A friend of mine calls me a "wo-man". The reason why he hyphenates and breaks the word is a surprise. I asked him why he does so and he explained. An art connoisseur, a stylish male in his 50s, along with his lovely doctor wife, stands out anywhere because of his warmth and style. So, his response did not surprise me.
Wo-man, according to him, is "wow-man". Right before International Women's Day, this was quite a tribute. A woman is today a wow-man, an evolved species of homosapiens. Standing in 2019, we have just been renamed. Amen.
As a wo-man, I have gotten advice from people to slow down, to take it easy and get some rest, find time for recreation, take periodic breaks and finally accept that it's not good to be restless. But a wo-man cannot rest and things haven't changed much for wo-men for years. We've always played the third fiddle to men. There are no regrets though. Had we not lived in the shadows of men for the major part of our lives, we would not have learnt what we have today. The degree of resilience is undoubtedly greater in wo-men. Hence, one finds thousands of wo-men, dressed in bright colours, mostly with a shawl or their heads covered, marching on the streets, hopping onto buses, checking in at their factories, working hours behind sewing machines, chatting during breaks, making friends, and finally leaving their workplaces to return home, just to cook the last meal of the day, tend to the other daily chores, proving finally that a wo-man has no time for herself.
At the other end of the spectrum of affluence, the scene is different. Young wo-men from reasonably comfortable financial backgrounds have it a little better. Having watched their mothers go through the middle-class housewives' struggle, these relatively comfortable wo-men have reached a point where they wouldn't like to accept any prescriptions on their lives, work, dress codes or their identity. So the well-to-do young wo-men have it considerably better, the economically disadvantaged wo-men have it tough, and the middle-class young wo-men are still fighting back.
At an informal adda of young professionals, just a few weeks back, I was amazed by the level of resilience of these wo-men. Listening to their stories was a humbling experience. The multiple commentaries of how these young wo-men have made it so far stretched from usual stories of wo-men being discouraged by family members down to hair-raising stories of going without money for days. At the end of it all, all these wo-men looked well-positioned to strive for the better. And, their stories mostly boiled down to economic empowerment…
Today, the wo-men in our readymade garment factories have a voice just because they can hand tiffin money over to their husbands. Wo-men belonging to affluent families have had most of their mothers struggling under the shadows of their fathers, having worked their lives away, leaving them on a better base. Young professional wo-men from lower/higher middle-income groups are being fuelled by need. Point is, conviction matters. Point is, money does too. What do we then have to do for a more inclusive society for all the wo-men around?
Here's my humble two cents as follows:
A national credit portal to improve access to credit
In spite of the central bank giving 15 percent from the refinancing scheme to wo-men and in spite of its instruction to private banks to give 10 percent of credit to wo-men, the number of wo-men availing this opportunity is dismal. Only three percent credit was given up to last September. That proves the point.
Wo-men don't have meaningful access to credit. What can be done to encourage an increase in disbursement?
An "area approach" and cluster-based approach could be helpful. This could be set up through the upazila steering committee. A three-member team could be set up at the grassroots level to do the primary assessment. This upazila steering committee could also endorse the applicant, and could follow up with the procedure. A portal set up to monitor every loan applicant could be connected to the central bank. Every loan request would be recorded at the upazila level. After being vetted by the upazila steering committee, it could be ticked off and at that notification, the district steering committee could take it up, reviewing it further, and then do the final submission.
This portal could be linked to all private banks which would be given access to view, review, accept, and reject applications. The portal could be a free marketplace of aspiring entrepreneurs, willing to pitch their idea, tempting banks and financial institutions to partner with them through loan or equity participation.
In case the portfolio of the applicant is too small, few applicants can apply together for "group funding." Loans could be given in tranches. There could be a selection committee, constituting representatives from private banks and there could also be a performance-monitoring committee constituting representatives of any wo-men's forum, central bank, and private banks.
Skill up-gradation on the basis of cluster-based training: Training the next wo-men
An upazila-wise training centre to teach the "next level" skill could be formed. The "next" could mean offering a local wo-man an opportunity to make sweets in a more hygienic condition and packaging it for urban consumption. The "next" could mean offering a seamstress in an upazila an opportunity to collaborate with others and set up a unit to supply tailoring services to the district. The "next" could mean an opportunity for young rural wo-men to form groups to learn to innovate through software trainings.
Stories of wo-men must be told, shared and rewarded. Wo-men need to be viral.
A national award for "Invisible Heroes" may pave the way as case studies, so that a national policy formulation can be based on grassroots feedback.
The stress on economic empowerment in today's column is so that wo-men don't die of hunger, or struggle for pocket money, or feel deprived of their desires...
Wo-men all over the landscape are the same; our stories are similar and our tears taste the same. Irrespective of the social or economic bubbles that we come from or represent, we are one. May money not dictate the divide anymore, may bias become irrelevant. Unless we stand for the other wo-man, no man ever will. Unless we embrace each other today, tomorrow may never happen.
Happy Wo-men's Day!
Dr Rubana Huq is the managing director of Mohammadi Group. Her Twitter handle is @Rubanah.