On a beautiful sunny day in the winter of 1983, I was in Savar in Bangladesh, visiting an income-generating project for the village women. The scene is sombre. I see a handful of saree-clad local women, with their heads covered, lined up.
They are standing with baskets and road construction equipment in their hands, their heads slightly down, their demeanour unhappy. An English woman approaches to introduce the group. Smiling, I greet the women in Bangla – the native language of Bangladesh. The women stand stiffly, do not look up to me. I try to converse- they show little sign of response.
People passing-by looked curiously, and some stood around staring at the women, making the women feel uncomfortable. After a few minutes, the women proceed unhappily towards the earthen road, which leads to the market, and they start digging. They would be paid at the end of the day for their work. Indeed, it is a new experience for me and the people walking by, seeing women in conservative societies like Bangladesh engaged in road construction work.
The women are daily wage earners in a project that hires destitute women in round-the-year rural road maintenance. Returning to Dhaka with a heavy heart and the unhappy faces of the women haunting me, I questioned the worth of a project that I thought pushed women against their will into jobs not accepted by society to be performed by women.
I got an answer after nine months when I revisited Savar. The day at this time of the year is hot and muggy. I see from the car window Saree-clad women with no veils covering their heads standing in groups, socializing with each other, drinking masala or sweet spiced tea popular in Bengal and some walking about to meet and greet the passers-by. This time, I am accompanied by Canada’s Deputy Minister of international development. Coming out of the car, I see the women hurriedly approaching, smiling and extending their arms to shake hands with their foreign visitor, an over six feet tall and hefty Anglo-Saxon male.
I recognize the faces of many of the women from my last visit. They look somewhat different this time, with happiness and mirth etched in their faces. I hear women chanting, “Speech! Speech!” As the Deputy Minister speaks, the women’s faces light up. They laugh and cheer as he congratulates them for their exceptional work year-round in maintaining rural earthen roads, making it easier for the rural communities to reach the market areas.
The meeting ends with the women demanding better quality road maintenance equipment, and they ask for a day’s paid holiday in honour of his visit. The Deputy Minister agreed while sipping sweet and spicy Bengal tea from a disposable terracotta cup amidst loud cheers from the women.
What is the lesson from this visit? I perceive a noticeable change – a change in the women’s conduct, bearing, demeanour, and actions, a visible difference from what I perceived in the first visit nine months ago. Women’s income generated this change, engendering self-confidence, independent spirit, and pride, enhancing women’s voices in society, promoting women’s empowerment in the simplest form. A difference is also noticeable in the rural community’s attitude towards these women maintaining the farm-to-market roadways. Women construction workers are no longer objects of curiosity. They are valued income earners and delivering a critical resource – roads- for rural families to reach the destinations to market their produce. Such changes have been the moving force promoting progress in women’s rights and gender equality in Bangladesh.
For this year’s feature article on International Women’s Day (March 8th), I focus on ultra-poor women’s voices from Bangladesh villages and urban slums, empowered with income, community support, and social presence, the elements addressing the social and economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.
The World Economic Forum’s Report of 2020 gives Bangladesh the top rank amongst the South Asian countries and the 50th position globally in closing the gender gap in pursuit of gender equality- a sustainable Development Goal. The empowerment strategies applied to galvanize women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh are novel, focused on poverty-stricken rural areas and urban slums leveraging women’s role by employing and engaging them mostly in professions reserved for men alone. The income earned and the socialization process to which women are exposed have proved to be game-changers. Rural women who once were not seen outside of their homes have come out, filling the village streets and meeting compatriots from other villages. The socialization process ensued, engenders a sense of camaraderie and solidarity amongst working women strengthening women’s voices.
The women who once had no say in family affairs now plan the expenses and manage the family income. They speak of how their incomes help keep their families out of poverty, healthy and educated with pride. This voice is heard by the community members who recognize and respect the dignity of labour. Radical results have been achieved in changing rural women’s lives once marginalized by the Bengali society’s patriarchal structure and social norms.
Instances abound of grassroots rural women voicing their miraculous success stories to elevate themselves and their families once immersed in extreme poverty.
Catch the follow up to this special article on 🌐 CIPS Blog, tomorrow.