No one expected such a devastating impact of COVID-19 on our lives and livelihoods. Neither could we take any preparation for the worst days. When the deadly corona pathogen claimed the first life in March 2020 in Bangladesh, we still could not think how the health crisis would leave its destructive impact on our economic activities. While the pandemic exposed all people to unprecedented challenges, the impact on women was undoubtedly more intense because of their existing vulnerabilities. Now it appears that the recovery would also be difficult for women as their issues get less attention. After 50 years of independence, we have to give attention to the efforts to strengthen the process of women empowerment, remove the causes of their vulnerability, and make ways for their sustainable advancement.
We know that only around 36% of working-age women are in the labor market, and most of them are involved in agriculture. Only in recent years, we have been observing women as entrepreneurs though their number is pretty small. Women own only 7.0% of the total number of enterprises in the country. During the Covid time, the women-run business enterprises faced a severe downturn because of a fall in demand. Most of the women-run enterprises target big festivals to sell their products. Because of the pandemic, they missed their regular sales in festivals like Bangla New Year, Eid and Puja. The market was not either functioning at all or moving at a snail's pace. The story does not end here. When the economy started recovering with the government's stimulus packages, many women entrepreneurs remained out of the purview of those. The government allocated 5% for the women entrepreneurs from the Tk. 200 billion stimulus package for micro, small and medium enterprises. Thus, women entrepreneurs are entitled to get at least Tk.100 billion to help recover their businesses. However, many women could not get them as their business condition was poor, and banks did not consider them to be the right clients to lend assessing loan risks. Therefore, the women entrepreneurs who are hurt more by Covid are struggling more to recover. Therefore, we need special programmes for women-led business entities. The credit facilities should be accompanied by advice on business recovery, help to marketing facilities, support to skill development for business expansion etc.
We have also noted some positive pictures, as some women could start new businesses during the pandemic. For example, some women began online business for food supply, groceries and beauty products. However, these initiatives remained on a small scale. Women who gained economic empowerment through entrepreneurship in the pre-Covid-19 time have been facing troubles to recover. Thus, the pandemic has given a lesson that our advancement towards empowerment should have a strong base so that entrepreneurs can survive a crisis. Women entrepreneurs should also keep funds for crisis coping.
Covid-19 induced challenges are also observed for women workers in different sectors. A large proportion of formal female employment takes place in our readymade garment (RMG) industry. However, this sector is facing a big crisis during the pandemic because of the shrinking demand in the international market. Consequently, many workers lost jobs in this sector and most of them are women as this is a female-dominated industry. I have contacted research on retrenched workers and noted that the majority of women workers who lost jobs in the RMG sector had been working in this sector for several years. The retrenched women who are more than 35 years old apprehend that they will not get back their jobs even if the production resumes. In an RMG factory, they will be considered as old workers who have lower productivity. The retrenched workers are in a vulnerable position. They need support in the form of small capital to start petty businesses. They also need opportunities for new jobs to remain economically empowered. Workers in the informal sector working in different shops or working as domestic help also faced problems during the lockdown. Fortunately, many of them have already gone back to their work and resumed their earnings.
Another lesson covid-19 has given us is the vulnerability of women against violence. During the lockdown period, women all over the world faced domestic violence than the normal situation. We have excellent regulatory protection against violence women face. However, we need more social justice to ensure a violence-free home and surroundings for women. Many women do not even file cases when they encounter violence as they do not have economic freedom. Though both the government and the private sector have some programmes to support women in crisis, this is not enough. We need to work on the attitude of society. We need to have lessons in our school curricula regarding the rights of human beings and on ways to behave with women. Such sensitization should continue in adolescents' clubs situated in different areas. Also, adult counseling programs should be expanded. We also need more programs to support the mental health of people.
While Covid-19 has hit our education heavily, female students face even more serious consequences than male students. Girls from low-income families have been married off due to poverty. We all know the physical and mental health consequences of child marriage. We need to strengthen the implementation of laws to prevent child marriage. Also, we need to develop more opportunities where girl children can stay and continue with their studies.
Some critical variables to ensure women's empowerment are their economic freedom, rights on assets, freedom of movement, and protection against violence. Covid-19 has intensified the vulnerability of women in all these aspects. As the economy is recovering, we may be hopeful about women entrepreneurs' economic upturn, given they get expected supports. However, we need further steps regarding the other variables like violence against women or their rights on assets. Women should get equal rights in their inherited property. This is a time when we need to make our advancement meaningful to all. The government has promised to work for inclusive growth, and that inclusion should not ignore women. In the last 50 years, women of Bangladesh have played a prime role in Bangladesh's development process. Women of Bangladesh have contributed to building a healthy nation by vaccinating the children; they have triggered grass-roots level development through micro credits, they are the architects of educating the children even with dire poverty; they are the ones producing the main export product (RMG), and above all, we have women leadership at the top. There is no doubt that women have made Bangladesh's rapid development possible. Now the time has come to take it forward while ensuring a respectable livelihood for all women and ensuring their empowerment.
The author of the article is a senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS)
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