While covid-19 is undoubtedly at its heart a health crisis, in the broad scheme of things, it is a tripartite issue-health, economic, and social. Various studies, including by WHO and OECD, have shown that women are more affected by Covid-19 in terms of increased burden of unpaid care work, domestic violence, job loss, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health care services, restricted mobility in the public sphere, etc. Women are also in inferior positions in the labour market on average, and therefore more likely to bear the brunt of the economic fallout.

The Pre-Covid State of Gender Equality in Bangladesh

Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh had made significant progress on several indicators in terms of gender parity. The ‘Global Gender Gap 2020’ report shows that Bangladesh was the top ranked country in South Asia in terms of narrowing the gender gap (as shown in Figure 1). According to the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh could close 72.6% of the gender gap.  This progress is mainly attributable to free tuition for girls, and reduction of maternal mortality which came down to 172 per 100,000 births in 2018, compared to 574 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990. The country has also developed a National Women’s Development Policy in 1997, and enacted various laws aimed at reducing violence against women, such as the Domestic Violence Act 2010, and put in place gender responsive budgeting showing the share of allocation for women development in the budget of various ministries/divisions of the government.

Fig 1: Global Gender Gap 2020 Rankings for South Asia

  2020 2018 change
Bangladesh 50 48 2
Nepal 101 105 4
Sri Lanka 102 100 2
India 112 118 4
Maldives 123 113 10
Bhutan 131 122 9
Pakistan 151 148 3

Source: World Economic Forum

A 2020 Rapid Gender Analysis by UN Women in Bangladesh states that despite these achievements, even before the onset of Covid-19, vulnerabilities remained. Child marriage rates are still high, while school dropout rates are higher for girls. As of 2017, women’s labour force participation is only 36.3%, and the figure has not increased in a decade (although it is much improved from the figure of 8% in the 1980s); 91.8% of working women are in the informal sector (with more than half working in low-end agriculture), and the capacity to handle cases relating to violence against women remains low. The report also brings to light the disparity between men and women in matters such as divorce and inheritance which points to another significant vulnerability of women.

How Women Have Been Affected in Bangladesh

Informal and Formal Sector: 91.8% of workers in the informal sector in Bangladesh are women. Domestic workers (the great majority of whom are women) as well as day labourers, cleaners, etc. have lost their means of earning a living. In the formal sector, Covid-19 has also had adverse effects in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector in the face of cancelled and suspended orders to the tune of billions of dollars. According to a note by the World Trade Organization (WTO), as of August 2020, up to 1 million workers have already been dismissed or furloughed due to cancellation of future work orders and refusal to pay for current orders. With 80% of the RMG workforce being women, the downturn in the sector and the subsequent loss of jobs has affected women to a much greater extent.

Unpaid Care Sectors:  Women also do the great majority of unpaid care work. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Gender Statistics 2018, women did on average 3.43 times as much unpaid care work as men, and the closure of schools and having everyone staying at home has increased the amount of unpaid care work that has to be provided by women even more. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, women already spend as much as 6.2 hours a day in unpaid domestic work. A rapid assessment study by BRAC’s Gender, Diversity, and Justice program found that of the women interviewed, 91% reported having to do higher amounts of unpaid care work during the covid-19 period, and 89% reported having no leisure time at all. Women are also being forced to give birth at home, risking maternal and infant health, and extra work can also potentially have a negative impact on women’s mental health.

Violence against Women: Violence against women (VAW) has also been on the rise in Bangladesh amidst the pandemic (similar to what has been happening in other countries). According to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), from January to June 2020, there were 601 cases of rape (increasing from 76 in April to 94 in May and 174 in June), 107 deaths of women due to domestic abuse, and 103 sexual abuse cases leading to 9 suicides. It is also very likely that the number of cases are actually much higher owing to women’s restricted mobility in the lockdown, which means many women may not be able to report such cases of violence.   Another study by Bangladesh Peace Observatory in Dhaka University showed a 10 percent increase in dowry and domestic-related violence between March 26 and May 31 (72 days) compared to the previous 72 days.  Data from BRAC (table 1) also corroborates the issue of increased violence against women. According to data from BRAC’s 408 legal aid clinics in the same period last year, the number of violent incidents against women has increased by 69 percent. Table 1 below shows the percentage changes in different types of violence (including against women).

