Re-writing the Future: Celebrating women leadership in the urban slums of Bangladesh

Khadija Begum—an independent woman from an extremely poor family living in the urban slums of Gopalgonj—took over her new leadership role as a Councilor for Gopalganj Pourashava.  Khadija is the women in the middle wearing a grey scarf.Khadija Begum—an independent woman from an extremely poor family living in the urban slums of Gopalgonj—took over her new leadership role as a Councilor for Gopalganj Pourashava. Khadija is the women in the middle wearing a grey scarf.

“I am very excited that the people trusted me with community leadership! I am now working for the poor to prove myself worthy of their trust. I am focusing on key challenges in my community, such as eliminating violence against women, preventing early marriages, supporting disabilities and promoting children’s education. I am also a member of the Women Development Committee and I believe that unity among women can turn all challenges into opportunities.”

Khadija succeeded over adversity through her hard work and determination. Key to realizing her potential was the availability of the right kind of support. Starting out as an extremely poor woman living in an urban slum that afforded no jobs or opportunities, she is now an elected councilor working to improve lives in the community and helping women and girls overcome poverty- and gender-based challenges in Bangladesh. 

 “I always wanted to become a leader, but I didn’t know how. Before joining the programme (Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction), I was only a labourer with a seven-year-old disabled daughter. There was no platform for my voice to be heard. My husband and I worked as cooks in the Bangabandhu college canteen to support the family. However, our daily earnings were not enough to support our family. As an extreme poor household member, I was provided sanitation, footpath, drainage, latrine and tube-well support under the Settlement Improvement Fund of the programme. This programme also helped me to gradually gain leadership skills. This programme gave me the opportunity to speak and be heard and the skills and confidence to do more for my community. And in order to do more, I decided to run for the local elections. 

With the support of the local community and the leadership skills gained from the programme, I have become a leader. I work towards shaping a society free from poverty, hunger, discrimination and violence against woman and to become a role model for discouraged women in poverty.”

Khadija’s story is similar to that of many extremely poor women in Bangladesh who are rising above challenges despite limited opportunities. These women are working to lift every member of their community out of poverty. Impoverished women who have typically been pushed to the background of most conversations are now embracing the chance to express their opinions and collaborate on ideas for poverty reduction and community development. 

UNDP, in partnership with the Local Government Division and UKaid in Bangladesh, has been working to support women like Khadija, focusing not only on jobs and livelihoods, but also on women’s leadership. Since 2011, the programme has supported 83 community development committee leaders’ participation in local elections; 32 percent of them have won elections. Through the programme, poor women in urban slums across 23 cities and towns have joined Community Development Committees and Federations to make their voices heard and to address concerns about their communities. 

These Committees have established a powerful platform for the voices of the urban poor; elected women lead 90 percent of the Committees. The Committees are also supporting the establishment of job opportunities, market linkages through skills training, savings and credit schemes and partnerships with the private sector. In recognition of the important roles of these community organizations, the local government institutionalized them (including by providing office space). 

Women in these leadership positions have gained economic freedoms and high levels of empowerment, as evidenced by a series of studies. In addition, they have pioneered innovative self-sustaining schemes such as community housing development funds. Women’s leadership in poverty-alleviating schemes and organizational activities, coupled with training and apprenticeship grants for women, have been noted as key success factors for increasing women’s empowerment.

Women in Bangladesh need an opportunity to make a difference; with this they can rise above all challenges. Having more women like Khadija become empowered will have a long-lasting impacts on families and communities throughout Bangladesh. 

Despite progress, however, more needs to be done to support their leadership. There are significant gaps at all levels in the public and private sphere. Women make up only 20 percent of representatives in the Bangladesh national parliament and women lead only 1 percent of information and communications technology companies. Women’s participation is affected by limited resources, assets and opportunities, especially compared to men. For example, women’s land ownership in Bangladesh is estimated to be around 2 percent. According to the World Bank, only 25 percent of women have an account at a formal financial institution. It is not surprising, then, that women account for only 8 percent of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Further, women’s labour force participation rates are less than half of men’s. 

Having more women in leadership positions will contribute to increased productivity and will support Bangladesh to advance its middle-income country trajectory. A February 2016 global study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics showed that having women in corporate leadership leads to increased profitability. Another study from McKinsey highlights that if women participate in the economy identically as men, this could add up to $28 trillion (26%) of global growth by 2025. Such a development goal is truly feasible for Bangladesh—as long as women are economically and socially empowered to contribute their full potential to this great national objective.

The International Women’s Day 2016 theme is ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030.’ As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us unite to promote women’s leadership.

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