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The Turnaround

‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’
‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’
‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.”

― “Sultana’s Dream” (1908) By Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

100 years ago, in this land, a single person was relentlessly fighting against all odds to ensure that the women here get the opportunity to avail just the basic education. After a century, at this point of time it would amaze Begum Rokeya to see the impact of her efforts. In Bangladesh, number of girls attending primary and secondary education is in fact now higher than boys (51 and 54 percent respectively).

During last few years, girls have outshone the boys in Higher Secondary Certificate and equivalent examinations in terms of pass rate. Last year over 68 percent female students passed the HSC exam compared to 60.99 percent male. In the Alim exams the pass rate for girls is one percent higher than boys (79.09 percent) and in vocational exams it’s nearly 10 percent.

Sustaining The Evolution

While percentage of female students remain higher than boys in primary and secondary education;  their gradual decrease from higher secondary level; especially low percentage in university and professional education raises questions.

Several factors remain responsible for these including financial reasons, early marriage/child birth, safety -security concerns, lack of proper educational guidance and career choice. Despite all these factors, gradual increase in women’s participation across almost all sectors of Bangladesh remain striking with a wide range of success stories.

How these can be sustained and enhanced through ICT should certainly be a focus area. This also brings forth another important aspect: how to boost-up women participation in ICT, as Involvement of women in ICT significantly strengthens their social and economic empowerment.

Under-representation of women in ICT, however, is a global phenomenon and not a uniquely Bangladeshi one. It is glaringly visible in developed world, let alone developing countries. In the countries under European Union in 2016, over 1.3 million people were involved in ICT related fields. Among them females were only one-sixth (16.7 percent).

In USA too women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. In 2016, Women made up half of the total US college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (62 percent) and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences (48 percent), but relatively low shares in engineering (15 percent), computer and mathematical sciences (25 percent).

The scenario is not much better in other parts of the globe. But an array of different initiatives have been taken and different programs have been going on to address this issue.

Being The Only Woman At Workplace:

“Often, I was the only woman at the table,” says Dr Shamima K Choudhury; regarding  numerous workshops, conferences and department meetings she has attended in a career spanning 42 years.

A lifelong advocate of science, Dr Shamima was a professor of Physics at the University of Dhaka and the Director of the university’s Bose Centre for Advanced Study and Research in Natural Sciences.

“The industry in Bangladesh is a very competitive place. There are a lot of men in the same field. And men have an advantage because they can stay outside home from dawn to dusk, whereas women often have family commitments and social constraints,” said Shaila Sharmin, one of the leading activists in Bangladesh’s ISP industry who has been contributing in regional and global arena as well.

Ms Sarah Amir Prema, a graduate in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), joined Energypac (a pioneering entity in the power industry of Bangladesh) around 2011 . When she was asked to choose her working place, she took an exemplary decision to work in the factories, even though it was unprecedented for a female engineer to work in the factory.

“I remember working late shifts and testing those 2400A in capacitors, 100 MVA transformers. I had some Indian engineers as colleagues. They were also expressed amazement saying even in India there was hardly any female engineers working in the field,” Prema recalls.

Around 1964, when  female students first started entering BUET, there was skepticism whether females can do engineering field work. However, three female students (Khaleda Shariar Kabir, Monowara and Shirin Sultana) rose up strongly against such beliefs. By proving themselves just as capable as their males counterparts, they paved the way for others.

Empowerment for All Segments of Women:

“These days we do see women achieving success in professional careers and reaching up to  important positions. However, we also need to be aware that they represent a  very small section of women, mostly based in the urban areas,” Taslima Yasmin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at the University of Dhaka told the Daily Star.

“We also need to be thoughtful of the women in rural Bangladesh, who in fact comprises the majority of the women population, when we talk about ’empowerment’.  All interventions and struggles for ensuring women empowerment must be inclusive of this majority women and must address their vulnerabilities,” she said.

While multi-dimensional achievements of women across various sectors of the country indicates positive development, it needs continuous review whether such advancement is proportionally equal across all segments.

Opportunities of education and entering the profession are not equally available available to a woman from of a financially strong family in Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet compared to financially able women in Jashore, Rangpur or Barishal.

Apparently there may not be any quick solution to such challenges. We can expect to things become better with gradual economic progress and educational development across various parts of the country.

In parallel, it is equally essential to keep the lamps burning across the country. Initiatives such as – ‘Girls in ICT’ and ‘Missing Daughters’ projects of BDOSN (Bangladesh Open Source Network); ‘Women in Power Sector’ scheme by IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Bangladesh Women in Engineering Affinity Group; ‘Women’s Innovation Camp’  by A2I (Access to Information) of the Bangladesh government – are crucial to keep up the momentum of progress for enhanced women participation in Bangladesh’s ICT industry.

Towards A Brighter Future

The former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”. It may now seem unbelievable that it was an uncritically accepted notion that women cannot do as good as man in science and technology.

Gone are those days too when it had to speculated that how women can participate in ICT. As fourth industrial revolutions transforms the world and Bangladesh progresses very fast in almost all dimensions, the question now is how much more rapid this transformation can be with equal participation of women in ICT.

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