Selima Ahmad: Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Bangladesh
1st of December 2022
Selima Ahmad MP, is the Founder and President of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry and serves as an elected member of the Parliament of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. In 2014 she received the Oslo Business for Peace Award for her work empowering women and developing entrepreneurial talent. In this interview, we discuss her recent projects and expectations for the business sector after COVID-19.
Empowering Women Entrepreneurs
Selima’s work in the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry has focused on women entrepreneurs, especially at the micro and grassroots levels. They have identified one key challenge that most of these women face: women make the initial investment of time and resources, but men in their families take the benefits. Once the business starts flourishing, men take ownership of the business and remove women from it.
To solve this problem, the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce is running a project to educate and empower female founders by teaching them how to register and legalise their business, obtain a trade license, scale their enterprises into SMEs and follow the tax order. This project will allow women to retain ownership of their businesses and provide them with independence and financial freedom.
COVID-19 has changed the business landscape in the country, which is seeing a boom in e-commerce enterprises. Traditionally, female entrepreneurs have been shy about using online business platforms, but during the pandemic, something changed. Online commerce became the only available platform to conduct business, and women realised they could have more competitive prices when they eliminated the costs of a physical store.
The Chamber of Commerce is currently running a digital capacity-building project for over 5,100 women focused on three main industries: fashion and design; catering and baking; and mobile repair and digital services. Regarding this last point; they are implementing a program with Meta to train female entrepreneurs to learn how to conduct business using their platforms.
Gender-based Violence and Equal Representation in the Workplace
In collaboration with the Centre for Private Enterprise in Washington, they have launched a new initiative to address harassment and violence that many women suffer in the workplace. There are policies already in place that deal with gender-based violence in the home, but they are lobbying to bring more policies and practical solutions that create a harassment-free environment for women in their workplace.
One of the main objectives of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister, is to achieve 50% representation of women in all spheres by 2030. Selima notes that there is still a long way to go in the entrepreneurial sector. One way they are trying to bridge this gap is through a new training institute that will bring female entrepreneurs from rural areas to the city, where they will have the opportunity to learn from women role models and learn from their experiences. The training institute includes a residential area where these women can live together during the training days.
Selima believes in the power of women sharing their stories and experiences. As she highlights, every woman, herself included, has faced some of the same problems, including harassment. For this reason, it is important to create a space where women can talk and learn from each other, and especially have access to women that are role models. “The journey is tough, but we can do it!” says Selima.
Addressing Structural Challenges for Women
Selima’s work as a Parliamentarian is trying to address two structural challenges that hinder women’s participation in the economy.
The first one is early marriages. Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the highest levels of child marriage, with 38 million child brides according to UNICEF. Although this trend is in decline and child marriage is prohibited by law, this is still an extended practice, especially in rural areas and low-income households. Selima’s work in Parliament is trying to raise awareness and develop initiatives that can educate women and their communities about the dangers of child marriages and give them other options through entrepreneurship that can allow them to be economically independent.
One example is Selima’s initiative back in her natal village, where she has made available a water pond, free of charge to a project led by 20 women. The government provided them with fishing equipment and other resources to start production. These women invested between 13 and 20 USD in this business, and this year’s returns have reached over 200 USD. In addition, they can also use the resources the pond offers to bring fresh food to their homes, and have created a space for the community children to be and play safely.
The second structural challenge is infrastructure, in particular the roads in her district. Poor connectivity through land affects mostly women, children, and the elderly population. She is encouraging citizens to report bad road conditions using social media and raising their voices to make these issues known. However, corruption remains one of the main challenges within the infrastructure sector.
The Role and Future of Business in Bangladesh
When asked about the role business can play in the post-COVID recovery, Selima is clear: they must raise awareness and double their capacity-building efforts. Many things have changed in the last few years and consumers are more conscious and informed than before. This means that businesses can be more profitable when they are compliant with the law. However, corruption in the regulatory and license bodies is still a big challenge, and it might be the root cause of the establishment of many industries and businesses that are not safe or compliant.
She insists that “blaming” business is not the solution, and points out that sometimes the small entrepreneurs lack the information or training to understand compliance requirements. Training new and small entrepreneurs in these matters are therefore fundamental, as well as motivating them and explaining to them how to do things differently. “People are good,” says Selima “it is us who make them bad”.
Selima has witnessed another big change in recent years. “We are seeing the second generation of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh that is connected with the outside world, educated and aware. They have inherited all the assets and experience from the first generation, and can now take gender and environmentally friendly actions in their business”.