Pushing the Boundaries for Women

By Uzma Hoque

Fifteen years ago I was working for a nongovernment organization (NGO) in Bangladesh documenting stories of training and economic empowerment of communities. A common recurring theme in virtually all the communities was the gender stereotyping in skills training programs.

Fifteen years ago I was working for a nongovernment organization (NGO) in Bangladesh documenting stories of training and economic empowerment of communities. For this I visited many communities near the capital, Dhaka.

A common recurring theme in virtually all the communities was the gender stereotyping in skills training programs. Males received training in vehicle repair, small engine repair, construction, raising cattle and farm animals. Females were trained in sewing, dress making, raising small poultry, and vegetable gardening.

Men were happy with the training, happy with the jobs they secured after training and most important, the higher incomes they now enjoyed. The skills and trades they had acquired were in demand in the local labor market. In contrast, women told me their earnings after training were marginal. Dress making, poultry raising and vegetable gardening were not particularly lucrative occupations. Often they had to supplement their incomes by taking on other jobs.

But there was one shining star—a health NGO which did things differently. Women were working as guards, drivers, and in the glass factory making medicine bottles. I was pleasantly surprised. This was 15 years ago in a conservative area and women were working in traditional male jobs!

Being curious I asked a woman in the glass factory, how she came to be working there. She told me she was from a nearby village. One day, she was beaten unconscious by her husband and when she woke up, she found herself in the clinic run by this NGO. She had started crying saying she should have been left to die because she had brought shame and stigma to her husband and her own parents since her husband’s beatings had now become public knowledge. No one would take her back. Where would she go? She had no skill, no job, and no family. How would she survive?

The NGO gave her a place to stay in the compound, trained her, and gave her a job. They saved her and now she was able to fend for herself. When I spoke to the NGO workers, they told me that they came across many such cases. They have supported other women in the community with training and jobs in nontraditional fields and provided a hostel for women so they can work in a safe environment. 

This experience all those years ago taught me some lessons that have had a lasting impact. My encounters with the women and the NGO inspired me to work for development and women’s rights and empowerment. Even today, the past lessons influence my work and how I approach gender equality issues.

Lesson 1: Economic empowerment is critical and fundamental for women. It gives women the “freedom” to stand up for themselves and make decisions about their lives because they have the economic means to do so. It allows women to push the boundaries—gives them the option to leave abusive environments if they desire.

Lesson 2: We must break down the gender stereotypes in skills training and employment. In Southeast Asia, where I now work, women have a relatively high level of participation in the workforce. But, women are still stuck at the bottom in low skilled and low paid work. Skills training programs for women continue to be disconnected from labor market demand. The skills women are learning and acquiring are not matched to the skills needed in the labor market.

The horizon of employment possibilities for women needs to be expanded. Good examples include technical and vocational education training (TVET) that can match women’s skills to labor market needs. This can open up a wide range of job options and potentially future higher incomes for girls. ADB’s TVET projects in Indonesia and the Lao PDR provide stipends to girls for training in traditional male trades. In the Lao PDR, wage subsidies for 6 months are also provided to enterprises for employing girls in nontraditional trades. We need to support more of these initiatives to slowly break down the stereotypes about appropriate male and female jobs.

Lesson 3: Stay away from ad hoc support and one-off support. A comprehensive set of interventions are required. In many Southeast Asian countries, large numbers of women run businesses. Some 52% of the total businesses in the Lao PDR and 60% of microenterprises in Cambodia are run by women. Admittedly, the size of these businesses is small.

On average, firms owned and run by women make less profit than male-owned companies. Some of the challenges women face in growing and managing their businesses include lack of access to credit and product technology, limited market information, complicated formal registration procedures, and lack of knowledge on business management. Yet, we continue to provide women access to credit without the accompanying business development services. We assume credit alone will help women overcome other challenges. Comprehensive interventions that meet women’s needs throughout the cycle or chain of business development and management are required. 

Lesson 4: Women need an enabling environment to seize opportunities, make positive changes in their own lives and in the lives of others. In the case I cite above, the NGO which provided an enabling environment for women to work in nontraditional male trades, supported them, protected them, and acted as a buffer between women and the conservative community.

As women earned and started sending money home, news spread of the lucrative nature of the jobs and more women wanted to work. Together they created a critical mass and changed the perception of what women can do.

In our work, we often encounter resistance such as: “it is not a part of our culture,” “our women don’t work in construction,” “women in our culture work in the home.” Skepticism abounds when something different or new is proposed. If the boundaries had not been pushed in the past, women would not be doctors, engineers, bankers, CEOs, or in management positions today.

We need to keep pushing the boundaries. We need to persevere if we are to expand the horizon of possibilities for women.