Social stigma puts women entrepreneurs off

Women prepare freshly harvested onions for sale at Sujanagar upazila in Pabna. PHOTO: Ahmed Humayun Kabir Topu/STAR

Rural markets not gender inclusive yet

Female agro-producers in rural areas play a vital role in the agricultural sector. However, the majority struggle to market their products at local and regional markets and are deprived of fair prices in the process.

Since rural markets are largely male-dominated, women are discouraged from participating in the market system, according to a few female agro-producers. At the same time, embracing traditional gender roles, such as women having to stay at home to take care of the household, prevent their involvement in market-place activities.

To find out why women are not more inclined to participate in the market, The Daily Star interviewed a number of female agro-based entrepreneurs from seven districts — Patuakhali, Gazipur, Sherpur, Mymensingh, Pabna, Rangpur and Gaibandha.

Their responses were almost identical: rural markets are not gender inclusive because society is not ready to see women market, sell or bargain their goods with or alongside men. Making matters worse, there are no designated sections to separate the male and female salesmen, they said.

Fulchhari bazar, found in Gaibandha’s Fulchhari upazila, is a hub for countless agro-based traders. However, only seven female entrepreneurs were found selling their products on a regular ‘haat day’.

Due to her spouse’s illness, 28-year-old Asma Begum of Pipulia village in Fulchhari collects vegetables from a neighbouring village to sell them at the market and make ends meet.

“I can’t stay here long and have to return home before sunset because I am anxious about my safety. Dirty gestures and verbal harassments have become commonplace in my everyday life,” she said.

45-year-old Rashida Begum, a member of the Galachipa upazila Union Parishad of Patuakhali, shared a similar experience.

“When I take my moong daal [lentils] to the market, people try to make fun. Behind my back, men say that when a woman regular comes to the bazaar, she becomes a ‘bazaarer meye’ [woman with loose morals],” said Rashida, whose husband currently lives abroad.

Asma Khatun, a farmer of Tarabaria village in Satbaria union of Pabna’s Sujanagar upazila, said that she ends up with low returns from the onions cultivated on her land.

From production to packaging, Asma does all the work aside from selling her goods in the market due to social and religious restrictions.

The women also need to depend on men for help to transport their goods to the market. As a result, many women prefer to sell their products to wholesalers at lower prices since it’s less of a hassle.

“Most of the time, wholesalers visit our house to buy onions but this way we don’t get proper prices of our crop. Sometimes our husbands and other male members go to the market to sell the crops but the control over the money we earn through our day-to-day toil goes to them,” the 35-year-old said.

Although male producers do acknowledge that women are a driving force of the agricultural sector with their numbers increasing by the day, female workers are mostly restricted to tending the crops.

“At markets, women can’t compete with men in occupying positions and men usually don’t cooperate with them,” said Md Jashim Uddin, an agro-based entrepreneur of Mawna Bazar in Gazipur.

Another sad thing is that women have next to no presence in market management committees.

“Women should have separate spaces and it should be run by women. But that doesn’t seem to be possible right now,” said Muktar Hossain, leaseholder of Fulchhari bazar.

In Satbaria bazar, one of the biggest rural markets of Pabna, 12 shops are reserved for female traders, however, there are no women on the market committee.

Rezaul Karim Siddique, an eminent agriculture researcher and anchor of state-run BTV’s longest-running agricultural show ‘Mati O Manush’, says it is very difficult to involve rural women farmers as well as agro-based women entrepreneurs in the traditional market.

“In the peri-urban areas, women are coming forward, especially those who are involved in small businesses like garment products or tailoring. But in terms of agricultural products, they are not coming forward due to the social restrictions they face. It needs huge awareness and local representatives need to be vocal about it,” he added.

Female farmers also face discrimination when trying to acquire any kind support from the state, such as credit facilities, fertilizers or seeds. The Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) has distributed 2.05 crore agriculture cards, which are specially designed debit cards meant to help farmers pay for their farming needs. However, only 6.6 per cent were given to women.

Moreover, these women only got the cards because they were the family-head or there were no remaining men in the family, informed Md Mizanur Rahman Khan, deputy director for monitoring at the DAE.

Discrimination is also evident with a number of the farmer’s accounts. Of the 95.81 lakh active accounts, 5.5 per cent are women, according to the DAE.

There have been some success stories though as NGOs are currently striving to create women-friendly markets at the rural level by linking together female producers and setting up separate collection points for women at local markets with the help of regional government bodies.

Currently, the women in Sundarganj area of Gaibandha rear cows to sell them to wholesalers. Last year, they sold 52 cows through the Daraz app at higher prices.

“This year they will sell nearly 1,500 cows online,” said Md Shawkat Akber Fakir, project coordinator of the Making Market Work for Women project of ActionAid Bangladesh.

“If the government can ensure fair prices for women farmers and entrepreneurs by creating a direct connection between them and the key market system, it will be great for us,” Rashida Begum said.

Additional reporting was done by our correspondents in Pabna, Gaibandha, Gazipur, Rangpur and Mymensingh.




Nilima Jahan

The Daily Star, 24th January,2020.