Women’s participation in workforce: A challenging development goal

Published : Tuesday, 6 October, 2020 at 12:00 AM
Women empowerment is one of the most important areas of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To ensure that this goal is achieved, ensuring women’s participation in the workforce is the top priority. Along with many other countries of the world Bangladesh has achieved tremendous improvement in this area during the recent years. But the gender gap is still high. But according to several researches and our common understanding, there lies several challenges especially in the context of COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the World Bank female participation rate in labour force in Bangladesh is 36 percent in 2020 while it is 20% in India, 22% in Pakistan and 35% in Sri Lanka. In this aspects, other South Asian countries like; Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives are in a much better position though these countries from other economic and development prospects stays far behind.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on last Thursday at the High-Level Meeting on the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held on the sidelines of the 75th UN General Assembly (UNGA) pledged to increase women’s participation in the workforce to 50-50 by 2041 and called for protecting their job in the context of Covid-19 pandemic. The prime minister also urged the international community to renew its commitments and enhance efforts to ensure women’s equality, empowerment and advancement. She urged that, the job of female workers, including migrant workers, across the global supply chains and other major employment sectors must be protected so that women are not further marginalized and financially excluded in this challenging time.

She highlighted three issues at that high-level virtual meeting in the United Nations headquarters in New York. While pointing out two other issues, the premier said, firstly, the world can benefit from every girl whose potential is realized, from every woman whose talent is tapped and this can only be done through education. Secondly, empowerment comes with income and employment. Therefore, engaging women in income-generating activities should be a priority.

Bangladesh has achieved remarkable achievements in empowering women under the farsighted leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during the last decade but the Covid-19 pandemic has particularly aggravated the vulnerability of women. During this pandemic, women are facing discrimination and increased domestic violence and therefore, threatening to reverse our hard-earned achievements in women empowerment.

The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action charted a bold roadmap to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, which significantly changed the view towards women and driven positive development like; formulation of legislative frameworks by almost all countries of the world for the promotion and protection of women and girls. The 2030 Agenda also recognized women’s centrality across all the goals and targets.

Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman placed women at the heart of the country’s development agenda immediately after the independence. Under Bangabandhu’s visionary statesmanship, the country crafted a progressive constitution guaranteeing equal rights for men and women. The current government has also formulated a progressive Women Development Policy in 2011.

Few developments in women empowerment are easily visible. Like; the reserved seats for women in the national parliament have been raised to fifty and the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House, the Opposition Leader and the Speaker of parliament are women in the current parliament. 30% seats are earmarked for women in local government bodies, while special provisions have been made for enhancing women’s representation in the public service. Women are present at the top positions of almost all areas of the public sector. Women are also becoming a bigger part in earning remittance for Bangladesh.

Our women military and police officials are serving in different UN peacekeeping operations with pride. Recently Bangladeshi women peacekeepers were given the task of ensuring security at DR Congo Airport, run by the UN Peacekeeping Mission. Right now Bangladesh is leading in South Asia on women’s overall empowerment, ranked 50th globally out of 149 countries and 7th in political empowerment, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index.

Women’s participation in the labour force has increased over time in Bangladesh. Compared to 4% in 1974, female participation in the workforce has increased to 36 percent in 2020. Interestingly, labour force participation among rural women is much higher than urban women. This is due to the fact that with increased access to higher education. However, the number of female participants is still low in several sectors. There is also discordance within the sector. Not many women are seen at the managerial and senior positions of organizations. Under-representation of women in decision making jobs is due to a mix of economic, social and cultural situations.

The number of educated women has increased over time; the rate of highly educated women is not large as yet compared to men. The unemployment rate is much higher for women – 6% of women are unemployed while 3% of men are unemployed. The educated unemployment is more prevalent in the case of women than men. Women are also engaged in low paid jobs compared to men.

Several factors act as barriers for higher participation of women in the labour force. Lack of infrastructure, for example, lack of transport, toilet, child care facility and overall security hinder them to take part in the job market. Early marriage is another factor that does not allow girls to continue with their studies and enter the work force. Recent reports show that the number of early marriage is on the rise. Technological up-gradation in many sectors has taken away more jobs from women than from men.

Social factors play an important role in case of educated female job seekers as well.  Because of the reproductive role, many women are forced to choose between motherhood and careers. Societal mindset has to be changed to bring more women in the job market.

The need of work and family life balance is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. Wherever possible, through flexible working arrangements female employees can be retained. Gender sensitivity among men is critical towards enhancing opportunities for women in organizations. The structural problems of bringing more women in the job market can be overcome through right type of policies, environments and attitudes at workplaces. For the larger section of female workforce, higher education, appropriate training and skills development, as well as use of technology are critical for entering into and continuing in the job market.

In Bangladesh, women are coming out more in entrepreneurial roles as it gives them the opportunity to form a career while enjoying freedom to ensure balance between personal and professional life. But the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt these women the most and many of these small and medium enterprises had to halt their operations or were financially hurt during this pandemic. With a little stimulus, these businesses along with the entrepreneurs can turn around and can overcome the challenges.

We need to focus on few areas specifically to increase the participation of women in the workforce of Bangladesh. Increasing women’s mobility will definitely encourage them to continue their education and participate in the workforce as it remains a great challenge in countries like ours till date. Promoting adoption of soft skills can improve the women’s educational as well as professional outcome and the government should heavily invest on that especially when we are finding entrepreneurial opportunity for both urban and rural women. Access to microfinance can ensure women’s participation in the job market in the long run. We have already developed a lot in this area but further ease and expansion of the process will be very helpful.

Most importantly, we need to ensure the safety and security of women at home, workplace and public places. It is a great barrier to women empowerment. The related laws should be strictly enforced and the process of delivering justice must be made faster.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with her valiant leadership, has served on most of her promises till now. As she expressed her commitments towards increasing participation of women in the workforce of Bangladesh, we can definitely be hopeful for a better future of our women. If the women are empowered, then Bangladesh will also achieve its development goals in much faster pace and we hope our country become the flag bearer of women empowerment.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy
Research Centre (DRC)

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