Rokia Afzal Rahman, president of Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE), believes microfinance can work wonders in jumpstarting changes to women's lives and the economic health of their respective countries.
From her own experiences in Bangladesh, she found that income empowered women to tell men, their families, their communities and their country what they want. This also brought improvement in women’s status and key cultural change to Bangladesh, she said.
“When I joined a bank, my father was asked why he allowed his daughter to work. Now, fathers would be asked if their daughters do not work,” she told the World Economic Forum panel discussion on “Asian Women the Way Forward”. Joining her were Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Helene D Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA, and Jon Fredrik Baksaas, president and CEO of Telenor Group.
“About 30-40 years ago, there were no women on the streets. Now, they are everywhere,” Rahman added.
Rahman started her career in a commercial bank in 1962 when very few women worked in banks all over the world. She became the first woman bank manager of the country in 1964. She later became a sponsor director in Midas Financing Ltd, through which she introduced micro-financing programmes for women.
To name a few, she was behind the “Women 2 women” support programme, designed to develop potential women entrepreneurs. In this programme, a new entrepreneur is matched with an existing woman entrepreneur for one year, and during the period all kinds of support in designing, quality control and marketing are promised. After one year of the support programme, she is facilitated to borrow on her own. In 1994, she founded the first Women Entrepreneurs Association in Bangladesh and two years later she formed the Women In Small Enterprises to further promote women in small enterprises and industries. Both organisations work together in empowering women through entrepreneurship development. The Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs was launched in 2006, and now works with 5 million women mostly living in rural areas.
These women receive training and can borrow up to 1 million taka (Bt400,000). The interest at 20 per cent per annum seems high, but Rahman said “it’s still better than the 80-100 per cent charged by loan sharks if they borrow it from the market.”
Rahman was pleased with the changes that the programme has brought about. Decades ago, Bangladeshi women were not allowed to leave house and given no access to education. Their only role was to feed children.
“We have proved that with little money, they can change their lives,” she said, adding that the benefits would also be shared by her families and communities. As women invest 100 per cent of income in families, women gain respect from family members and communities.
The UN Development Programme and others estimate that as many as 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women. It is estimated that women worldwide account for two-thirds of all working hours and produce half the food, but earn just 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property.
The panelists agreed that numerous studies have shown that empowering women can have a multiplier effect on communities – improving health, raising literacy rates and reducing extreme poverty to a greater extent that conventional development initiatives.
Gayle of the humanitarian organisation CARE USA said that supporting women is beneficial to society, as women with better education and health will have fewer children and their children are in better health and condition. A programme to empower women results in a two-fold cut in malnutrition in children, she said.
“If we invest in women, there will be a huge ripple effect to society,” she said, adding that these women tend to think for themselves when to get married.
Empowering women is also considered a way to erase gender inequality, believed to contribute to slow economic growth in some economies.
Aung San Suu Kyi, chairman of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and Member of Parliament of Kawhmu constituency, asked: “Why are we not allowed to contribute? I think that women can contribute in every way, but we are not allowed to. It’s not economic development that brings about a narrowing of the gap. It’s obviously cultural values. And I think these are what we have to address if we want to find out why we are not allowed to make the contributions of which we are capable.”
In Myanmar, for example, women play a visible and vital role in the nation’s economy. However, this inclusion is not extended to politics. Politics remains a realm in which discrimination persists, and women are often reluctant to seek leadership roles.
Given the persisting gender gap in the region, initiatives to “jumpstart” women’s inclusion are essential. Specialised programmes – such as political quotas for women in parliaments, affirmative action in education and incentives to encourage families to keep their daughters in school – can make great strides towards changing cultures and reducing gender inequality.