From sports to politics, from businesses to the armed forces, the women of Bangladesh are shattering glass ceilings left and right. They are at the forefront of a new, emerging and confident Bangladesh. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Bangladesh is now the second most gender equal country in Asia, tops South Asia in gender equality and ranks 47th among 144 countries of the world in the Global Gender Gap Index.
But the journey has not been smooth or easy for the women. From social taboos, to conservative attitudes, they had to face a number of obstacles to arrive where they are today. They did however, have a strong and determined ally by their side: Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina.
Women's empowerment is one of the ten 'Special Initiatives' of the Bangladesh prime minister, the progress of which she oversees herself. Since 2009, she has been undertaking a number of far-reaching and wide-ranging measures to ensure the holistic empowerment of women.
In 2011, Sheikh Hasina formulated and adopted the progressive and comprehensive 'National Women Development Policy'. This provided, for the first time, an exhaustive list of goals to socially, economically, politically and legally empower the women of Bangladesh. The policy received a lot of backlash, often of the violent kind, from the zealots and extremists who stand against women's empowerment. But Sheikh Hasina was not to be intimidated.
This struggle was acknowledged by the prestigious Fortune magazine, when in 2016, they ranked Hasina as No. 10 among their list of world's greatest leaders, saying: "As the only female leader among the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states, Hasina has deftly navigated the competing demands of Islamic tradition and women's rights. She has committed Bangladesh, the nation with the world's fourth-largest Muslim population, to securing legal protections for women and helping them attain more education, financial freedom, and political power".
Education has been key to empowering women foundationally in the last 10 years. Hasina saw education not only as a means of providing women skills for challenges such as employability but also to tackle social risks such as domestic abuse, child and early marriages, etc.
She has invested heavily in girls' education in the form of tuition free education up to degree level, extended stipends coverage, scholarships, free meals, free books and separate toilet facilities for girl students. Having female teachers has also helped and now 60 percent of all primary school teachers in Bangladesh are women now.
These have resulted in astonishing successes. Gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary education. The overall enrolment of girls in primary education rose from 57 percent in 2008 to 96 percent in 2017. Fifty-one percent of students in primary schools and 53 percent students in secondary schools are girls. In many schools, girls now outnumber boys. In ten years, the dropout rate for girls has been slashed by around 10 percent. In eight years, the enrolment of girls in technical education increased by a staggering 44 percent. [See: Education Scenario in Bangladesh: Gender perspective, February 2017, BBS, UCEP and Diakonia; BANBEIS Educational Database]
In an interview for "Global: The International Briefing" (February 2015), Hasina stated her goal of ensuring financial freedom and economic empowerment of women. She said: "If a woman can earn money, she automatically has a voice in the family and a stake in society". As a result of this emphasis, women's participation in the formal labour force has been increasing steadily in Bangladesh under Hasina's leadership.
Women's labour force participation rate increased from 29.2 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2017, which is higher than the South Asian average. More than 2.3 million women have entered the labour force in the last seven years. The number of women who work increased to 18.6 million in 2016-17 from 16.2 million in 2010. [See: Bangladesh Labour Force Survey 2016-17, BBS]
Currently over four million women are working in the Ready-made Garment (RMG) sector, the country's main foreign currency earner, the minimum wage of which was recently increased to TK 8,000 per month, up from Tk 3,000 in 2010.
Women's participation in agricultural production has also increased under the current government as a result of easy access to agricultural technologies and loans given for agro-processing, homestead gardening, nurseries, bee-keeping and other activities. Forty-three percent of rural women now contribute to fisheries-related activities. Furthermore, women now make up more than 60 percent of the fish farmers in Bangladesh.
