In a pandemic stricken world where the economy is struggling and many human achievements have gone in reverse, the United Nations has set “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world” as the theme of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8.
On the other hand, the official website of International Women’s Day has declared “choose to challenge” as the theme of campaign this year.
Where the first one intends to include women into leadership position, the second one encourages a challenge to all sorts of gender bias and inequality that exists in society and to make space for women.
But the two thrusts basically aim to put the same thing in action – to put women in the position of decision makers.
What does it mean for Bangladesh, a country that has recently qualified to graduate from the list of the world’s least development countries ?
Bangladesh has been being operating under female leadership for a decade now. In addition to the prime minister, many of the other prominent political leaders are also women – including the chairperson of the main opposition party. Besides, the country has earned a worldwide recognition for its garments sector, which has many women workers.
Circumstances might seem to suggest that empowering women in Bangladesh would be relatively easy. But is that the reality?
At its most basic, the idea of empowerment refers to the ability to be stronger, to be able to overcome the thing that are lacking and eventually having authority over one’s own life. Despite holding powerful positions, despite building the country’s international reputation, do the women of Bangladesh have authority over their lives?
Does the environment accommodate the struggles and achievements of women?
If we start from the political context, though the prime minister of the country is a woman, female ward councillors working at the regional level frequently complained about being marginalised by their male colleagues.
For instance. Aleya Sarwar Daisy, a ward councillor in Dhaka’s Mohammodpur claimed that her male colleagues would not let her issue a simple birth certificate, let along making significant decisions
Such events discourage women from participating in election.
Since an equal future requires equal participation in workforce, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ Labour Force Survey (2016-’17) provides insights into this sector.
The survey shows that Bangladesh now has 60 million people in workforce, 18.6 million of whom are women. But of the women, only 8.2% are employed in formal sector. On the other hand, 17.9% of men are employed in formal sector at national level. Working in the informal sector means few legal protections.
The country’s famous garment sector, meanwhile, employs around 3.2 million women, according to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Though they are bringing the lion share of GDP at home, these women live precarious lives. The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened their situation.
In the beginning of nationwide lockdown in Bangladesh to prevent the spread of Covid-19, when many foreign orders were being postponed, Joly Talukder, the general secretary of the Garment Workers Trade Union Centre reported that garment owners had been using the pandemic as an excuse to lay off the workers without paying their due, even though they received a stimulus package valued at 5,000-crore taka (Rs 4,315 crore).
Now, though the postponed orders are back and have even increased Talukder said that factory owners are reluctant to recruit adequate numbers of workers for the job: instead, they are making their employees work much more.
“Workers often fail to refuse the order of doing over time in fear of losing the job altogether,” Talukder said. “At the same time, she is not free from her household chores either. Working longer hours in garments and then at home is having long term impact on them.”
Women in the formal sector also face problems. They must deal with unequal pay. In addition, 12. 7% of Bangladeshi women workers face sexual harassment in workplace, according to a study conducted by Karmojibi Nari and CARE Bangladesh.
Another significant source of income for Bangladesh is the remittances that migrant workers home. Bangladesh has been sending women to work as domestic help in other countries, especially in West Asia.
Women go abroad with the hope that they will dramatically improve their circumstances. But violence is rampant. Since 2016, 473 Bangladeshi women workers have died abroad.
Gender-based violence is also a great concern. Bangladesh has reported 26,695 rape cases in last five years.
The situation has only deteriorated during the pandemic. The country has seen a rise in rape and domestic violence. Because educational institutes have been shut because of the pandemic, girl children are being married off at an alarming rate.
Despite official efforts to include women in decision making, a recent survey on Bangladesh’s progress towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals shows that the country is “moderately poor” in reducing the gender gap.
But the same report saying the situation is improving. Bangladesh needs to choose to challenge itself even more to allow women to come to decision-making positions.
Sadia Rahman is a Dhaka-based journalist and a development worker.