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Digitization: The great equalizer for women?

  • Published at 08:28 pm March 17th, 2020
Rural Women
Digitization is accelerating women empowerment in Bangladesh SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Equity must manifest itself in women’s economic empowerment

There is no denying the impact digitization has made on the lives of millions of Bangladeshis. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s words uttered in 1974 in front of world leaders at the 29th UN General Assembly still ring amazingly true today after more than four decades: 

“We will look to a world where humanity is capable of great success in the era of astounding advances in science and technology … by the equitable distribution of all the resources and technical knowledge of the world, the door to such welfare will be opened where every person will have the minimum guarantee of a happy and respectable life.” 

He hoped to see “astounding advances in science and technology” creating “equitable distribution.” This welfare philosophy is powerfully reflected in the Digital Bangladesh 2021 clarion call of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has led to the remarkable progress of Digital Bangladesh, focused on taking services to citizens’ doorsteps, being implemented with direct guidance of the ICT Advisor Sajeeb Wazed Joy.

Digitization is accelerating the forward march of women empowerment in Bangladesh.

Salma and Nasima

The year is 2009 and Salma has just completed her HSC exams from Patuakhali. Salma is a bright student, and her results mean she is eligible to apply to the major public universities in Bangladesh.

There remain roadblocks in Salma’s way. Salma wants to apply to public universities in Rajshahi, Chittagong, Dhaka, and Sylhet. However, in order to merely apply, she must travel to each of these destinations physically, collect the application form, fill them, attach her picture, and then once again travel to each of the destinations to submit the completed form with the application fee as a bank draft. 

As if that isn’t challenging enough, Salma’s parents are not going to allow a young girl like her to travel across the country on her own. She must be accompanied by a male adult.

Salma has heard murmurs of Digital Bangladesh, but sees no real solutions to help her with her predicament. As far as she can see, it appears to be an impossible task for her to apply to all four of these universities within the deadlines.

Fast forward to 2011, and Salma’s younger sister Nasima too has done well in her HSC exams, and intends to apply to several public universities. 

However, unlike Salma, Nasima is able to apply to each of these universities through just a simple SMS sent from her phone. This is because all the information that the universities could have required are being extracted from the digital databases of the school boards -- a2i and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology developed the system for one university and expanded it to all public universities.

The above true story is just a glimpse of the power of digitization, and the sheer magnitude of its potential impact. A gruelling journey across four different parts of the country, twice over, all the travels, the long waits, all of it -- replaced with just four simple text messages.

A transformation made in just two years. Costs reduced from thousands of taka to a few taka, time reduced from days of travel to almost zero, and visits literally reduced to zero. And the best part of it all, no need to “find” a male adult to accompany her in the college application journeys. 

The ability to apply to public universities digitally increased the number of young women applying to public universities and opened up their choices tremendously.

Asma

It is Friday, July 12, 2019. Asma, a 15-year old girl and a student of Class X of Balithura Dakhil Madrasa of Syednagar village of Chandpur, wakes up early morning to help her mother with household chores, especially because her father would go to the market early before the Jumma prayers. She quickly realizes there is something different about the day.

Today, she is not required to work at all. Instead, her mother is unusually nice to her and tells her to get dressed. She is given a bright red sari and fake gold jewelry. A bit confused at first, she suddenly realizes what is happening -- she is being married off right after the Jumma prayers.

Her entire world comes crashing down. She wants to run off but cannot muster the courage. Where will she go? Who will give her shelter and sustenance, and ensure her education? There is a good chance her madrasa will turn her away.

Asma remembers the advertisement on TV for the national helpline 333 but has not thought of it until now. Desperate and hysterical, she manages to find her father’s mobile phone and call the number.

To her utter surprise, the call is immediately forwarded to the Upazila Nirbahi Officer Mamota Afrin, who shows up at her house within the hour. Her marriage is stopped. A mobile court fines Asma’s father Tk 30,000 and takes a written undertaking to not marry her off till she is 18.

The number 333 has stopped over 4,000 child marriages in the last two years.

Rima

Rima’s story has a similar arc to many women in our country. Despite harbouring ambitions and dreams for herself from when she was still a student -- she used to tutor children to earn more money for herself and her family -- the path has not been easy, to say the least. 

She was almost a victim of child marriage, but her strong personality and sense of justice gave her the strength to oppose her parents, whilst promising herself that she would be self-dependent, a dream that would lead her to try her hand at entrepreneurship. Her journey started at the Union Digital Centre in Bajitpur. 

The early days were extremely difficult -- the monthly income was low and uncertain at best. The people around her were not welcoming of the idea of a female entrepreneur. They would bad mouth her and her family, even threatening her younger brother. 

For a young woman such as Rima, these words hurt deeply but failed to dampen her indomitable spirit. Her income gradually rose as did the respect she garnered from her community.

She is now the go-to person for digitally accessing a host of government services such as birth registration, land records, and passports. At the same time, her brilliant entrepreneurial spirit enabled her to become a bank agent and double her monthly income.

The newest feather in her entrepreneurial cap is e-Commerce through EkShop for which she has employed several women who develop handicrafts for her to sell to Dhaka and other metropolitan areas.

Digital Bangladesh has turned the tide for Rima. She has been able to transform her life, contribute to her family, and become a self-dependent woman, all because of the presence of the Union Digital Centre in her locality. Those who acted as obstacles in her journey now request her for jobs. She earned her nickname “Digital Apa.”