Development of entrepreneurship among women is also a priority for the Sheikh Hasina Government. Women are now getting loans at discounted rate of 10 percent interest and 15 percent refinance fund is reserved for them. Women entrepreneurs are entitled to 10 percent of the SME fund and 10 percent industrial plots. In 2017, total 54,000 women entrepreneurs received $600 million (Tk 47 billion) as SMEs fund. Joyeeta Foundation (a government initiative) is providing support to 18,000 women entrepreneurs. In the 2018-19 FY, the Awami League government has allocated Tk 1 billion for the Women Entrepreneurship Fund. [See: Finance minister's 2018-19 Budget Speech; prime minister's answer to Nurjahan Begum MP's question in National Parliament on July 11, 2018].
Budgetary support for women's development has been transformed in the last 10 years. Bangladesh saw the highest allocation in its history for women development in the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, with $16.3 billion. This is 5.43 percent of our GDP and 29.65 percent of the total budget. A further Tk 250 million has been allocated for the 'Women Development Special Fund' for the advancement of women. [See: "Budget FY19: 29.65% for women's development", Dhaka Tribune, June 8, 2018].
From the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Awami League government introduced the gender budget, involving 43 ministries and divisions, and every year, the allocation has been steadily increased.
Bangladesh has also done exceptionally well in enhancing women's political empowerment over the last ten years. The WEF has ranked Bangladesh seventh among 155 countries in terms of political empowerment of women. In 2011, the Sheikh Hasina Government increased the number of women's reserved seats in Parliament to 50 from 45. Current Bangladesh parliament has 73 women members, which is 20 percent of the total MPs. At present, the leader of the House, the deputy leader of the House, the leader of the Opposition, the Speaker, all are women.
There is now direct election to reserved seats for women in local government elections and a post of female vice-chairman for each Upazila (sub-division) has been introduced. As a result, over 12,500 elected female representatives are now working in different tiers of local governance.
More women are working in senior positions in the administration, judiciary, police, armed forces etc. than at any time before. Our women are also doing really well in sports, including cricket, football, swimming, shooting, athletics etc. often overshadowing their male colleagues in successes achieved in recent times.
Not only are the women of Bangladesh getting better opportunities in life as a result of Sheikh Hasina's policies, but also living healthier and safer lives. To tackle violence against women, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act was enacted in 2010, which was the first recognition of the problem of domestic violence in Bangladesh. Other efforts to prevent violence against women include the 24/7 National Helpline for Violence Against Women, Divisional One Stop Crisis Centers and Trauma Counseling Centers. The recently amended Child Marriage Control Act stipulates strict punishments for marriage of girls below the age of 18.
Women now get six months' paid maternity leave. Maternal mortality ratio has decreased from 242 in 2010 to 176 in 2016 with an average annual reduction of 4.7 percent. Over 80 percent service takers in the over 16,000 community clinics nationwide, a signature project of Sheikh Hasina, are women and children. Additionally, the Sheikh Hasina Government has set up 13,000 maternity centers, 30,000 satellite clinics for child and maternal healthcare and 150,000 women are receiving healthcare support under the Maternal Health Voucher Scheme, among other more general healthcare. [See: "Journey to SDGs 2030 for Health", Bureau of Health Education, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2017]
Over the years, the development and empowerment of women in Bangladesh under Hasina's watchful leadership has been noticed and recognised by the international community too. She was bestowed with the Global Women's Leadership Award in Sydney this year for her outstanding leadership in advancing women's education and entrepreneurship.
In 2016, she won the UN Women's 'Planet 50-50' Champion and Global Partnership Forum's "Agent of Change" awards for her role in empowering women. Earlier in 2014, her Government won the WIP Global Forum Award for women's political empowerment and in the same year UNESCO awarded her with a 'Tree of Peace' for her role in girls' education.
Empowering women is much more than a policy for Hasina. It is at the core of her political ideology. It is part of her political vision for Bangladesh and beyond. An enunciation of this can be found in her statement made at the Commonwealth Women's Forum in London in April 2018, where she stated: "We want to build a future where world peace and women empowerment remain the cornerstone to create a society free from poverty, discrimination and conflict".
She genuinely believes that women empowerment is the answer to many of society's problems. This sincerity is the reason why even under pressure, she has stood by the principle. That is what makes her the most genuine ally for the women in the political arena of Bangladesh.