The Interview was first published in The Prothom Alo. Click here to read the original publication.
You have been working in Bangladesh for five years. What is your observation regarding women's advancement here?
If I observe the matter of women empowerment statistically, the position of Bangladesh is far better than those of other countries in South Asia. I came to this country at the end of 2016, now the half of 2022 has passed. During the period, Bangladeshi women have made remarkable progress but lagging behind in some fields. I think Bangladesh could make more progress in women empowerment. This means that Bangladesh is lagging behind itself, not by others.
Has the Covid-19 created any obstacle to the path of woman development?
The Covid-19 pandemic has barred women's development in multifarious ways. Many women have lost their lives. The incomes of many employed women have decreased. The gender-based domestic violence spiked during the pandemic. However, the drastic change is, a good number of female students were dropped out and married off. The exact data of these children has not been collected yet. All female students will have to be brought back to the school after collecting the proper information. Even those who were subjected to early marriage will have to be brought back to the school. Advocacy on a large scale is needed for what UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP, and UN Women are working together. We are trying to arrange a massive campaign over bringing the girls back to the school. Awareness to some extent has been created for discouraging early marriage that will have to be spread. Along with that, it is necessary to execute the law properly.
The participation of women in all sectors increased in the last several years. Women are doing well in all sectors, including BCS, police, army, banks, health and education. Women's progress is apparent in the labour market. How do you observe that?
While talking about the labour market in Bangladesh, we will have to talk about the ready-made garments (RMG) sector first. In this sector, 60 per cent of 4 million garment workers are women. However, while this industry is expanding, the participation of women is declining. There are two reasons for that. Thanks to artificial intelligence, many sophisticated machines have been invented, resulting in decreasing the demand of human labour across the world. The industry is being expanded without generating employment to a great extent that we call ‘jobless growth’. It has a negative impact on women in the labour market. Second, the RMG sector is one of those mills and industries that are being modernised now. So, arrangements will have to be made to adapt women with new technologies. Besides, investment will be needed in developing their skills.
Woman empowerment is a crucial issue in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets. What are our obstacles ahead regarding this sector?
The main problem is social barriers. Social rules and regulation have been transformed drastically. Women are not interested in income-generating work. But when the women come to Dhaka city alone from rural areas, then they don’t get standard and safe places for living. Besides, the transportation facilities are not women-friendly. I also heard that the owners don’t want to rent their houses to those women who wish to stay alone. Anti-woman propaganda is being carried out on a large scale using religious institutions and social media. The rate of trolling against women has increased alarmingly. The path of woman’s progress is bound to narrow if the situations prevail. Along with exemplary punishment, preventive measures will have to be taken in this regard. The safety of women was disrupted in public places in many respects in the last five years. It has become an alarming issue for Bangladesh. However, the government has realised that it has to be prevented. Many initiatives are being taken to stop cyber-bullying. UNDP is also working on increasing awareness of the issue. Social transformation is not possible within a short period of time as the matter is inextricably related to culture. Education is one of those areas where transformation is necessary. Particularly, the mindset of discrimination should be cleared from childhood. We are working to increase gender equality in Bangladesh.
Now, let’s talk about the technology sector. We have made great strides as "Digital Bangladesh". Women have also played a part in this journey. UNDP has started an online programme named ‘Anandamela’. What is this project about?
It’s an online marketplace for women entrepreneurs. I wanted to start a private platform before the Covid pandemic began. In 2020, during the early stages of the Covid crisis, the economy was direly affected. Everyone missed the business on Pahela Baishakh and Eid festival. I tried to understand how small entrepreneurs, who specifically produce products on the occasions of these festivals and earn a living, were doing. Then, the thought of building an online marketplace just for women came to me. That’s how this initiative began. It was named ‘Anandamela’. It costed $3,000 to build the setup of the Anandamela project. I paid that money out of my pocket. I asked the honourable speaker if she would inaugurate the project. She gladly said yes. She inaugurated the project. That’s how the journey of online marketplace Anadamela began.
What challenges did you face?
The smartphone shortage among women entrepreneurs was a big challenge. We noticed that if we don’t provide them with smartphones, they would be unable to connect with us. All of our colleagues agreed on the matter and we bought them smartphones. We provided smartphones to 200 low-income women entrepreneurs. After that we trained the entrepreneurs on how to click photos of their products and post them. Now, nearly 5,000 small-scale women entrepreneurs are active on the platform. Recently, we have been in talks with the Civil Aviation Authority officials and are considering building a permanent ‘Anandamela stall’ in the Dhaka Airport’s terminal. From there, foreigners would get an idea and be able to purchase local Bangladeshi products. This can be done for societal reasons. This will create a scope of selling Bangladeshi products and encourage women entrepreneurs.
Are women entrepreneurs getting loans when needed?
If an entrepreneur doesn’t have a guarantor, then that person won’t get a loan. This is a big problem. We are trying to create a unique business ID for small-scale entrepreneurs. This business identity will establish the person as a businesswoman. She would have a credit history. She could take loans on the basis of this information.
Are you guys helping them in taking loans?
We, from UNDP, are providing them with training which would allow them to apply for loans in the correct manner and gain economic inclusion.
Many working women are forced to quit their jobs due to the housing problem and the lack of day-care centres. Can’t the UNDP and the government jointly provide support on these two issues?
We can definitely help with the day-care centres. There are seven per cent women in the Bangladesh Police force. We need more day-care centres to help them. We want to take a model initiative, where women officers will be able to keep their children safely in a centre while performing night shifts. I feel there is no shortage of funding in the country for good ideas. If we can successfully achieve this, I believe Bangladesh Police would take initiative and open up more centres.
What are UNDP’s thoughts on the housing crisis of working and single women?
I feel we have to increase hostels for women who live by themselves. Public Private Partnership (PPP) is required for this. Private investors would be interested as women would pay to live at a place which would ensure their safety and is within their budget. We have many investors who want to invest in the social sector. The government might have to provide the land. The government has declared about 125 economic zones. Won’t there be women’s hostels in these economic zones? If you want to attract women to take up good jobs there then why wouldn’t you build hostels? There is a demand and need for such hostels in big cities. At first, we need to conduct a research. We need to find out things as to who would be interested to stay in women’s hostels, how much they would be willing to pay etc? The UNDP could finance such a research.
What are your final thoughts about the future of Bangladesh?
I’ve been in Bangladesh for five and a half years. During this period, I’ve tried to observe Bangladesh with the same love and interest I have for my country. I’m an optimistic person. I see infinite possibilities for women in Bangladesh. For this, we need proper planning. I think an important aspect for women empowerment is ensuring women’s political empowerment. I feel that there is a lack of female representation in Bangladesh’s politics. Out of 54 ministers, only five are women. A change needs to come in this regard. Participation of youth needs to increase in politics. Young women need to be given preference in politics. Rise in female representation will bring a positive change in politics and in the country.