In 2015, I spent five months volunteering with VSO in Bangladesh. It was my first experience of supporting entrepreneurs and of working with a community in the field. As part of our Female Founders series, I’ve updated a post I wrote at the time to mark this year’s International Women’s Day.
Bangladesh is a beautiful country and one that I hold close to my heart. But it is also a country where three-quarters of women under fifty years old were married before they turned eighteen. Where sixty-five per cent of women are unemployed. Where nearly half the female population cannot read or write.
When I thought about volunteering in Bangladesh, I was worried about how I would be treated as a woman. My friends asked whether I would be 'safe'; what they meant was would I be a target for sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. I was concerned I would be ignored and isolated by influential men in the community. I am relieved and pleased to say that I experienced none of that. The only concession I made is how I dress: covered from neck to ankle, tops that cover my backside, and a scarf covering my chest, lest anyone notice that I actually have breasts.
I lived in a particularly conservative area of Bangladesh, in a rural community, where I saw the evidence of gender inequality every day. The bazaar and teashops are dominated by men whilst women work in the fields, collecting the potato harvest, whilst women work all day preparing food, and doing laundry, and tending to the animals. Early marriage is one of the biggest causes of girls leaving secondary education in this community; despite the fact that marriage under the age of eighteen is illegal under Bangladeshi law, I witnessed a fifteen year old girl getting ready to marry a man eight years her senior. Marrying at such a young age puts girls' lives at risk through adolescent pregnancy and childbirth, especially when less than a quarter of births are attended by a medical professional; 12,000 women die every year here simply trying to bring life into this world.
But it's not all bad news. Bangladesh has made significant progress on many of the Millennium Development Goals. Girls now outnumber boys in primary and secondary schools. Women are also making gains in the formal labour market thanks to participation in the garment industry and the micro-credit revolution that was started right here in Bangladesh. And that's where our little project comes in, working to empower marginalised women by improving their livelihoods, in the home town of a famous female Bangladeshi pioneer of education for girls, Begum Rokeya.
We supported two entrepreneurs to develop handicraft businesses. One of our entrepreneurs was a young woman called Romana, who refused early marriage to continue her education. It took great courage to stand up to her family and defend her right to education. She was in her early twenties when we met and married to a man who is very proud and supportive of her selection as an entrepreneur. She had an air of quiet confidence and I am pleased to report her business has flourished in the last three years. Our project provided employment to a dozen marginalised women and youth, giving them opportunity to improve their lives. The path to gender equality is a long and slow one but putting incomes into the hands of women is one step on that journey; it results in better nutrition and education for their children, and gives them more social capital and decision-making power in their families and communities.
So today, on International Women's Day, I am very proud to be a woman and a feminist, and to be working to improve the lives of women all over the world as both a coach and a gender adviser. And I'm asking you to celebrate the women in your lives. Celebrate their achievements. Join the call for greater equality for all women around the world so they can not only live their lives free from the threat of violence, discrimination and oppression but also thrive in their work and businesses.