THE finance advisor termed the budget of 2008-2009 as gender sensitive, and said that gender expenditure would rise from 23.5% to 26.3% in the budget. The budget increased the beneficiary coverage under Allowances Program for the Widowed, Deserted and Destitute Women, Old Age Allowance, and the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) Program.
The government will launch a new pilot program named "Allowance for Poor Lactating Mothers." The advisor also said that the government had prepared a document titled "National Women Development Strategy," and put in place a set of policies to make overseas employment of Bangladeshi women workers safer and well-regulated.
The government has planned to recruit 60% female teachers in the primary schools. A committee titled "Women in Development" (WID) is at work to monitor the implementation of National Action Plan for Women Development. This long list of benefits for gender inclusive development seems very encouraging and praiseworthy.
However, the budget does not reflect how 26.3% of the budget will be allocated for gender-related expenditure. It requires clarification as this year's development budget is smaller than the non-development budget, and women's share in the revenue budget is minimal as they constitute a small part of the governmental staff. Women could be more benefited from this sector if 60 % of the primary school teachers were females, in line with the policy of affirmative action in recruitment.
Nonetheless, the percentage of female teachers in government primary schools is only 37%. The advisor was mum about increasing the number of women, though the 60% quota has been reserved for women for a long time. As a whole, there was a lack of emphasis as to what the women would do after completing their education. Job oriented training and enterprise development initiatives should be undertaken to solve this problem.
Despite demand from the women's movement to follow the National Women's Development Policy to ensure women's integration in the national development process, the government kept silent since different groups staged demonstrations in front of the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque protesting against the proposed National Women Development Policy and demanding its withdrawal. This caretaker government might utilise the policy framework to distribute gender related expenditure.
In this budget the government plans to create job opportunities for 20 lakh unemployed poor under a new program titled "100 Days Employment Generation." The rural unemployed poor across the country will get work for at least 100 days during the whole year, particularly during mid-October to mid-January and mid-March to mid-May periods. At this initial stage there must be a clear strategy to benefit women, particularly widowed or deserted women, through these initiatives as they face barriers in accessing both the formal and the informal labour markets and suffer wage discrimination.
Similarly, the government should spell out a strategy to reduce gender inequality in vocational institutions to be set up in monga-prone areas, as proposed in the budget. The advisor did not report any progress regarding setting up of three new polytechnic institutes for women proposed in a previous budget.
Increasing the existing number of women beneficiaries under different safety net programs is not enough. Reaching the vulnerable, the marginalised and the excluded is a real challenge as the number of beneficiaries is more than the targeted number, andleakage in allocating these fund is recognised by all.
Ensuring Poor Lactating Mothers' health though cash support is going to be toughest job on earth as, culturally, women hardly have any control over the household resources or the benefit they receive from elsewhere. The NGOs, which provide food to lactating and pregnant mothers have observed men take at least an equal share from the food. So it requires complementary arrangements to monitor lactating mothers' weight and wellbeing.
Benefiting women under Rural Employment and Road Maintenance Program (RERMP), Rural Employment Opportunities for Public Assets (REOPA), Maternal Health Voucher Scheme (MHVS) and Community Nutrition Programs (CNP), allowance for the Insolvent Persons with Physical Disability, Stipend Program for the Disabled Students, Housing Fund for the Homeless, Fund for Climate Change are equally challenging. All these programs must have clear sex disaggregated beneficiary assessment to benefit women.
No separate/special attention has been given to women in general sectors like agriculture, industry, health, power and energy, transport, rural development etc. There is no recognition that women are equal stakeholders in these sectors. Women have been individually/specially considered only in the education and social security sectors.
We welcome government initiatives to promote women entrepreneurship through commencing SME Foundation's credit operation to provide credit to the SME entrepreneurs at a low rate of interest. However, the poor and extreme poor women are not eligible for SME fund, though they are involved in the product market and showing their creativity by making small products.
To get involved in the growth process they require assistance. With this small note, I would like to say that women should not be relegated to the category of dependent poor, and the government's role should not be limited to only bringing them under a safety net program. Rather, they need to be considered as economically active and included in the growth process, otherwise poverty alleviation would be a far cry.
The path of growth-oriented development from household to state is very much linked to gender inclusiveness, as shown by our garments sector. The women of Bangladesh will not be happy with only sweet talks around gender sensitivity, but reflection of government's commitment in the budget and programs in implementing National Women Policy towards women's empowerment is the key to sustained growth.
(The opinions expressed here are of authors. the views expressed here no way reflect the views of the organisation where she is employed now.)