Sunday, 5 February, 2023

Women’s Economic Access: A Form of Empowerment

Moumita Sen and Musrat Hasan Emon

Despite being half of the population, the women in Bangladesh are still far from equal engagement and participation in many aspects of life, and so, have little contribution to them. It cannot be expected to increase the national GDP or any economic development for a country, while half of the population is practically excluded from critical economic activities with no recognition of their expertise and contribution in cases. The social stigma about women being less capable than men in dealing with the economic matter is adversely affecting the potential of achieving long-term sustainable development goals. The number of female entrepreneurs is very low in the subcontinent in comparison to the male demography, as well as their space in the economic institutions. In Bangladesh, lack of access to financial resources is one of the major obstacles to women’s entrepreneurship, which is patronized by cultural practices and political gender biases.

While entrepreneurship of women is considered as a challenging sector from individual to national scale, the concerns in Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) sector face even less attention throughout. At the individual level, where questions are raised about menstrual hygiene, women still are very hesitant to talk about these issues in public. So, becoming an MHM entrepreneur stays mostly beyond anyone’s imagination. Nowadays, various development organizations are trying to break this bias, through local initiatives and platforms, to ensure coming forward and speaking about it by individuals, yet there is a long way to go.

We all know the fact that menstruation is a natural process, which refers to the bleeding every month experienced by every female throughout her reproductive life. For this purpose, females need to use sanitary materials ensuring the absorption of the blood, and the associated facilities for disposing of these materials after use. In Bangladesh, societies act in a very conservative way toward these issues. In most cases, women cannot express their problems regarding the menstruation. For example, in the coastal belt, people are always exposed to climate effects and sudden natural disasters. During a cyclone, where regular setup is already damaged and people have relocated to temporary shelters or designated safe places, what a local girl would do if she went through menstruation? There is no specific infrastructure for this support for women in general.

At regular times, local women experience severe difficulties to maintain MHM. They use unhygienic cotton patches and reuse these by washing them over and over. In coastal region, salinization adds more difficulties and additional hygiene issues for women, as usable water becomes scarce for sanitation. Low-quality sanitary materials, the social culture related to menstruation hygiene management, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (wash) facilities, and lack of guidance and privacy for changing and washing at school or home are common issues related to inadequate menstrual hygiene practices that have direct adverse effects on education, health, and economic outcomes. In many cases, women do not know how to use advanced materials for menstruation and have inadequate access to such materials; even when she knows, she is not comfortable asking for them in the market.

Development Organization of Rural Poor (DORP) - national non-government organization has taken an initiative and developed a sanitary pad production center called “Sanitation Bitan” in Barguna district as a pilot project. This idea has been adopted in Khulna and Bagerhat districts, supported by Panii Jibon Project of Helvetas Bangladesh.

Amir Khasro, Program Coordinator - DORP stated, “This initial idea was triggered when we started to work with local schools, we saw that most of the girls use simple cotton patches or pieces of an old saree of their mother. This is very unhygienic and can cause serious health problems. But they were not very comfortable talking about this issue with us”. He added, “Then we approached Family Welfare Center and involved Sub-Assistant Community Medical Officer (SACMO) to orient these girls about menstrual hygiene.”

DORP has developed six production centres in Bhuyapur, Sirajganj Sadar, Ramgoti, Laksmipur, Barguna Sadar, and Bhola. The organization was also involved in supplying sanitary pads and developing a MHM corner in schools, free of cost, initially in 2018.This scheme was carried out through minimum investment. A worker gets one taka as wage for preparing one pad. The seventh production centre has been established in Morrelganj in 2021. They targeted 14 schools in Khulna and Bagerhat in alignment with the Government’s guidelines on creating MHM corners and defining the role of SMC and teachers. Now the schools buy the pads at the market rate.

To initiate this kind of production centre, one or two women were needed to be trained to operate such a setup. Before choosing participants for the training, several local women in Morrelganj were approached but they were not quite ready mentally. Many of them were interested in such trainings but eventually backed off considering the social taboos. So, it would have not been wise to select someone who is not willing to take the risk of facing obstacles from social stigma. Sathi Rani is the first person who was motivated by this cause and so was selected for the training.

Amir Khasro said, “Initially we could not find anyone to sell or distribute the pad in this area. Around 3 months, we searched for women to train them on MHM production and develop them as entrepreneurs. We first started with Health Village group (HVG) members, local platform of women and their daughters in school. 6 women were selected after a reconnaissance of the locality for an initial discussion.”

As an initial start, DORP provided 3 days of training on MHM production to Sathi Rani and Swarna Rani from Morrelganj. Sathi Rani is also holding the position of deputy speaker of a local platform called “Mother’s Parliament”.

In Morrelganj, Sathi Rani as the first entrepreneur initiated the production of sanitary pads for local girls. As the project support will not continue forever, so whoever get involve and take the charge of this initiative she/he needs to continue just not as a business, but also as a social contribution to local, marginal girls who face various health problem due to inadequate access to hygiene products.

Sathi Rani and Swarna Rani received training in December 2021, supported by the Panii Jibon Project, and started their businesses in 2022. They initially set up their production center in a room provided by the Union Parishad of Baroikhali Union, Morrelganj. Panii Jibon supported the initial capital, raw materials (for 1200 packets), and equipment with80,000 BDT.

They prepare one packet with 10 pieces of pad, which costs 50 BDT, and a packet with 5 pieces costs 25 BDT. In the production center, 3 workers can prepare 100 to 150 pads per day. The production cost of one pad is 3.75 BDT. A worker can get 1 BDT wage per pad.

Till now, they have prepared 300 packets. Sathi and Swarna (her partner) usually go to local shops and schools to sell the pads and sold 225 packets to date. They are trying to create a link with some stores and pharmacies so that they can sell a larger amount. Individuals can also collect pads from their production center. But still, some girls are not aware of it, some stay reluctant to buy; on the other hand, some cannot afford to buy.

According to DORP, the next action from their end is to sit with Sathi and the team after 2/3 months and develop a plan on how to run their business independently and create market linkage for long-term sustainability. DORP has the plan to facilitate the process of getting a trade license as an entrepreneur for Sathi, which will give her direct access to bank loans.

Women entrepreneurs encounter severe challenges in acquiring funding for entrepreneurial activity, particularly in underdeveloped countries, resulting in lower success rates in comparison to their male counterparts. Some socio-cultural practices can be identified that add up to the existing barriers, such as early marriage, acceptance of male dominance in many fields, and often the lack of formal education.

For empowering women, we often talk about ensuring property rights, equal opportunity, individual rights, decision-making capacity, and entrepreneurship through economic independence can accelerate the process of empowerment. Strong religious and cultural beliefs restricting women’s mobility ultimately end up becoming illogical social taboos. Besides, the availability of raw materials is crucial at the local level for women MHM entrepreneurs. They usually get less support in the market system because of being women and the stigma of the menstrual process. Despite these problems, many women have established themselves as MHM entrepreneurs at different levels.

International Year of Sanitation in 2008 recognized the importance of gender issues in sanitation promotion. Still, it is neglected, when it comes to research or relief or recovery activities during or after disaster.

Government and private sector should come up with their support and subsidy to establish and grow their business. A special loan provision and infrastructure for women entrepreneurs could lead this process to the next level where rural women and girls can get benefitted which also supports achieving the Sustainable development Goals (SGDs). It is equally important to evaluate their business process and sustainability to extract the learning and way forward. To overcome those societal challenges, the role of both men and women are essential to bring positive changes. 


The writers are respectively Junior

Programme Officer and Technical

Officer-Migration, Climate Change and Sustainable Development programme of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Bangladesh