There are thousands of Digital Apas across the country, one in almost every Union Digital Centre. These Digital Centres have dispensed 430 million services in the last ten years.

Sarbati

Sarbati is a 90-year-old widow who relies on her allowance of Tk500 per month. Every three months, she has to pick up the cash allowance at a bank branch about 10 km from her village home, costing her no less than Tk120 in conveyance fees. She considers standing in queue at the bank counter for hours, soaking rain or scorching sun, as her usual fate. 

At times, when she feels too weak to travel on her own, she takes the neighbour’s son with her, but that doubles the conveyance fees. The year is 2016 and she has done this for as long as she can remember.

At the end of 2018, she is able to open a bank account with Bank Asia, which has just established an agent banking branch in her nearest Union Digital Centre and she just has to visit the agent to collect her money.

a2i developed the system first for the Department of Social Services and is expanding it to all government agencies delivering social safety net payments in cash. No more conveyance fees and no more long waiting hours. Above all, as a widow, and at 90 years of age, she finally gets a taste of empowerment, being able to withdraw her money herself, safely and without assistance -- no one can take that away from her.

There are now 120,000 women like Sarbati who receive old age allowance, widow allowance, disability allowance, and lactating mother allowance, and another 12 million mothers who receive the stipend for their primary school-going children digitally. 

Empowerment: Yes. Equality: No.

The mobilization of the “active agency of women,” as Professor Amartya Sen terms it, has been a distinctive feature of the vision that has moved Bangladesh forward. Public services, including school teaching, health care, and family planning, employ a much higher proportion of women workers than is the case in most developing economies, including in Bangladesh’s neighbouring countries. 

Women have entered the economic workforce in plentiful numbers, led by such industries as ready-made garments. Recent trends show more women have entered the labour force than men.

Digitization has surely proven to be a great enabler in the society, allowing much leap-frogging for individuals, organizations and nations. No doubt it has enabled women’s empowerment in unprecedented ways.

However, despite digitization’s contribution to women empowerment, the question must be asked: Has it enabled equitable growth for women?

Between 2014 and 2017, financial inclusion amongst the entire population rose from 31% to 50%. This appears to be fantastic progress -- close to 20% increase in such a short time cannot be termed as anything but remarkable, surely?

A deeper dive, however, shows a slightly different picture. While the increase in financial inclusion cannot be disputed, and while both men and women have benefited from it, men have seen their financial inclusion jump from 35% to 65% during this time, women have seen an increase from 26% to only 36%.

So, digitization has increased the gender divide in financial inclusion from about 10% to 30%.

How did this happen? One reason is that financial inclusion in Bangladesh rose mostly on the backs of mobile financial services, and gender divide in mobile ownership in the country remains quite wide: 86% men own mobile phones while only 61% women own mobile phones.

Another major reason that came up in the November 2019 Digital Wages Summit in Dhaka organized by a2i, Better than Cash Alliance, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was that financial products such as savings and credits were not designed with women’s needs in mind. 

This greatly surprised the men in the audience. And guess who designed the financial products? Men, of course. Were women consulted? Of course not.

Miles to go …

Design is a deliberate choice. Digital Bangladesh 2021 has been designed with a bottom-up philosophy, with the first focus on union parishads. That is why the Digital Centres were established as one-stop service centers in all 4,500+ union parishads in 2010 with municipalities and city corporations flaunting them not until 2015. 

That is why the digitization of services saved Tk 70,000 crore and 200 crore work days, and eliminated 100 crore visits for mostly rural citizens and not urban ones.

If Digital Bangladesh was designed with a trickle-down approach, chances are that the benefits would have taken far longer to trickle down to rural areas, or possibly may not have made it at all.

So, it is affirmative action in favour of rural areas that has made all the difference in the lives of the underserved in Bangladesh. And that is why the term “digital divide” is not heard as much in the context of Digital Bangladesh and heard much more in the contexts of digital journeys of many other developing countries.

Nasima, Asma, Rima, and Sarbati have benefited from digitization more because they live in rural areas and less so because they are women.

 An equally focused affirmative action must be made to ensure gender equity for an Innovative Bangladesh 2041. Bangladesh is well on its way to becoming a prosperous nation. However, our national aspiration, inspired by the father of the nation, is not just to become a prosperous country, but also an equitable one. 

Bangabandhu realized that women’s empowerment was necessary but not sufficient for national development. Equity is critical. Men and women must be equal partners in development. And that is why he ensured his groundbreaking and far-sighted philosophy in the country’s constitution: 

“The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between men and women and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic. The State shall endeavour to ensure equality of opportunity and participation of women in all spheres of national life.”

That equity must manifest itself in women’s economic empowerment, inclusion in formal economy, participation in scientific, technological, and medical professions, skills development for the fourth industrial revolution, leadership roles in public and private sectors and in the parliament, property rights, and fertility preferences.

“Digital” will cease to be a meaningful word as Generation Z takes over leadership roles in society in a few years because there will be nothing non-digital. Instead of waiting until then, we must prepare ourselves now to define Innovative Bangladesh for the year 2041, prosperous and equitable.

Anir Chowdhury is a US tech entrepreneur turned Bangladeshi government entrepreneur serving as the Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.

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