We all have perceptions, especially when travelling. Our opinions of them are formed from experiences people have shared with us, articles we have read and the people from those countries who we have met. In London, Brussels, Rome and Paris, you cannot move far without meeting a Bangladeshi national in search of new horizons. Sadly very often they end up working in a restaurant kitchen or selling roses on the streets. My expectations of Bangladesh were of something busier, dirtier and more chaotic than Delhi. I was so wrong!
I was visiting Dhaka as part of a delegation comprising parliamentarians and civil society representatives from Europe, with a special invitation to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. For all of us, it was our first trip to the country, and to the capital.
A strong feminist and advocate for women’s rights, I was really happy to see so many women, with and without headscarves, working at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka at all levels. At the hotel too, staff were a mix of both genders, most without headscarves in very smart uniforms, looking very modern. Member of the European Parliament Christelle Lechevalier said “a workforce that comprises of a large number of women is an indication of a social order that is inherently safe for women, and in which the gender divide is limited.” It is therefore no wonder the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index for 2018 has placed Bangladesh at the 47th position, making it the 2nd most “gender equal” country in Asia, just behind the Philippines.
Without doubt, we were all charmed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, especially when she spoke of her commitment to and the priorities for her country.
“I have 160 million mouths to feed and our government’s aim is to ensure a better life for people where they could live in peace and harmony,” she said.
Throughout our meetings with ministers, members of parliament, including the opposition, lawyers, professors, civil society and the media, we quickly recognised that the empowerment of women was one of Bangladesh’s greatest achievements. It was heartening to know that Bangladesh had recently appointed its first woman judge and its first army major general. The government has invested heavily in the education of girls, and provides them with scholarships. Education for girls and women means they have more opportunities in the workforce.
As an entrepreneur myself, I was elated to hear that financial support distributed, between 2010 and 2013, from the banking and non-banking sector, equals $860 million as loans to more than 57,000 women entrepreneurs. In 2016, 11,000 women had received more than $1.2 million in such micro loans. Currently 20 million Bangladeshi women are employed in various sectors, 3 million of whom are in the ready-made garment sector. This is impressive.
Agnieszka Scigaj, member of the Polish Sejm, parliament, expressed her admiration for the effort conducted by Hasina‘s government on the question of persons with disability and autism. Hasina mentioned the key role of her own daughter in raising awareness regarding persons with disabilities, including specific actions to benefit autistic people. Scigaj said “we should consider Bangladesh as a model in South Asia”.
The immense strides made by Bangladesh in the field of women’s empowerment economic, social and political can be comprehended if one compares Bangladesh’s development index with that of Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan is 143rd on the Global Gender Gap Index, just one above the last position, and behind countries such as Saudi Arabia. Bangladesh too could have been in a situation similar to Pakistan, where increasingly powerful radical Islamic groups emerge as impediments to women’s empowerment. In contrast, the Awami League government of Hasina, which has been in office for the last 10 years, has taken up the challenge to de-radicalise the political, social and religious fabric of the country. As a result, it is a society where religious minorities feel secure to practice their religion and women confidently strive to achieve their ambitions.
Ryszard Czarnecki, member of the European Parliament from Poland, was impressed by the strength of character and determination of Hasina especially when she reaffirmed several times during the meeting that “I will not allow anyone to use my soil to launch any terrorist activities….. Bangladesh has a single policy towards its neighbouring countries: ‘friendship to all, malice to none.“
From my perspective, Hasina is a role model for women empowerment. Without doubt everything is not perfect in Bangladesh and with 160 million people to accommodate, plus the challenges of the Rohingya crisis, accession to the club of Developed Nations will take a few more years yet. But, great work had been done in the country to ensure women’s rights were human rights. This included the signing of the Accord Alliance for textile workers, mainly women workers, who now have dramatically improved salaries, health and safety conditions and women overall had higher qualifications, education achievements and better access to social security. This we hope will ensure a Rana Plaza does not happen again. The existence of a positive discrimination mechanism (quotas) for women in the parliament, Universities, local councils and other bodies could be also considered as a model for other countries with a dominant Muslim population.
The Head of the EU Delegation, Henri Malosse from France, a former president of the European Economic and Social Committee, expressed his congratulations to Awami League’s government for having transformed one of the poorest countries into one the fastest growing economies of the world with a growth of 7.9 percent last year.
“It was my first visit to Bangladesh and I can say that I am positively surprised by the dynamism of the country“
I am very much looking forward to my next visit.