DHAKA: When one thinks of Bangladesh, its political leadership naturally comes to mind as the leaders of the country’s major parties are women, including the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader and the Speaker of the National Parliament.

When it comes to gender equality in daily life, the reality is still different, but many women in Bangladesh are breaking barriers by taking traditionally male jobs – once unthinkable. Take the case of six rural women working in a refueling station in the port city of Narayanganj near the capital Dhaka, a job that entails a degree of personal risk.

Happy Akhter of Magura, Lippi Akhter of Moulvibazar and Rikta of Patuakhali districts are among the six women employees of the refueling station, set up by Saiful Islam, a former police officer, in 2001.

“It’s important to utilise the potential of everyone, including women. And the well-off section of society should come up to support them,” Islam told the Narayanganj correspondent of UNB, a national news agency.

Lippi Akhter added, “My satisfaction is that I can support my family — two daughters and one son — with what I get from this job. I’m not at all worried about myself but I want my children to be educated.”

Asked about their security as they are dealing with male motorists, Lippi said, “We’re safe here as our owner is an ex-police officer. We appreciate his concern about us. He has also made arrangements for our accommodation.”

Taking such a job, where the women have to deal with transport workers, is a matter of great courage as violence against women is widespread.

In the district where these women are working, a 15-year-old girl was raped a by a group of transport workers in a moving truck on the night of August 2. Police arrested the driver hours after the incident. During a preliminary investigation, he confessed to committing the crime with the other men.

In a press statement, Naripokkho, a women’s rights body, said, “The society is being affected due to the repeated incidents of violence against women and children. We’re aggrieved and concerned in such a situation.

“Some 280 women and children fell victims to rape from January to June this year,” Naripokkho said referring to a report of Ain o Shalish Kendro, a human rights body. It said 39 more were the victims of attempted rape during the period, while 16 were killed after rape, and five committed suicide after rape.

Citing police data, Naripokkho said 1,914 rape cases were filed and 1,109 rape incidents took place between April and June, indicating 12 rape incidents every day.

As elsewhere in the world, women account for almost half of Bangladesh’s total population. Today, the country’s total population is 1.65 million, including 49.40 per cent women, according to the Bangladesh Election Commission.

However, a 2015 World Bank report said women in Bangladesh account for only 27 percent of the total labour force. Nepal has the highest female labour participation rate of 80 percent. “The labour market [in Bangladesh] remains divided along gender lines and progress towards gender equality seems to have stalled,” the World Bank said.

According to a 2014 study by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a civil society think tank of Bangladesh, “…the contribution of women to the national income has continued to remain insignificant when compared to men because of the under-representation of their contribution to the national income accounts.”

Worldwide, women account for about one-third of the workforce in the unorganised sector. But the International Labour Organization says in Bangladesh, only 3.25 percent of employed women are working in the public sector and 8.25 percent in the private sector. The remaining 89.5 percent are employed in the informal sector with varying and often unpredictable earning patterns – or as it so often happens, work without any payment at all.

Non-recognition of women’s unpaid activity, the CPD study says, also leads to undervaluation of their economic contribution.

The situation is slowly changing as the government takes on various projects with support from international partners. To give women’s empowerment a boost, particularly in the country’s impoverished north, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) of Bangladesh in collaboration with International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has launched a project on Climate Resilient Community Development (CRCD) Project with a greater focus on gender parity.

The six-year project will be implemented in six districts, Gaibandha, Kurigram, Rangpur, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, and Jamalpur, which are known as poverty pockets.

The project seeks to achieve at least 33 percent of women in the overall labour market, and 15 percent in construction-related areas with relevant actions like subsidised courses for women, inclusion of informal sectors and incentives to employers to employ females, functional literacy, and skill development training.

The project follows a gender sensitive design, noting that 10 per cent of households in the project areas are headed by women, and most of these households are extremely poor.

As it does always, IFAD is promoting the active participation of ‘Labour Contracting Society (LCS). Coastal Climate Resilient Infrastructure Project (CCRIP) is one of them.

CCRIP Project Director A.K.M. Lutfur Rahman said poverty alleviation, education, irrigation, agriculture, women’s empowerment and tree planting are the social aspects of the project apart from its engineering aspects, and women are participating.

The project is expected to contribute to the construction of gender sensitive infrastructure that meets the needs of both women and men. In line with national development policies and IFAD’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, the goal is to empower women and men to ensure equal access to project benefits.

As security concerns prevail due to the growing violence against women, Professor Sharmind Neelormi of the Department of Economics of Jahangir Nagar University in Bangladesh stressed the importance of ensuring a gender-friendly working environment in the project areas, in addition to revisiting the wage rate.

Professor Sharmind came up with the suggestions on August 1 last in Dhaka while presenting the findings of a study she conducted with support from LGED and IFAD.

Talking to IPS, MB Akther, Programme Director & Interim Country Director of OXFAM Bangladesh, said women’s empowerment is a continuous process. A woman needs five to six years of multidimensional supports, he said. She also needs help in building market linkages for income-generating activities.

Akther said providing capital resources to women is not the only solution. They should also know how to invest resources for generating income and for that they need trainings, raising knowledge and cooperation to build market linkages.

“ICT, particularly the operation of mobile phones, is also an effective tool for women to search job markets or market prices for a product,” he said, adding that he is aware of the IFAD projects.

Talking about women’s contributions to both the household economy and the national one, Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, Chairman of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation, a public-sector apex development body, told IPS in October last year that women’s contributions come from their participation both in formal and informal sectors, and even those, who work outside home in formal or informal sectors, also take care of household chores.

“If women’s household-level activities and their works in informal sectors are economically evaluated and added to the national income, Bangladesh may already be a middle-income country,” he added.

(Cover Photograph Four women’s groups from Mohalbari, Surail and Damoir villages in Northern Bangladesh participated in a two-day leadership and mobilization training in Dinajpur to spread the initiative of successful women-led cooperatives improving the livelihood of the rural poor. Among the 51 participants, most were landless women coming from Hindu, Muslim and indigenous communities. Credit: IFAD)

(Inter Press Service)