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).
The biggest daily struggle for 28 year old mother of two Sima Begum, is feeding her young children and keeping them healthy. Nutrition is a key challenge not only for Sima, living in a slum in Narayanganj, but for women across Bangladesh and South Asia. In fact, wasting and stunting are among the most stubborn health challenges facing the children of this region.
For the last 15 months, Sima has started receiving nutritional advice as well as a small cash transfer to help raise healthy children. Through a pilot cash-transfer program supported by the Rapid Social Response Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF), her 10 year old son Faisal, is eligible for a Tk 800 ($10) school stipend and her daughter Shakal, 5, for a Tk 800 income transfer. Sima uses the stipends to feed Shakal a healthier diet and to pay for Faisal’s tuition, school books and uniform.
In order to receive these stipends Sima has to ensure that Faisal goes to school and that Shakal is brought every month to the community center near her house at New Zimkhana, where her growth can be monitored. The growth monitoring is simple:
From the outset, I was interested and intrigued by research on gender issues in public transport in Kathmandu. Familiar with the chaotic, noisy, and smelly traffic of Kathmandu, the everyday challenges people face in their commutes to work and school were as well known to me as regular excuses for colleagues being late to meetings; buses were ‘full’, ‘late’, ‘broke down’, ‘did not come’. But I was also aware that women in Kathmandu are often quite tough, feisty and assertive especially compared to those in cities of neighbouring countries I had experienced. What were the issues going to be?
My team of a dozen researchers comprised eight women and four men, all in their twenties and thirties. Most, but not all, had long abandoned using public transport themselves, preferring the reliability, control, comfort and safety of riding scooters or borrowing the family car. So, my first task was to get them all to experience public transport again. They spent a whole day travelling on different forms of transport all over the Kathmandu area, between them covering from day break until the last bus plied in the evening. As they travelled they chatted to fellow commuters. The following day the team re-convened and shared their public transport experiences. We worked through simulations of commuter behaviour - dramatizing what happens when waiting for, getting on, traveling on and getting off public transport. We noted the contortions required to avoid touching people in crowded and cramped spaces. We talked through what was acceptable and unacceptable.
All of this helped us draft a short questionnaire to capture the issues which emerged as important. We were very conscious that we would have to administer these in situ as people were commuting and that they needed to be simple. When we came to undertake the study, riding on transport ourselves and conducting approximately 500 interviews, we did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which people wanted to engage. Commuters, women and men, wanted to pour out their frustrations to the researchers and felt that the questions being asked went straight to the heart of the issues which concerned them. ‘Putting up’ with uncomfortable, overcrowded, unreliable, dirty, unhygienic, unsafe travel and the reckless driving, offensive banter between drivers and conductors, pickpockets and harassment had become normalized. Enough was enough.
It was not my first visit to a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). Every time I go to one, I come out inspired. What a great program this is: many thousands of girls who have missed the education boat are being brought back into the school system all over India! To me, it is the best part of Sarva Siksha Abiyan (SSA), the Government of India’s very successful Education for All Program.
That day in January, we were in Jehanabad in Bihar. We were sitting in the court yard of the KGBV school watching the karate demonstration the students put up for us. The girls learn karate for self-esteem and self-defense; it is a great thing. During the demo, one of the other girls came up to us. “I am Kusum”, she said, “I am in class 7.” Her English was perfect, so I complimented her on that. Kusum went back and we continued to watch the karate. When the program was over, Kusum came back to the front, with a determined look on her face. “Next year, I will go to class 8” she said. “I am happy you came to visit my school.”