Gender Equality in Bangladesh’s Growing Economy
March 8, 2017
Last month, iDE Bangladesh brought together international and Bangladeshi experts, practitioners, and policymakers for a workshop to discuss new ideas and approaches to market development in Bangladesh. After decades of strong growth, Bangladesh’s ambition to become a middle-income country by 2021 seems to be within reach, and many experts claim that strengthening the country’s market-based economy is needed to achieve this goal. A significant challenge remains, however, in ensuring that this growth benefits all levels of society. Though women comprise just under half of the total population in Bangladesh, their participation in the formal labor market lags far behind that of men, and the rates of business ownership by women are even lower. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a main area of focus at the workshop was on gender.
I joined two panel discussions on the final day of the workshop to talk about changing gender dynamics and their impact on markets, and increasing the inclusiveness of financial products and services. Over the course of the day, some of the most compelling dialogue focused less on what has been or is currently being done, and more on how we in the development community can think differently in order to make real progress toward women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh. For example, what can a woman’s role look like in a market system and how do we understand and navigate the perceptions of both women and men about that potential role? Are development interventions reinforcing the idea that women can only work in certain types of jobs or sectors and, if so, is that helping or hurting progress toward women’s economic empowerment? Are we comprehensively considering the needs and interests of end-users—both women and men—as well as service providers when we support the design of loan and other financial products?
My own experience and observations tell me that, to address these questions, we need to identify and understand the unique potential, opportunities, and constraints in each local context, and design approaches that work within existing societal frameworks but do not reinforce the very social and cultural norms and structures that hold women back. Gender equality and women’s economic empowerment require working with women and men and girls and boys, and we must understand and not fear that it is impossible to achieve these goals without changes in gender norms and shifts in power dynamics.
At the international level, gender equality and women’s economic empowerment are considered both human rights imperatives and necessary conditions for sustainable development. According to the final report to the 2012 OECD Ministerial Council Meeting, “Gender equality and empowered women are catalysts for multiplying development efforts. Investments in gender equality yield the highest returns on all development investments.” UN Women more directly states that “Women’s economic equality is good for business” and “when more women work, economies grow.” The Government of Bangladesh has also prioritized gender equality in its seventh Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), setting a gender vision of “a country where men and women will have equal opportunities and rights and women will be recognized as equal contributors in economic, social, and political development.”
Despite challenges, there are many success stories about women’s empowerment in Bangladesh, a lot of which are hidden from view because they happen at the grassroots level outside of Dhaka. This makes it easy to understate progress. Arshi Chowdhury, an entrepreneur who lives in the northwestern city of Rangpur, is just one example. Ms. Chowdhury began using a computer to keep track of business accounts and started searching online for new business ideas after participating in an Asia Foundation training for women entrepreneurs on how to use information and communication technologies (ICT) for business. Her research led her to establish a new venture, “Shonar Bangla Agro Complex,” which produces and sells fast-growing plants using a coconut husk and fertilizer mixture. She now has 18 employees, and her husband works with her to help with business promotion.
There are still many more questions than answers when it comes to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Examples like Ms. Chowdhury should compel us to ask why some women are able to overcome socio-cultural, financial, and other constraints while others are not, and whether we are perhaps overemphasizing entrepreneurship as the primary signal of economic participation and success. Nevertheless, since there is broad acceptance that women are integral to long-term and sustainable economic growth and development, and there are many examples of successful women business owners, why are so many women and girls left behind? As a start, we as development practitioners should consider our own biases—how we as individuals have been shaped by the social and cultural norms of the societies in which we were raised—and be open to listening to and working with others whose beliefs do not always match our own.
Sara L. Taylor is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Bangladesh. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.
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