Over the last 28 years, Selima Ahmad, the founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), has worked exclusively on women’s economic and social empowerment – both in her country and worldwide.
As the first woman’s chamber of commerce in Bangladesh, BWCCI has become a strong voice to support women’s economic participation, calling fora gender-smart approach to private sector development. That approach focuses on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as engines for job creation and growth, and in particular seeks to tackle a range of issues facing women-owned SMEs in particular. For instance, less than five percent of loans for SMEs go to women-owned businesses around the world and the global credit gap for women-owned SMEs is estimated at roughly $320 billion.
Ahmad has worked extensively with CIPE over the years, and she spoke on CIPE’s panel at a National Endowment for Democracy conference in Delhi entitled “Strengthening Democracy in Asia: Inclusion, Participation and Right,” alongside four other inspiring women from CIPE’s network of South Asian women’s chambers and associations.
Through these women’s stories, CIPE is exploring how gender-smart approaches to private sector development reduce poverty, empower women, further economic growth, and strengthen democracy. In the previous posts, we looked at how private enterprise and entrepreneurship can increase political participation in Pakistan and how engaged civil society organizations have supported women entrepreneurs throughout Nepal.
Now, we are focusing the lens on finance. An integral piece of women’s empowerment, and a step toward gender-smart economic policy, hinges on scaling women-owned businesses.
As Ahmad noted, the success of women-owned businesses, and the SME sector as a whole, will be pivotal to filling Bangladesh’s growing need to create jobs. There are 160 million people in Bangladesh, two million of whom are looking for employment. Indeed, the world will need to generate six hundred million jobs just to keep pace with population growth, according to the World Bank. Including developing countries, 200 million more would need to be created to employ those workers who are jobless now – mainly women and young people who are either under-employed or shut out from the workforce entirely.
Ahmad asked: “Who’s going to give them those jobs?” The answer to that question can be women-owned businesses, but to play that role, these firms will need access to the capital that will allow them to grow, employ more labor, and increase their contribution to the economy.
For years, Bangladesh was regarded as the home of microcredit. There are well over 500 microfinance providers in Bangladesh, with almost a third of rural households registered as members of more than one such provider. While Ahmad appreciates the fact that microcredit has put capital into the hands of the smallest of businesses, giving them a substantial boost, the model has its critics. It has been noted that after eight years of borrowing, 55 percent of households that received Grameen Bank microloans still could not meet their basic needs.
Therefore, BWCCI has always sought to move women-owned businesses to the next stage of their growth, beyond microfinance to more significant loans that can allow sole proprietorships and micro-enterprises become SMEs. BWCCI provides support, training, management skills, and networking. In the last year alone, BWCCI trained 5,000 women entrepreneurs in 64 districts. Entrepreneurs that had just a short time ago only sold a few rugs per month are now selling 100 per month. But BWCCI has also worked to create broader, institutional changes by advocating for specific policies that will spur greater access to finance for women-owned firms.
Thanks to BWCCI’s advocacy efforts, more than 100,000 women entrepreneurs have taken loans with lower interest rates backed by the government. As Ahmad commented, “Can you imagine these 100,000 women are now generating employment from two to three to 10, 150, or 200? How much employment has been generated?” Over the last decade, according to Bangladesh’s Central Bank, $93 million in SME loans have been provided to almost 10,000 women, helping create tens of thousands of new jobs.
What’s more, as Ahmad noted, these entrepreneurs are not only generating employment, they are also paying taxes. These women thus become fuller economic and political stakeholders in their country, able to demand accountability from their government as taxpayers.
“It’s all connected,” Ahmad said. “When a woman becomes an entrepreneur and succeeds in business, she has a more decision-making role in the family as well as in society.”
Rachel Grossman is an Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.