs’ access to finance, and the importance of creating an enabling environment for female staff and women entrepreneurs in financial institutions.
The dialogue highlighted the steps already taken by the government and banks to support women business owners, while acknowledging the long road ahead. A major challenge remains a lack of information among women entrepreneurs and bank staff about financing schemes for women-owned businesses, which is especially acute in rural areas. In addition, several women entrepreneurs shared their experiences with constraining banking practices, such as requiring that husbands or fathers sign as loan guarantors simply because they are men, as well as complicated loan application forms.
These issues are also priorities for international donors to Bangladesh, including the U.S. Department of State, which has supported the SAWES program since its inception. On October 30, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell and U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat visited our Dhaka office to meet with SAWES-affiliated Bangladeshi women leaders.
One participant spoke about the artificiality of borders in the context of how to foster more regional trade among women-owned businesses, and said that “cross-border trade has always existed.” And yet, legal and socio-cultural barriers hinder women’s mobility and make cross-border trade is not nearly as robust as it could be. Another participant spoke about how customs officials are not trained to empathize with women passing through checkpoints. Others highlighted the importance of data and information both about women in business to more accurately track progress and for women in business to facilitate their access to finance and other resources essential to establishing and expanding business ventures.
It is clear that there remains much to do to facilitate the equal and successful participation of Bangladeshi women in business. However, these national conversations about critical challenges in Bangladesh – which for so long discouraged and even prevented women across the country from entering into business – are slowly shifting attitudes and opening up more promising environments. Social change is almost always a slow process, yet in Bangladesh there is forward movement and women pioneers willing to take risks to achieve their goals and to support others to do the same.
Sara L. Taylor is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Bangladesh. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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