Social norms are developed and enforced by institutions that shape the values, roles, and interactions upheld within a society. In Bangladesh, many oppressive gender norms are upheld by patriarchal power structures, undermining the well-being of half our population: The girls.
Endemic discriminatory practices include child marriage, domestic violence, unfair inheritance laws, preference of boys over girls, skewed nutrition and decision-making patterns within families, sexual harassment, lack of security for girls, and the gender pay gap, just to mention a few.
Breaking unfair gender norms and promoting women’s empowerment should be a top priority for everyone.
Perhaps the government could develop a suitable framework for this objective within a gender policy that guides social protection programs and public private service providers to better serve women.
Family values shape practices
Unfortunately, much of our population holds on to traditional ideas about gender roles, so men have access to more opportunities to earn livelihoods than women.
Girls too could become confident, self reliant, participating members of the labour-force and politics, if family attitudes were supportive and did not discriminate between boys and girls for access to education, health, nutrition, skills, or labour-force participation.
As long as we have a clear vision of our dream and strategic goals to make it happen by 2021, we can create magic
To empower families to make pro-girl choices requires a transformation of values and practices that can be brought about through education. Social protection programs can promote courtyard sessions that build knowledge and partner with community leaders, religious leaders, police, teachers, media, and civil society to mobilise change.
The pen is more powerful
Media can break gender stereotypes. Social protection programs may link up with media houses to promote positive messages, build awareness around topics of human rights, domestic violence, gender equality, and financial inclusion.
Media houses should take more responsibility portraying women in roles of leadership. Journalists should be trained to support gender issues and performance indicators should be linked to this objective.
Media can also help disseminate information about social services, skills, income opportunities, and laws that support girls and women, perhaps linking with digital centres at unions to disseminate critical information.
Transformative financial practices
Financial inclusion of poor and vulnerable women combining credit with inputs like vocational training, business management skills, and financial literacy should go hand-in-hand with transfers from social protection programs.
Social protection programs should consider the benefits of delivering transfers through digital financial service providers and encourage beneficiaries to open bank accounts and begin saving.
New financial products that cater to the needs of women should be developed and marketed. Bangladesh Bank could require that banks develop performance indicators linked to the objective of better serving women.
Micro-credit was Bangladesh’s great invention of the 70s. It’s time for some fresh innovative practices that are as transformative as they are creative.
Public and private service providers
Public and private sector service providing agencies can help dismantle social norms by improving their delivery channels to include women’s access.
Social protection programs could link women beneficiaries to service providers to ensure that their multi-dimensional needs are met.
For example, working women require access to health, finance, and transportation. More bus drivers and bank tellers may be women. Women with assets need access to extension services from ministries of agriculture, fisheries, and livestock as well as inputs from the private sector.
Vocational training institutes
Government vocational training institutes have established a 20% quota for girl students, but often find it hard to attract girls to fill these spots. Social protection programs can connect their beneficiaries and their family members to such initiatives to help them graduate out of poverty and safety net dependency.
Training institutes have started to offer courses in non-traditional jobs for women, slowly paving the way towards equal labour force participation.
Training institutes should partner with private sector companies to ensure employment for trainees.
In the classroom
Education leads to increased confidence, knowledge, awareness, agency, decision-making power, and access to labour markets. The primary stipend program has helped keep girls in school.
However, there is no support after the secondary school stipend for adolescent girls. A program needs to be developed to address this gap.
The school curriculum should develop a positive image of girls. Teachers should be trained to offer equal assistance to girls and boys, to discourage any form of oppression.
Sexual harassment complaint boxes should be set up at all schools and children should be openly taught about how to use them. Open dialogue around violence at school can go a long way towards changing attitudes.
Zero tolerance of sexual harassment can help girls step outside homes.
At the local level
Local government institutions are responsible for ensuring vital registration for social protection entitlements, law and order, women’s development, citizen participation and much more, at the local level.
The attitude of the union chairman towards women often sets the tone for others, hence it is critical that they have a gender supportive attitude.
The government should provide training, tools, incentives to local government members and woman affairs officers to better serve women.
Government performance indicators already reflect certain gender empowerment goals.
Watchdog responsibilities may be given to the community itself to monitor activities.
To make Bangladesh a place that is equally amazing for girls and boys, everyone has a part to play. An overarching gender policy that guides the social protection programs serving our girls and women could be a helpful starting point.
As long as we have a clear vision of our dream and strategic goals to make it happen by 2021, we can create magic. Time and again, economists have said, it is not only a matter of budget. We have the resources. It is about our attitude and our social norms.
Change those and we will see some light.
Shazia Omar is a poverty activist, a writer, and a yogini. This article draws from the Social Protection Gender Diagnostic Prepared by Ferdousi Sultana Begum for the General Economics Division, Government of Bangladesh.