Last February, I met Chaya Rani Das, a very talented woman with extraordinary leadership skills. As an elected official in the Union Parishad (local government), she is an influential decision-maker. As a key member of the school committee in Dacope Upazila, she ensures that the children in the village get an education. As a female entrepreneur, she leads women's groups in the community, organizing them to grow food, engage in livestock farming and take care of tree plantations along the river embankment to earn wages.
Her determination to improve the lives of women and to invest in a better future for children through education is exemplary. Chaya's accomplishments reflect those of millions of Bangladeshi women leaders who are rising and charting their paths towards prosperity, and finding their voices at the family, community, or national levels. From the top to the grassroots and from the public to the private sector, Bangladeshi women are prominent in shaping the country's development trajectory.
Creating opportunities for Bangladesh's women
Right after its independence, Bangladesh understood that empowering women is crucial to ending poverty.
The Government, non-governmental organizations, and other key stakeholders, deliberately developed innovative programs such as conditional cash transfers and financial inclusion, stipend programs for girl students, family planning, and micro-finance created opportunities for millions of girls and women from all walks of life. These programs contributed to the decline in fertility rates from 6.1 births per woman in 1971, to 2.05 births in 2019 - almost at the population replacement level.
According to the latest World Bank Human Capital Index, girls in Bangladesh today have a slightly better chance than boys of completing school and surviving to the age 60. Between 2003 to 2016, Bangladesh increased the female labor participation rate by 10 percent to 36 percent, thanks to the readymade garments (RMG) and livestock sectors. In fact, today over 70 percent of rural women are small-holder farmers and own poultry and other livestock.
The Government's successive Five Year Plans emphasized gender equality and sought to promote women's entrepreneurship and participation in regional and international trade. As a result of this long walk towards equality, many women are benefiting from an environment that enables business startups and greater access to a digital economy.
Women still facing challenges
Despite these impressive outcomes, women continue to face challenges. Notwithstanding the increase of female employment over the years, women are still less than half as likely as men to be in the labor force. Although the female entrepreneurship rate has been growing - women make up only 7 percent of the over 7 million entrepreneurs in the country and, women-led businesses continue to be small.
The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report notes that 15 percent of Bangladeshi firms have women as owners or co-owners, while only 5 percent have women as top managers. Women in Bangladesh have less access to finance. Only 36 percent of women have bank accounts, and most do not control any financial assets.
Social and economic barriers often prevent women from accessing and deciding on the use of assets, including land and cattle. Women also lack financial literacy thus impacting their ability to gain access to finance, land assets, and supply chain logistics to run businesses. Early marriage continues to be an impediment to women's economic empowerment. Currently, almost 60 percent of adolescent girls are married before the legal age of 18. Bangladesh has the highest adolescent fertility rates in South Asia as 28 percent of women aged 15-19 years have begun childbearing. Marriage is the most common reason why girls drop out of school.
Furthermore, the long-term socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to reverse decades of gains in human capital, especially for women and girls. Studies have shown that women have suffered disproportionately from the increases in joblessness, domestic care burden, and gender-based violence. Unless we take decisive action today, the scars on future growth and productivity could be permanent.
The road ahead
The World Bank is supporting programs to harness the growth potential of women in Bangladesh. Many projects are aimed at accelerating the path towards gender equality and greater economic empowerment of women. Educating girls and keeping them in school longer, will save them from child marriage. Educating parents and community leaders and scaling up prevention efforts that address unequal gender power relations will greatly reduce gender-based violence (GBV). The World Bank-funded Health and Gender Support Project is providing GBV clinical services and integrating these in all the tiers of the health system. The project is also strengthening system capacity for GBV services provision including 35 Women Friendly Spaces (providing counseling for sexual and gender-based violence). Encouraging more girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), will be key to developing the critical skills and competencies needed in the 21st-century marketplace. Concerted efforts will be needed to create equal opportunities for women to compete and get jobs in male-dominated sectors
Creating an enabling environment for women to get gainful employment will help Bangladesh achieve its growth aspirations. To this end, the World Bank is enthusiastically supporting the Child Daycare Act recently approved by the Cabinet, which will allow more women to enter the labor force.
Making public spaces safe for women will be critical to enabling their full participation in the economy. Technology platforms like Safetipin, implemented with technical assistance from the World Bank, will help in providing accurate data on the condition of safety and mobility around urban cities. International Women's Day reminds us that women have come a long way in Bangladesh, but the destination of gender equality and economic empowerment is still far. With a committed and visionary leadership, I am confident that Bangladeshi women will set the pace and blaze the trail in every domain in the next decade and beyond - and the World Bank stands ready to support this journey.
Mercy Tembon, World Bank's Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan.