By 2021, Bangladesh hopes to transform itself into what the World Bank defines as a Middle Income Country.
By some measures, that may seem like a modest goal. About 5 billion of the world's 7 billion people already live in Middle Income Countries—those which have a per capita gross national income of $1,045 to $12,746. These countries host nearly three-quarters of the world's poor. But by other measures, Bangladesh's goal is quite ambitious, especially where it concerns the nation's women, whose greater participation in the nation's economy will be critical to meeting this objective.
Bangladesh in fact has made women's engagement in political and economic activities a key area of focus in the country's latest Five Year Plan. The good news is that Bangladesh is making progress in terms of gender equality, poverty reduction and promotion of maternal and child health. The bad news is that the overall participation of women in the labour force remains at a scant 36 percent.
Agriculture has long been a key area of labour participation for Bangladeshi women. While their role in agriculture has been restricted primarily to production, new public-private partnerships aimed at improving the economic and food security of rural communities offer great potential for Bangladeshi women to broaden their labour participation into areas beyond production.
In a nation where insufficient agricultural technology threatens food security even as the need for food increases, these nonprofit efforts can give women in rural areas the opportunity to step into new agricultural roles, including the retail provision of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers that can help small farmers boost yields and improve local economies.
Until now, socio-cultural barriers, lack of education, limited access to market and lack of capital for women's businesses have impeded women's involvement in agro-retailing. According to a gender assessment survey conducted by the USAID-funded Agro-Inputs Project in Bangladesh, 69 percent of female respondents were involved primarily in production agriculture while none of them was engaged in agro-inputs sales.
But public-private partnerships can change those statistics. One such partnership is working to create and/or support 300 women-run, agro-input enterprises by offering matching grants for female entrepreneurs—and providing training, mentoring and input demonstrations designed to speed the entry of women agro-retailers in 20 southern districts of Bangladesh.
Some of these women agro-retailers have already begun to share their success by motivating, informing and networking with other potential women retailers, as well as by employing other women in their businesses—women who will gain the practical experience to launch their own enterprises. In that way, retailing not only creates a new type of women's employment in Bangladesh, but also provides a new platform for women's empowerment, and a conduit for information and inputs geared for the first time to female farmers as well as male ones.
Through similar programmes, women in rural Bangladesh have begun to get the social, informational and financial support they need to play their part in helping their nation become a Middle Income Country, and vastly improve the security of their family, community and local economy.
But the work has just begun. Donors, governments and international organisations must continue to support and encourage efforts to help the women of rural Bangladesh—and those of other countries—to assume a greater role in determining their economic future, as well as provide greater contributions to the welfare of their communities.
The writer is a food security and agricultural input specialist.