It is heartening to note that despite many barriers, a new women's entrepreneur class in the Small and Medium sector has developed in the country taking on the challenge to work in a male-dominated, competitive and complex economic and business environment. It has been found that at present women entrepreneurs constitute more than 10% of the total business entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. However, in spite of these achievements, the real value of their participation and contribution is not fully recognised in the society. Differences and inequalities between women and men exist in terms of opportunities, rights and benefits. These include poor access to market, information, technology and environment. In spite of these, not only have Bangladeshi women entrepreneurship improved their living conditions and earned more respect in the family and the society, but they have also contributed to business and export growth, supplies, employment generation, productivity and skill development.
It was observed that few women entered business before the 60s; more in the 70s. Nearly 50% of enterprises were established in the beginning of this century—from 2000 to 2010. Enterprises of women developed after the liberation of Bangladesh, as women established their business from 1971 onwards.
Impediments by women for Entrepreneurship Development from Society include the following:
Majority people generally did not like women to be in business, and that is the main impediment for the women to enter into business activities and also to become successful in business. Some faced difficulty in getting cash payment from wholesalers, the problems of ill-literacy and lack of knowledge, the troubles created through the teasing of women entrepreneurs by young people, the pressure and demand of unusual tolls which created crisis in business transactions, and the conservativeness of the society and the general public regarding women's business involvement.
A study by SME Foundation shows that majority of women entrepreneurs (89.76%) were Muslims. Since Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country, it is natural that most of women entrepreneurs would be Muslims. But age-old traditions and misinterpreted Muslim beliefs in a male-dominated society often prevented these women from taking entrepreneurship as a profession. It was found that majority of women entrepreneurs (82.90%) in SMEs were married, 10.63% unmarried, 4.15% widows, among special households identified with the preservation of heritage products of age-old values.
Each area of Bangladesh has a distinct cultural heritage in products, designs, styles and utility. These are maintained by women in their efforts for preservation.
Nakshi Kantha, embroidered by women tell the tales of the past or the women's thinking, incidents, stories of lives, which remain as memoirs for them stitched in with colourful thread to preserve their untold stories, incidents or thoughts. Most of these designs are stitched without any design printed on the cloth, since the rural women stitch during their spare time on their own and enjoy their endeavour as they stitch designs or subjects of their untold stories on cloth with simple “running stitches”.
Innovations in designs are constantly kept in focus to attract buyers with new and innovative ideas and shapes. Designs differ in urban and rural areas along with colour, shape, utility and fashion. Tastes differ in every area. Urban users prefer modernity and sophistication while rural people still cling to and preserve the old culture with ancient values and design.
Sonargaon wooden dolls, long-eared elephants and horses on wheels are fading away as the young generation prefers modern items with innovative designs. The old masters along with their wives fail to fulfil the wants of the new generation and thus remain idle with only a few products, which were a booming business for them even two decades ago. With modernisation the urge for the old disappears since sometimes these are felt to be useless for life.
Woodcrafts usually by men are also made by women now but in smaller sizes. Similarly, are the situation of the bamboo baskets, fans, trays and bowls which have been preserved through generations. Marma women of the tribal community are still active with their bamboo products, since bamboo clusters still exist in these localities. Though export orders remain for these bamboo items, lack of raw material prevents regular export supply.
1.35% divorced and 0.48% were separated. Regarding previous occupations of Women entrepreneurs, the largest number (64.64%) were only housewives before they entered into their careers as entrepreneurs, 17.49% were students, 7.83% were in service, 1.84% belonged to other occupations and 3.86% were unemployed. The largest segment 77.87% belonged to nuclear families, while 15.36% belonged to joint or extended families. The most common motivating factor was to add to family income (47.25%). Majority had proprietorship of business (85.41%) in the Small Enterprise sector. Some in the Medium Enterprise sector had Family Ownership, Partnership or were share holders in Companies. 4.54% Directors in their business, 2.90% were Managing Directors in their firms. 2.80% were Chairmen of the Companies. 3.96% worked as managers of the enterprises while 0.39% held various other positions in the business enterprises.
