Breaking through the biased barriers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 09, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:05 AM, March 09, 2020

Breaking through the biased barriers

The campaign for International Women's Day 2020 is #EachForEqual. This signifies how important it is for everyone to play a role in establishing women's equality. An equal society is an empowered society. Thus women's equality is not only a women's issue, but also an economic issue. For economic and social progress women's equal participation in every sphere of life is essential. The key areas for #EachForEqual campaign include technological innovation, sports, inclusivity in the workplace, freedom of income, empowerment through health education and highlighting creative activities.

This year also marks 25 years of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted by 189 member countries of the United Nations back in September 1995. The Beijing conference is of great significance as member countries set strategic objectives to achieve gender equality in 12 key areas. They include: women and poverty, education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women and the economy, women in power and decision-making, institutional mechanism for the advancement of women, human rights of women, women in the media, women and the environment, and the girl child.

Despite data limitations, available statistics can testify on how much progress has been made so far. According to Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) 2020 of the World Economic Forum (WEF), out of 153 countries that the WEF looked at, no country has achieved gender equality as yet. By filling up 88 percent of the gender gap, Iceland is the frontrunner in achieving gender equality. Interestingly, four Nordic countries are among the top five achievers. The list goes as follows: Iceland (1st position), Norway (2nd position), Finland (3rd position), Sweden (4th position) and Nicaragua (5th position).

Bangladesh occupies 50th position on the list and first position among the South Asian countries. Bangladesh is not only ahead of its South Asian peers, but is also ahead of Singapore (54th), China (106th), Japan (121st) and many other advanced countries. Bangladesh's achievement is remarkable indeed!

However, by looking beyond the aggregate index, one can find its weaknesses. Bangladesh takes 141st place in case of economic participation and opportunity, 120th position in educational attainment, 119th in health and survival, and 7th in political empowerment. Bangladesh sits just after Iceland, Norway, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Finland and Costa Rica in terms of political empowerment. This is also something to be proud of! However, with only 8 percent women in the cabinet, Bangladesh stands at 86th place and with only 20 percent female parliamentarians Bangladesh is situated at the 124th position. What dragged Bangladesh's position upward in case of political empowerment is having a female head of state for a long period of time.

In order to empower women and achieve gender equality, women's economic participation is necessary. Education and health are the pre-conditions to attain this. Participation of Bangladeshi women in the labour force has increased manifold during the last five decades. From a mere 4 percent in 1974, female participation in the labour force increased to 23.9 percent in 2010 and to 36.3 percent in 2017, according to the Labour Force Surveys of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). However, there is still a gap of 44.2 percent between men and women in terms of participation in the labour force.

To some extent, economic diversification has given women the opportunity to be involved in various new activities. However, Bangladesh's economy is not being able to create employment opportunity for all. Unemployment among the youth aged between 15 and 24 years is 10.6 percent. Unemployment rate among male youth is 8.2 percent and among female youth it is 15 percent. Moreover, unemployment among the more educated youth is higher than the less educated youth for both males and females.

With structural changes in Bangladesh's economy the share of agriculture in gross domestic product has declined while that of manufacturing and services has increased. However, the majority of women are still engaged in the agriculture sector. In terms of total share of female employment in all sectors, 59.68 percent are in the agriculture sector, 15.4 percent in manufacturing and 23.45 percent are in the services sector. The other feature of employment in Bangladesh is its informal nature with less pay and high job insecurity. In 2017, the share of female employment in the informal sector was 91.2 percent.

We also do not see many women in high paid decision-making and leadership positions. The WEF report found that Bangladesh stands at 139th place in case of female participation as legislators, senior officials and managers. And in case of professional and technical workers we are situated at 134th place. In case of wage equality between men and women for similar work Bangladesh sits at the 98th position.

Due to socio-economic, cultural and political surroundings, women cannot participate in income earning activities. Beyond institutional employment women need opportunity for self-employment. Women find it difficult to pursue their careers due to the lack of facilities for taking care of their small children, transportation, accommodations and overall safety. Child marriage is a serious bottleneck.

The other important issue for women is the future of work. The nature and skill requirement for future jobs will be different. Technology will take over many jobs. Women are already being displaced from technology dependent jobs. Their participation in the export oriented readymade garments sector has declined compared to the nineties as they lack technological skills. If women's economic participation and opportunity is to be maintained and improved they have to be given training for the frontier jobs.

Women also face strong bias against them which stands in the way of equality. The very recent findings of the Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is alarming! It found that globally, 90 percent of men and women are biased against women. The report indicates that social beliefs and norms obstruct gender equality at work, education and politics. The GSNI reveals that more than 40 percent of people think men can be better business executives and in case of job scarcity, men have more right to a job. More strikingly, 28 percent think it is justified for a husband to beat his wife. Though Bangladesh is not among the 75 countries that the UNDP studied, the scenario here is probably not so different.

No wonder the WEF report says that we have to wait 99.5 more years to realise gender equality. The next generation will face the same challenges in terms of gender equality. So, the road to women's empowerment and equality is going to be long and tedious.

But we can bring about changes in society by celebrating the achievements of women and by protesting against injustice to and inequality against women. This is the core message of the International Women's Day.


Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

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