Let me tell you when magic happens. It transpires when few brilliant minds, optimistic hearts, energetic young people, and a fantastic facilitator meet. The Ideashop: Coding your way to opportunity organized by the World Bank in partnership with the Bangladesh StartUp Cup on June 14th at its Dhaka Office showed us glimpses of such magic. And it is only the beginning of our journey together.
Confident that the solutions to many of the challenges facing youth can come from within themselves, the World Bank and Microsoft has launched a regional grant competition in four South Asia countries – Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The regional grant competition titled Coding your way to opportunity invites innovative ideas from youth led organizations and NGOs that will expand coding knowledge amongst youth and help them secure gainful employment.
“I wanted to become a doctor,” Thenmoli said. Her whisper echoed in the room which instantly fell silent. “There was no way even to get started when I was little.” Thenmoli pointed at her daughter, “Vijayalakshmi wants to become a doctor. She is only three. I will make sure she finishes school and goes to college.”
I was visiting a women’s group in Annathur village in Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu. This group had in the past been supported by the Pudhu Vaazhvu Project that also provided skills training for young people. I discovered that the group had mostly goat keepers, small dairy farmers, and vegetable growers. All women had managed to improve their lives with the support of the project. Yet our conversation was not about the women’s livelihoods. We only talked about how they could fulfil the dreams of their children.
“They choose computer training Sir…some of them nursing. All of them got a job after the training.” I was amazed, but then again Tamil Nadu is one of the fastest transforming states in India. “How about the boys?” I asked. “They chose driving, Sir, mostly light vehicles. The ambitious ones go for heavy trucks or forklifts.”
“So did any boy choose computer training?” I enquired. “No Sir, none of them did. But we did have one girl who chose driving. Girls are more ambitious!”
Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).