Table 1: Types of Violence Against Women (2019 and 2020 Comparison)

 

2019

2020

 

Type of Violence

March

April

Total

March

April

Total

Change (%)

Human Right Violations

111

228

339

215

363

578

71%

Violence against Women and Children

97

198

295

178

268

446

51%

Violence Against Women and Girls

93

162

259

172

259

431

69%

Source: BRAC

Gender Disaggregated Analysis for Bangladesh

Fig 2: Gender Disaggregated Data on Problems Faced During Covid-19 in Bangladesh

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey 2020

Figure 2 shows that (according to a rapid survey by UN Women’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau in April 2020) more women in Bangladesh are having to experience significantly longer wait times for medical care and greater difficulty for accessing medical supplies. Covid-19, being a socio-economic crisis as well, has hit Bangladesh’s informal sectors hard as well. The UN Women survey also shows that while the gender gap in terms of job losses and reduced hours is small in the informal sector, it has affected women hugely disproportionately in the formal sector. As figure 3 shows, according to the survey, work hours have decreased six times more for women.

Fig 3: Gender-disaggregated data for Bangladesh: Loss of Jobs and Reduced Working Hours

Source: UN Women

The survey also showed that unpaid domestic work increased for 58% of the women surveyed, while unpaid care work increased for 56% of women surveyed. According to an UNU-WIDER article, in terms of the labour market, the school closures and limited access to childcare (or lack of it) as a result of covid-19 might force even more women in Bangladesh to drop out completely from the labour market. On a related note, the proportion of women in Bangladesh who reported increases in various kinds of support (e.g. help from family and friends, government support, etc.) was significantly less for women compared to men, as Figure 4 shows.

Fig 4: Percentage of people who noted increase in support since start of Covid-19 in Bangladesh

Source: UN Women

International Comparison with Other Countries

Fig 5: % of women able to access Covid-19 related information

Source: UN Women

Figures 5 and 6 show that when compared to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Bangladesh lags behind when it comes to the proportion of women who have access to information related to Covid-19, as well as in terms if seeking medical care. Among the countries surveyed, Samoa has the highest percentage of women able to access Covid-19 related information (although it must be kept in mind that Samoa is a very small economy with a low population) and Bangladesh has the lowest by quite a significant margin (see Fig 5). In terms of percentage of women unable to seek medical care, only Phillipines had a higher percentage (66%) compared to Bangladesh (61%). This shows that there is an overriding need to have much better access to information and also availability of facilities in Bangladesh to raise the country’s profile in the region.

Fig 6: % of women unable to seek medical care

Source: UN Women

Additional Factors to Consider

The government has announced an allocation of 5% of the Tk. 20,000 crore SME stimulus package for women entrepreneurs. The government has also taken steps to incorporate more women in social safety net programs such as old age allowance and widow allowance. However, access to finance has been an issue. Even though the central bank has issued guidelines to extend credit facilities to women entrepreneurs, many women are not getting the loans- the key barriers being collateral requirements and mind-set of bankers towards women entrepreneurs. The majority of women start their business with help from family or their own savings. They do not have enough assets to show as collateral to banks. This has historically been a problem, so there is a high risk of women losing their businesses.

Going Forward

The government needs to prioritize policies that create more employment opportunities for women. Since many women might lack required documentation to qualify for the incentives announced by the government, several policy decisions are extremely critical which may include relaxation of formal documentation loans at reduced and flexible interest rates for female entrepreneurs. In this regard, National Women Chambers and SME Foundation may come in and act as guarantors for women entrepreneurs when required. Training facilities that allow females to upskill effectively will also be very important in the face of the fourth industrial revolution- this could be in the form of capacity building, entrepreneurship development training (especially in IT), etc.

Going forward, there is a need for more gender-targeted policymaking to reduce the effects of such shocks on women and girls, and give them better protection in the labour market and at home, and also a need for dedicated investment for young and adolescent girls. There should be better mechanisms for collecting gender-disaggregated data, and ensuring better access to information for women in Bangladesh, especially in light of Covid-19. Better protection should be put in place for those suffering from the increased violence and abuse in terms of services and information available.  (counselling, medical, etc.). From a public sector point of view, the 10 percent employment quota reserved for women remains largely unfulfilled. The qualification and criterion for female employment could be relaxed, with special emphasis for indigenous women. Furthermore, in a sector such as RMG, some quota may be given for women for technical level jobs. Government support to women doing essential can also be considered in the form of public childcare or promotion of flexible work schedules, as well as direct financial support. Men also need to be sensitized in terms of doing more unpaid care work, and initiatives need to be taken to work with men to end gender based violence instead of focussing such policies and programs only around women. Furthermore, there is a desperate need for more programs around mental well-being for both women and men. Perhaps most importantly, interventions should take into cognizance the needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups of women (transgender, sex workers, etc.).

Covid-19 has affected women in Bangladesh adversely in terms of labour market participation, reduced earnings, facing greater violence, and thus put their livelihoods at greater risk. It is high time that we acknowledge the significant snowball effects of these problems in Bangladesh and take pragmatic steps to resolve them earnestly.

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