Sustainable women empowerment to bridge the gap
Sustainable women empowerment necessitates the transformation of subordinate structures, the control of material and intellectual resources, the ability to make decisions, the exercise of authority, and the reduction of gender inequality. Over the past few decades, progress has been made in Bangladesh: more girls are attending school, fewer girls are being coerced into early marriages, more women are serving in parliament and positions of leadership, and laws are being reformed to promote gender equality. Women’s empowerment has been satisfactory, but is it sustaining?
The value for secondary school gross enrollment rate of females in Bangladesh was 78.27 percent as of 2018. As the graph above depicts, over the past 45 years this indicator reached a maximum value of 78.27 percent in 2018 and a minimum value of 6.43 percent in 1981.  However, under these upbeat figures, we notice some surprising anomalies that need immediate attention. Despite better enrollment rates, education outcomes for girls remain unsatisfactory and an unequal level of learning continues. According to the 2017 Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, girls’ secondary school dropout rates are as high as 42 percent; completion rates are poor, with grade 10 completion rates as low as 10 percent and secondary level completion rates as low as 59 percent. These trends carry through tertiary education, resulting in low female labor force participation and even lower representation on an executive level. Women and adolescents still require permission to have access to education even though it is a fundamental right and throughout this process, they either drop out of school or get married due to high education expenses or familial reasons. However, those who manage to complete their tertiary education still require permission from their families/in-laws to participate in the workplace of their choice. Thus, in reality, women are still less empowered and lagging in terms of access to quality education, skill development, and participation in the workforce. Therefore, we must not only concentrate on women’s empowerment, but also on ensuring that their progress is sustained.
Gender equality and other socio-development factors must be embraced to ensure Sustainable Women Empowerment
Women and adolescents make up the majority of the world’s poorest billion people, with women’s employment outside of agriculture in Southern Asia being as low as 20 percent.  Women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty and prejudice in Bangladesh and are sometimes denied the right to make financial choices for their families, or tradition and culture prohibit them from leaving their households. Half of the population is unable to contribute to the economic growth of their families and society. A valuable resource is being squandered since they play an important role in guiding their families and society to a better future.
The major impediments are societal customs and attitudes towards women, lack of adequate housing, lack of security, and violence towards women. Side by side, women’s labor market participation is influenced by a variety of socioeconomic variables, including household income, age, marital status, schooling, household dependence ratio, and others. But if we can adjust the women labor force participation rate to the level of the men participation rate then it will contribute to the GDP per capita of the country. Advancing women’s equality in the countries of Asia Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP in 2025, a 12 percent increase over the business-as-usual trajectory.  To accomplish this big rise in growth, Bangladesh would need to focus on three economic levers: increasing women’s labor-force participation, increasing the amount of paying hours (part-time vs full-time employment mix), and increasing women’s productivity compared to men’s by including more women in higher-productivity sectors.
Bangladesh has made significant progress in terms of female labor force participation (FLFP), outperforming its neighbors India and Pakistan. However, the national average of 36 percent is still considered poor.  Unlike rural women, who mostly work in the agricultural sector, urban women’s jobs often require leaving the house, which is more likely to cause family rejection. Furthermore, traditional gender roles still impose a disproportionate burden of care work on Bangladeshi women. According to the World Bank’s publication Voices to Choices, urban women spend about six hours a day on household domestic duties and unpaid care work, while urban men spent just one hour a day on these activities. Even in urban areas, where women work marginally fewer hours a day (7 vs. 8.6 hours), they spend about 3 hours a day on household duties and unpaid care jobs. This research suggests that caring work could be a much greater barrier for urban women than it is for rural women and that access to childcare facilities is critical to bringing more urban women into the workforce. But there aren’t adequate daycare centers in the private or public sectors to care for an infant, and the corporate infrastructure isn’t designed with women in mind.