Women today have ventured towards agricultural activities since it has been observed that male farmers in many places are shifting towards various other professions due receiving less return from agriculture. This has resulted in women's participation in not only cultivating crops in the fields but also planting vegetables, participating in storage and also marketing of crops and vegetables. This is a new area of activity for the women in the rural areas but this arrangement has brought in a new vigour for women's agricultural performance.
Women were restrained from many traditional activities in early times. Hand weaving, clay product making in turning bowls, are now regularly produced by women along with the male family-members of the households. However marketing of these products are usually performed by the males. Hand weaving has now emerged through women, and handloom products, textiles and saris are now woven and marketed by women in Tangail, Manipur of Sylhet and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, preserving age-old traditions and weaving procedures.
Women participate more in SME products than large industrial items due to lack of finance, knowledge and other related requisites.
Women entrepreneurs in SME are involved in manufacturing, export, import, and sale of items. Other activities involve preservation, packaging, production, advertisement, event management, food preparation, stitching, embroidery, beautification, beautician and skin care and utility services as door to door supply. Publicity of women's products is undertaken through advertisements, brochures, banners and leaflets.
New areas for business have emerged with training, business meets, foreign trade participation. Women have ventured to produce items previously manufactured only by men. These include manufacture of cosmetics, ready-made garments, preserved food, packaging, printing, batik works, wax items, wood crafts, bamboo works etc.
Heritage is preserved in and maintained in SME products, especially in terms of designs, product style, colour composition and shape identification. Cultural norms and dignity are focused with household items, which have been carried on for generations in particular areas or Problems of raw materials arise frequently with the lack of cultivation of cane, bamboo and trees—most of which are disappearing due to unavailability of raw materials.
Food preservation, packaged food items, food preparation, bakery are in high demand by women in SMEs since bakery shops, food houses, hotels, cafeterias and school Tiffin programmes inspire the women to provide them the required items. Many women provide lunch boxes to offices for their officials, paid trough monthly bills. Since women don't usually provide adulterated food through corrupt practices, people prefer this home-prepared food.
Dress making, embroidery, boutique-shop ownership, cut-piece sales are popular among the women and many have turned into international fashion designers, having graduated in these subjects. Block printing, batik works, dress paintings are popular among the teen-agers.
The booster sector wise ownership of the women entrepreneurs has been obtained from the survey in line with the information and issues provided by the Ministry of Industries through the SME Foundation. The greatest number of women entrepreneurs were involved in Designing, Aesthetically-Challenging, Personal Wear and Effects. Knit-Wear and Ready-Made Garments, Agro-Processing/Agro-business/Plantation/Agro-Specialist Farming/ Tissue Culture. The largest ownership of the women entrepreneurs belonged to various other trades which were easier to operate and also had good market. These included Handicraft Manufacturing, Tailoring, Block and Batik works, Embroidery, Catering Services, Food and Confectionery, Beauty Parlours, Fitness Clubs, Construction Works, Publishing, Printing, Pharmaceuticals, Cosmetics, Toiletries, Health Care and Diagnostic Centres, and Education Services. The lesser ownership of women were in Electronics and Electrical Enterprises, Soft-Ware Development Firms Light Engineering and Metal-Working, Plastic and other Synthetics, Leather-Making and Leather Goods. Since these sector activities were new for women and mainly dominated by men, few women went into these trades as they did not have sufficient knowledge, information and skill on these trades including production and marketing process.
IamSMEofBangladesh, recently introduced with the co-operation of Bangladesh Bank, has initiated the training women entrepreneurs. Training programmes are regularly held especially through Trade Associations, Chambers, SME Foundation, Bangladesh Bank and various NGOs. NASCIB regularly organises training programmes with the assistance of SMEF, through which women entrepreneurs were created in various issues. Similarly, WEAB, Banglacraft, BWCCI and other related Trade organisations have promoted women entrepreneurs, who are successfully organising their trade activities.
