Thirty-year-old Dipali Nokrek made a career out of doing one thing -- making people look beautiful.
Starting her career as an apprentice at one of Dhaka's well-known beauty salons, she worked for over 18 years in more than a dozen parlours. All was well until the nationwide shutdown was imposed last year to contain the spread of Covid-19.
She was fired from her job while her husband had his pay cut by half at his job at an RMG factory. Soon, the couple's savings dried up and they fell behind in five months' rent.
Six months after she was fired, she started a makeshift beauty parlour in one room of her neighbour's house, taking loans and help from relatives.
But another lockdown imposed in the wake of the second wave earlier this year, devastated her fledgling venture.
"I could not open my parlour for a month. Pahela Baishakh and Eid are our peak season, but I missed this. Although we can open it for a limited time now, the number of clients has decreased drastically," Dipali said.
She is yet to repay her loans or pay the house rent due from last year.
"If this continues, we have to starve with the added burden of loans and the due rent," she added.
A majority of female beauticians in the beauty parlour sector belong to ethnic minority groups.
Many beauticians who are, or were forced to become, self-employed small entrepreneurs, have been struggling to survive during the pandemic that took the glow off the beauty business, declared an industrial sector by the government last June.
RELUCTANT TO APPLY FOR LOANS, ALSO UNAWARE
To tackle Covid-induced shocks, the government allocated a stimulus package worth Tk 20,000 crore for cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises. A minimum of five percent of the allocation, or Tk 1,000 crore, is reserved for women.
Another stimulus package involving Tk 1,500 crore was announced this January for such enterprises. Under these stimulus packages, female entrepreneurs could avail loans at a subsidised interest rate of four percent.
Dipali, however, did not know how to avail a small loan from banks like many other female micro entrepreneurs, raising the question as to how effective the stimulus schemes have been.
A recent Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) study found nearly 59 percent of female entrepreneurs surveyed were unaware of the stimulus packages for cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises.
Titled "How useful the stimulus packages have been for women in tackling the impact of Covid-19", the telephonic survey of 70 female entrepreneurs in 34 districts was conducted in October 2020.
These female entrepreneurs worked in 32 types of businesses -- including beauty parlours, clothing, import and export trade, manufacturing, handicrafts, cosmetics, agriculture, dairy, livestock, jewellery, food services, and footwear.
"Women who were aware of the packages were still reluctant to apply for loans," CPD Executive Director Dr Fahmida Khatun, who led the study, told this newspaper. Only seven percent of those surveyed said they had applied for loans under the stimulus package.
The study found a wide range of reasons including lack of information regarding where to go, who to ask, what to do, and how to apply for these much-needed loans. The lengthy process and worries about repayment were also reasons for not applying for loans.
Female entrepreneurs also mentioned that they were discouraged by bank officials who said there was no such loan for women SMEs yet or no order from the authorities to give loans to women, or the extra hassle created by bank officials discouraged them from applying for a loan.
Leaders in the sector said the government's stimulus packages were not designed with women in mind, and hence, these have not been completely successful in addressing female entrepreneurs' needs during the pandemic.
Kaniz Almas Khan, chief executive officer and managing director of Persona, said those who run micro and small businesses are currently having a tough time.
"They are reluctant to apply for a formal loan because they lack the confidence and documents required to avail loans," she said.
"Medium enterprises who applied for the loans did not get it due to the complex terms and conditions."
Kaniz added cash incentives should be given rather than loans because this would be more effective in easing the entrepreneurs' burden.
If medium enterprises were exempted from value-added tax (VAT) for at least three years, they will be able to sustain in the industry for the next few years, she also said.
Dr Lila Rashid, former executive director of Bangladesh Bank, however said many female entrepreneurs were able to access loans.
Dr Lila, who was directly involved with the stimulus package for cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises, said as per the bank's data, female entrepreneurs received 5.10 percent of the total amount of the stimulus package allocated for these enterprises, until March 31 this year.
However, the breakdown of the BB data showed state-owned banks disbursed only 14 percent of the total amount allocated for women to more than 65 percent of the female entrepreneurs who received loans under this scheme. The average loan size was Tk 3 lakh, she said.
On the other hand, private commercial banks disbursed 73 percent of the amount to only 28 percent of female entrepreneurs -- but the size of each loan was an average amount of around Tk 79 lakh in Islamic banks and Tk 29 lakh in non-Islamic banks.
This means that a few women-led comparatively larger enterprises benefited the most from the stimulus package.
"We have to pay more attention to our micro entrepreneurs because their problems are not similar to that of medium enterprises," Dr Lila said at a webinar in mid-April.
"They are mostly from the informal sector and we must keep in mind that they cannot be served through formal banks.
"They have been taking loans from NGOs and microfinance institutions at interest rates of almost 24 percent, but are not applying to banks to have loans against seven to nine percent interest rates.
"We need to look into the problems regarding the supply and demand sides of the banks."
Dr Fahmida recommended that there be nationwide campaigns to create public awareness on the stimulus packages so that the general people can clearly understand what kinds of support the government is providing, who is eligible for such support, and how to obtain the support.
"The quota for women in the existing liquidity support package for cottage, micro small and medium enterprises should be increased," she said.
The status of the disbursement and the lists of beneficiaries should be made available for the public, to ensure transparency and accountability, she added.
In the new budget, announced on June 3, no new measures for cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises were announced, except that existing packages be disbursed and banks meet their targets.
The finance minister also announced that up to Tk 70 lakh of business turnover of female SME entrepreneurs will be exempt from taxation.