Subsequently, according to a publication by Care Bangladesh, women can help their families and whole communities escape poverty. Women invest 90 percent of their earnings back into their households, while a girl who attends school for a year raises her family’s income by up to 20 percent. Educated women are most likely to become educated mothers, who will have healthier babies and likely to acknowledge the importance of formal schooling and thus will educate their children. It’s a clear equation: empowerment is the amount of all the changes needed for a woman to fully understand her human rights. Giving women training or a loan is not the only approach to empower them. Both men and women need to be distributed with equal resources based on their needs to ensure sustainable empowerment.
Traditionally men are frequently the ones who set the boundaries for women and keep them there. But their role needs to be acknowledged for a better tomorrow. This role has been recently acknowledged by our government and the government has allocated BDT 100 crore for Women Entrepreneurship Fund and BDT 25 crore for Women Development Special Fund in the fiscal year 2019. Furthermore, women’s development has been prioritized in the fiscal year 2019 program, which accounts for about 30 percent of the overall budget size, through access to education, health, the labor market, housing, and social security. 
Therefore, ensuring sustainability is critical, and greater focus should be placed on skill growth, quality education, technology-based education, and capacity building. Bangladesh is expected to graduate from LDC status in 2024 and become an upper-middle-income nation in 2031. Bangladesh aspires to be a “High Income Nation” by 2041; however, economic freedom alone will not suffice for its people. As Bangladesh advances along its development journey, sustainable women’s empowerment, and gender equality, as well as other socio-development factors, must be embraced. 
Non-economic assistance to eliminate social discrimination
The enabling force that enhances women’s social ties and their role in social systems is known as social empowerment. Social empowerment aims to eliminate social discrimination based on disability, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.  Thus, to create sustainable social women empowerment, NGOs and Civil Societies will have to play a significant role. Women’s social empowerment is not the only goal of NGOs in Bangladesh; they also encourage poor women to band together as part of a larger struggle. If the programs are carried out in a coordinated manner, they are more likely to succeed. In addition to skill training, NGOs should provide non-economic assistance such as health care, non-formal primary education, and family planning.
Governmental formal education reinforces women’s domestic roles and doesn’t result in any changes in social relations within or outside the household. Non-formal education provided by NGOs, on the other hand, aims to raise awareness regarding gender inequality among women so that they can not only recognize the causes of their oppression but also take measures to change their circumstances.
Inclusive tertiary education will resolve early marriage problems in Bangladesh
Traditionally young men get involved in income-generating activities after completing their schooling than young women. Through benefits such as stipends, gender equality in education was achieved but only up to the higher secondary level. Just 25 percent of the female population engages in income-generating activities, compared to 90 percent of young men with an equal level of education.  Young women with higher education are almost catching up to young men in terms of earning potential, however, only 4 percent of young women study beyond high school, compared to 7 percent of young men. According to the study conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), young men reported having much more freedom of choice than young women in all important aspects of life, including the selection of educational institution, profession, selection of friend and spouse, physical movement, and spending money. Although when it comes to freedom of physical movement, we see the starkest disparity: only 40 percent of young women believe they have freedom of movement. Subsequently, 62 percent of teenagers get married before the age of 18 and among them, only 1 percent pursue higher education, with the majority of them working within the household. It suggests that early marriage is not only bad for women’s physical and mental health but also their economic and educational prospects. Therefore, to ensure sustainability, more emphasis should be given to skill development, inclusive tertiary & technology-based education, and capacity building.
Men and all stakeholders to work together to maintain and accelerate progress on gender equality
Inequalities between men and women exist around the world, despite the efforts of governments and other international and regional organizations, as well as decades of struggle by women’s movements for equal rights. Gender-based violence persists in all cultures, and it is amplified in conflict and post-conflict settings. Education and job prospects for millions of women and girls are restricted, resulting in income disparities and a lack of decision-making power.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have experienced some form of violence, with about half of them reporting a physical attack by their husbands. 
