I have been in Bangladesh for the last 8 days, visiting Practical Action’s flood Early Warning System project on the banks of the Jamuna river. During this time, I have had the pleasure of meeting some inspirational women that I would like to introduce on this International Women’s Day 2016.
First of all: the women of the Saidabad Community Based Organisation (CBO).
Of the 70 CBO members, 43 are women. Every week they deposit Tk 10 (about 9p) into the CBO savings account. It doesn’t sound like much, but it soon adds up and if and when their village is inundated by floods, they can take out the money they have saved and buy food for their families. The CBO has an annual plan, which includes such activities as repairing the road to the village, and assisting with distribution of government welfare to elderly people in the community.
One of their most critical functions is their role in the flood Early Warning System (EWS). The national Flood Warning and Forecasting Centre (FWFC) generates a flood warning for each Union Parishad (local administrative unit) which is sent by voice SMS to several people in that area, including three of the CBO members. They share this information by word of mouth, through the CBO, giving people as much as three days warning ahead of the flood, with which they can move their belongings, livestock and seed to higher, drier ground, harvest what can be salvaged from their crops, and move their families to a safer location, perhaps with friends or relatives in nearby towns.
I would also like to introduce Jayashri, who teaches at the Saidabad school (on the right):
This particular school is funded by BRAC, one of the largest and most well-established NGOs in Bangladesh, which supports a school in nearly every village in the country. Although Practical Action does not support this school directly, this basic education is essential if women and girls are to thrive in their local community – and to lead and contribute to the CBOs!
There are many others I could mention, like the entrepreneur who provides digital services to her local community using a laptop, printer and modem provided by Practical Action’s V2R project, generating a very good livelihood that supports her family. In return, she also helps to spread flood early warnings, by updating the community weather information board.
These inspirational women have not got to where they are without facing some challenges. Bangladesh has made incredible gains in reducing gender disparity, with the 8th lowest gender gap in the developing world (World Bank, 2016). The maternal mortality rate halved between 2000 and 2014 (Ibid), and women’s life expectancy rose from 54.3 years in 1980 to 69.3 years in 2010 (ILO, 2016). The female under five mortality rate is 20% lower than that of boys (UNICEF, 2011). Furthermore, the number of women holding seats in national parliament doubled between 2000 and 2014, from 9 to 20 (World Bank, 2016).
However, some inequalities remain. While secondary school enrolment for women has increased to 51.3%, the percentage of those who finish secondary education varies widely by income group: 93% of women from high income families finish, while only 31% of women from low income families do (Ibid).
According to the ILO, Bangladeshi society is moving away from the idea of women as a financial liability, however, their participation in the jobs market is concentrated in the lower level jobs, and on average are paid around 50% less than men.
So yes, challenges remain. But Bangladesh has made huge strides towards gender equality in the last 15 years, and the women I have been lucky to meet this week are a living testament to what can be done for the country when they are enabled to lead and support their communities. Here’s to another 15 years of moving in the right direction.
ILO (2016). A quiet revolution: women in Bangladesh. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/comment-analysis/WCMS_234670/lang–en/index.htm
UNICEF (2011). A perspective on gender equality in Bangladesh. Available at: http://www.unicef.org/bangladesh/Gender_paper_Final_2011_Low.pdf
World Bank (2016). Gender Data Portal. Available at: http://datatopics.worldbank.org/gender/country/bangladesh