Bangladesh has come a long way in its fight for women's advancement. The government has prioritised promoting gender equality and women's empowerment as a key development agenda and has undertaken several policy and programmatic measures consistent with its goals. Consequently, Bangladesh has made commendable progress over the past decade and leads South Asia on closing the gender gap in areas such as women's economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.
Women's empowerment has also been a prime focus of the tripartite partnership between the Government of Bangladesh, UNDP and Sweden. Over the years, we are proud to have supported the government in a range of efforts that helped Bangladesh move forward, from expanding gender-sensitive social protection to countering violence against women and girls.
But challenges remain. Traditional gender roles still prevail. Only about 36 percent of Bangladesh's women participate in the labour market. An estimated nine out of 10 working women are in the informal economy and have less savings and access to social protection than men. Many are burdened with unpaid care and domestic work.
The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating these challenges. The hard-fought gains for women's empowerment are under threat. Females have been disproportionately impacted when countries announced national lockdowns to contain the pandemic. A UN survey highlights that, in Bangladesh, about 25 percent of female respondents reported losing informal jobs, while another 24 percent saw decreased working hours. Overall, they also received less support compared to men.
In addition to the loss of livelihoods, Covid-19 is affecting human development for women and girls. For example, they are likely to experience more food insecurity than males in the same household. While domestic work increased for both women and men during lockdowns, the burden of unpaid childcare work falls substantially on mothers and female caretakers. At the same time, the lockdown cut off access to critical health services for women, including a major drop in institutionally assisted deliveries. In Bangladesh, ongoing school closures also affect nearly three million ultra-poor, including primary school children enrolled in government school-feeding programmes. The fall in household incomes along with missed meals can also accelerate risks of school dropouts for girls that, in turn, can lead to child marriage, with further increased health, educational, economic and gender-based violence risks.
Furthermore, the sharp increase in gender-based violence during the pandemic is a great source of concern. This is a global phenomenon, which the UN Secretary General describes as a pandemic within a pandemic. In Bangladesh, surveys documented nearly an increase of 70 percent in reported incidents of violence against women and girls in March and April 2020 compared to the same time last year. Many were unable to escape the violence during the lockdown while access to legal recourse and urgent protection measures were cut short. More worryingly, perpetrators of gender-based violence often get away without serious punitive action. This is despite Bangladesh's main laws on violence against women stipulating that cases should be resolved in a timely manner. Yet, access to the justice system remains inadequate. Combined with obstacles such as weak implementation of law, pursuing legal remedies becomes extremely difficult for women and girls that are already in a vulnerable position.
Despite these worrying trends, there are encouraging examples. Take the women in the ongoing SWAPNO (Strengthening Women's Ability for Productive New Opportunities) programme, for instance. These resilient women have simultaneously been responding to Covid-19, the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan as well as monsoon floods. A joint initiative of the Government of Bangladesh, UNDP, Sweden, BSRM, Marico and Bank Asia, SWAPNO has been empowering women to move out of poverty by combining social security transfers, skills training and access to networks since 2015. During the pandemic, about 200 destitute women trained in tailoring turned to making WHO-compliant masks and supplied these to local markets and neighbouring districts. They have so far sold more than 67,000 masks, using their skills to provide for themselves and their families while serving a bigger purpose of protecting communities.
Programmes like SWAPNO highlight that the role of social protection should not only be limited to providing relief. They can provide a path to more sustainable and equitable economic and social development. Even before Covid-19, the programme was successfully supporting women to move out of poverty while also contributing to their empowerment. Given the pandemic, the role of social protection has become even more relevant in contributing to recovery plans and addressing underlying issues of poverty, inequality and, in particular, gender inequality.
The ongoing response to Covid-19 is also an opportunity to progress towards a more comprehensive and resilient social protection system, in line with Bangladesh's National Social Security Strategy, in order to ensure better preparedness for the next crisis. As such, a strengthened social protection system that ensures greater stakeholder accountability could contribute to a more robust and greener recovery and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
As advocates of human rights and equality, we hold that full and equal enjoyment of rights is essential for a life of dignity and security. Likewise, the rule of law and accountable institutions are cornerstones of a well-functioning democracy.
This year marks the anniversaries of two landmark legislations addressing gender-based violence in Bangladesh: the Nari-o-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Prevention Act) from 2000 and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act from 2010. This year also marks the entering of the final phase of its national action plan to build "a society without violence against women and children by 2025."
Given this context, we work closely with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in generating dialogue on the strengthening of democracy and gender equality as well as full and equal respect for human rights. We support the Commission's efforts to connect with other human rights organisations and citizens alike. Our joint efforts also aim to enhance the capacity of public institutions to combat violence against women, and we advocate more broadly to bring women and young people to the forefront of all developments by removing the obstacles that hinder their progress.
The world is facing challenges on a scale that was hard to imagine only a year ago. In this time of crisis, empowering women and girls and addressing the root causes of inequality become even more important. This is something we must do together. Sweden and UNDP will remain steadfast partners in Bangladesh's journey for sustainable and inclusive development.
Alexandra Berg von Linde is Ambassador of Sweden and Sudipto Mukerjee is Resident Representative at UNDP.