Women making giant leap in Bangladesh’s economy
"Our women have proved that despite extreme challenges, they continue to move ahead with their work in order to ensure a better future for their families and for themselves. Throughout the pandemic, these women have consistently tried out different initiatives and start ups, often to supplement their family income and to utilize their free time exercising their hobbies and skills," says Mantasha Ahmed, President of Bangladesh-India Business Council of WICCI and Founder President of the Association of Fashion Designers of Bangladesh (AFDB).
"Many women, who had no prior work or business experience, started catering and baking business, some promoted traditional work of our weavers and artisans, many started teaching online and the list goes on. The digital transformation of these women is ground breaking and we should be extremely proud of their achievements," she added.
Mantasha feels that it is important to an in depth analysis of this achievement and identify key factors that worked as catalysts for women entrepreneurs/ fempreneurs / homepreneurs, during the pandemic. The founder of 'Deshi Bhalobashi', suggest that having a smart phone with internet, a basic training on photography and access to mobile financial services, is the formula for their success. Praising The Honble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her vision of Digital Bangladesh, Mantasha wonders "Can you imagine what the plight of these women would have been if the health disaster took place even a decade ago?"
"There are over 170 million mobile phone users in Bangladesh, but when it comes to having access to mobile data, it is usually the male member of the family who get preference. The gender disparity in this case, is much less in Bangladesh than in many other South Asian countries. But one can only imagine, how much more our women could contribute to national economy, had there been a strategic plan to include more of them in digital literacy, internet usage and MFS.' Says Mantasha, also the founder of 'deshi bhalobashi', an innovative online platform for local entrepreneurs and artisans. She observes that many women could expand their online business activities as their husbands were mostly home during lockdown, and they had access to mobile data.
Mantasha, also a board member of SME Foundation Bangladesh, urges banks and regulatory bodies to relax rigid rules and simplify paperwork for SME loans, particularly for women in cottage industry, micro and small enterprises. 'When the recovery rate for CMSSME women are over 98 per cent, then banks really should not have to worry about issuing such loans'. Virtual assessment of eligibility, reference from community members, chambers and associations, quick allocation of seasonal small loans, savings scheme through MFS - are some of her recommendations for banks and financial institutions, to empower rural women entrepreneurs in remote areas.
The last decade saw women making tremendous strides in Bangladesh as they stepped out of the home comfort to participate in the economy. The women have made substantial contributions in the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, which accounts for an estimated 25 percent of Bangladesh's GDP. Thereby they created their own niche and gave the country a reason to smile.
SMEs create employment for an estimated 7.8 million people directly and provide livelihoods for 31.2 million people.
But the life of women entrepreneurs was not straightforward. They face formidable obstacles, however, like difficulty obtaining loans and start-up capital, lack formal support (such as sympathetic public policies, access to financial institutions, and professional training programs), and restrictions on their mobility and ability to network and grow their businesses. Prevailing social norms and practices within the home and society also continue to erect barriers to their socioeconomic empowerment.
The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges and revealed just how few fallback options women entrepreneurs have in times of crisis.
Beyond the economic impact, women's personal and family lives have also felt the impact of the pandemic.
In Bangladesh, Women have also faced personal challenges during this time. In the absence of domestic help, women have shouldered additional family and household responsibilities, taking time away from their businesses. With schools closed and children at home, many reported spending far more time on childcare, forcing them to work late at night on their businesses after finishing the household chores. To cope, some women have moved their businesses into their homes, and others, typically younger entrepreneurs, are shifting to digital platforms. Both are desperately looking for new ways to stay engaged in the economy.
All these factors have increased women's stress and anxiety. At the same time, the loss of social connections has left them with fewer coping mechanisms. Many would benefit from psychosocial support to help them keep pursuing their dreams.
Despite these many hurdles, women entrepreneurs are trying to claim a space for themselves within the business sector and more broadly as contributors to Bangladesh's economy. But that space is still woefully small.
Women-owned businesses constitute just 7.2 per cent of the eight million businesses in Bangladesh.
To raise this figure and enable more women to pursue successful business activities, policies and programs must be addressed.
'shabolombi - the Independence Project' is ground breaking initiative of deshi bhalobashi, which aims at effective partnership with NGOs, development agencies, SME financing organizations, government bodies and other local and international organizations, to build the capacity of rural entrepreneurs through incubation, training and an intense support system. Through this experience, Mantasha, who is also is the convener of Heritage Handloom Festival Bangladesh, believes that the women of Bangladesh have set inspiring examples of 'Turning challenge into opportunity'. With a bit of moral support, digital literacy and access to technology and targeted financing programs, they can really do wonders.