Trade fair participation has increased for women with their products for sale and exhibition. Women regularly join trade fairs abroad and export their products to various countries. They also import products from foreign nations according to the needs and availability. DITF has assisted women entrepreneurs to exhibit and initiate sale of their products through participation and publicity.
The rural areas predominantly focus on village trade fairs called “Melas”, which are held on festivals as Pahela Baishakh or religious occasions as Eid and Puja. Women prepare their products throughout the year to participate and sell in these festivals, which sometimes seems to be the annual sale of indigenous artefacts in rural areas.
SME products are always on demand as cost of these are reasonable and affordable by all. Moreover, SME products are greater in number than large industrial items. Both handmade and mechanised or industrial products fall in the SME category through the SME Service Sector items as catering, advertisement, IT sector, which have developed to a great extent.
SME loans are essential for women entrepreneurs to initiate business and also expand their existing ventures. However, as banks require authorisation through the signatures of guarantees, many women fail to receive loans, as many family members refuse to be guarantees. Moreover, due to high interest rates, women often face hazardous situations in continuing their ventures with financial constraints. All the banks don't accommodate the problems faced by the entrepreneurs and women face harassment in loan accumulation.
Dr Atiur Rahman, Governor Bangladesh Bank has said, “Our women entrepreneurs have already earned fame that has also been lauded by a British Member of Parliament recently. If we are able to sustain the progress of the women empowerment, then we will be recognised by the whole world.”
Craftsmanship has to be developed with inclusion of new ventures and creativity. Similarly, women have to learn office maintenance, labour control and market procedures, negotiating ventures, sales promotion and creation of new ideas and products.
Women are often victims in business, when actual prices are not paid. The greatest hurdle occurs with the middle-men, who order goods at lean period with low prices and avail the goods during peak seasons with payment of lean season prices. Many women manufacture products but are unable to market due to family restrictions in venturing out of homes and in keeping family traditions. These entrepreneurs have to suffer the burdens of payment loss created by cheating attitudes of middle-men.
Shop-keepers harass women in payment of their sold items. Bus conductors annoy entrepreneurs while carrying products to cities from rural areas, many face insults from males during selling attempts, artisans or workers often leave without information, and creation of new skilled personnel takes time. Women are cheated in payment and purchase of raw materials.
Suggestions were provided by the women entrepreneurs on various issue, some of which are:
1. Strengthening of women's position in business and international trade promotion of the women entrepreneurs which could be attained through Increase of business contacts nationally and internationally
2. Training on national and international marketing
3. Financial support from banks
4. Information on trade fairs and participation in international fairs and marketing support
5. Creating opportunity for export
6. Need to strengthen women's socio-economic position. The greatest expectation of the women entrepreneurs was to increase business contacts.
7. Accelerate Role of Association for strengthening the women as entrepreneurs and increase their knowledge of business through seminars
8. Skill development training opportunities for making quality products
9. Need for increase and strengthening of good business contacts
10. Increase knowledge of business through seminars
11. Obtaining good technical support
12. Receive additional capital from banks for developing business and international trade promotion
13. Contribute towards social and national development
14. Participation in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) for socio-economic development
15. Strengthening of women's position in business and international trade promotion
Today, hundreds of women entrepreneurs in SME have emerged successful in their ventures and have built up their business with patience and perseverance. They are earning successfully, providing products with care and concern, and assisting in the economic development of the nation. SMEs, through cultural heritage, can be carried down through generations and become a pivotal issue for the nation. Women in SME have held the flag high with their courage and unending attempts to achieve accomplishments. We salute these fearless women who have emerged as torch-bearers of triumph to initiate and encourage others to follow to a successful life in the SME world.
The writer is a Sociologist (DU), Former Director FBCCI and an entrepreneur