According to a 2020 Rapid Gender Analysis conducted by UN Women in Bangladesh, vulnerabilities existed well before Covid-19. The prevalence of child marriage remains high, and girls are more likely to drop out of school. As of 2017, women make up just 36.3 percent of the labor force, a number that has not risen in a decade (though it is much better than the figure of 8 percent in the 1980s); 91.8 percent of working women are in the informal sector (with more than half employed in low-end agriculture), and the capacity to deal with cases of violence against women remains limited.
In certain cases, men’s dominance over women necessitates collaborating with them to improve women’s lives. Men play a critical role in achieving gender equality because, in most cultures, they hold the majority of power in almost every aspect of life, from personal decisions about the family size to policy and program decisions made at all levels of government. Furthermore, despite a clear convergence in human capital characteristics (for example, educational attainments) since the 1990s, men’s and women’s earnings have not converged to the same degree, and a significant gender disparity remains. Women are assigned with the majority of reproductive positions in Bangladesh’s patriarchal culture, and they face high workloads and unpaid labor, lack of decision-making in the household and society, and subordination, while gender-biased social expectations keep most women stuck in deprived circumstances. As a result of conditions from both the demand and supply sides, women’s job levels are far lower than men’s.
However, the increasing awareness regarding involving men in the promotion of gender equality has been followed by an increase in men’s willingness to get involved. Men’s relationships with women, their concern for women’s well-being or that of their families, or their sense of social justice can all contribute to this motivation. Men and all stakeholders need to work together to maintain and accelerate progress on gender equality. Most importantly men must be empowered as well. Of course, not in the traditional way of empowering men over women. Rather, by encouraging men to question the status quo and by altering their attitudes. Even if that hasn’t always been the case, this would be wise. Gender is a “system” in which both men and women play an important role. Hence, if we want to see a meaningful change then both men and women are implicated in this process. It is not enough to enlighten and empower women and expect men to follow. Therefore, men also need to play an active role to promote sustainable women empowerment through discussing gender roles, respecting, and supporting women in societies. Men must support female innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders in order to discover new opportunities for technology and innovation to break down barriers and advance gender equality. 
Women’s empowerment is not only essential but also critical for the overall development of society and the nation. But most importantly, self-confidence, composure, self-sufficiency, the courage to battle for one’s rights, independence, decision-making power, and freedom are all essential for sustainable women’s empowerment. Women who are empowered not only break the conventional patriarchal taboos and social responsibilities but also change themselves and their subjectivities. When women enter educational institutions, political parties, or decision-making bodies; hold white-collar jobs, make decisions, travel to various places; and own land and money, they feel psychologically empowered and gain self-confidence, self-worth, and autonomy over their income and bodies. Joining any institution or profession allows them to explore and learn more about the world than those who remain at home. As they asserted their freedom away from home, this personal development and discovery will give them self-respect, maturity, and resiliency. This also strengthens their minds and makes them more stable, tough, and hardworking. They also understand how to adapt to changing situations and the art of living. It further provides them with fulfillment in a variety of areas, including employment, living, learning, and adapting to personal and financial circumstances, and thus inspires them to empower more women.
Samiha Anwar, Business Analyst at LightCastle Partners has prepared the write-up. For further clarification, contact here: [email protected]
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2. Women empowerment and eradicating poverty – Care Bangladesh
3. The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in the Asia Pacific – McKinsey & Company
4. Understanding Female Labor Force Participation in Urban Bangladesh – The World Bank
5. Women Empowerment: Bangladesh sets an example for the world – Dhaka Tribune
6. Women Empowerment & SDGs in Bangladesh -Part II – The Financial Express
7. Types of Female Empowerment – Thrive Global
8. Despite progress, young Bangladeshi women are still lagging behind – The Daily Star
9. Violence against Women and Girls in Bangladesh: Barriers to Legal Recourse and Support – Human Rights Watch
10. Covid-19: A Step Back for Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh? – UNDP Bangladesh
11. How men can play an active role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment – United Nations Industrial Development Organization
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