<i>The story of endless possibilities</i>
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that the key factor that determines a nation's progress or lack of it is the status of its women. If we look at raw statistics and media reports the scenario may seem a little dismal. Women are still bogged down by a parochial society where bigotry and chauvinism are coupled with the absence of access to basic rights. Violence against women, harassment, and discrimination in wages--all these anomalies represent steps backward in the race to development.
But this is not the whole story. Just take a glance around the streets of a city like Dhaka and it is clear that more and more women are visible than say, a decade or so before. The hundreds of women marching along the streets, most of them to or from their workplace, hint at the change that is taking place in society.
The large number of women entering the workforce today from economic necessity is a perfect example of how good things often come out of adverse circumstances. The ever-expanding garment industry with its demand for cheap and efficient labour has given millions of young women--more than 80 percent of garment workers are women--the opportunity to break out of their homes and enter a world of self-reliance and financial independence. The impact on society and economy has been huge. Apart from the huge foreign exchange these women help Bangladesh to earn, a large portion of their earnings reach the villages where they come from. Their families benefit from their income in the form of say, better housing, more schooling for other members of the family and so on. Thus the whole community gets a reprieve from stagnant impoverishment.
Earning women, whether they are garment workers, migrant workers, lawyers, doctors or small-scale entrepreneurs, are also consumers and their increased purchasing power has a long term effect on the economy as they buy more goods and services.
From a sociological point of view, women who are financially independent or earning substantially are more confident members of society who have a better chance at decision-making in the family. They marry later, have children later and so help to curb exploding population growth.
Rural women, although for the most part, are not recognised for their significant contribution to agriculture, have also shed their conventional roles with the help of microcredit, becoming entrepreneurs who have a say in the society they live in. There are over 1,000 local and national organisations in Bangladesh that generate self-employment opportunities for over 8 million poor, mostly women, through microcredit and training in literacy, technical skills, and legal rights.
Politically too, women have shown their interest and ability not only at national level but also in local government. The Local Government (Union Parishad) Second Amendment Act 1997 is considered a breakthrough for greater political participation. This amendment provided for direct elections to reserved seats for women in local level elections. Women leaders and party workers have shown their ability to work hard in electioneering especially by motivating women voters to vote for them.
These changes are slow and often clouded by the stark reality of continuous omission of women in many spheres. But they are changes nevertheless. They indicate the possibilities laid out before us--if we are willing to explore them. This would be translated into say, ensuring better and higher education for girls (reducing secondary school dropouts), opportunities to acquire better skills, jobs and greater roles in the political process, more security and tolerance for women in all spheres of life. The possibilities are endless; it's up to us not to miss the bus. It's not rocket science, just common sense.