BRAC virtual dialogue
BRAC virtual dialogue

A virtual dialogue titled 'Women Affected at Work and in Businesses' was held on 17 September on basis of a study by BRAC on women entrepreneurs and working women. A summary of that dialogue appears here in this supplement.


KM Abdus Salam, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment

Ferdaus Ara Begum, Chief Executive Officer, Business Initiative Leading Development (BUILD)

Parveen Mahmud, Chairperson, UCEP and Ex-Chairperson, MIDAS

Kohinoor Yeasmin, Entrepreneur and CEO, TARANGO

Rokeya Rafique, Executive Director, KarmojibiNari

Nazneen Ahmed, Economist, BIDS

Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC

Shameran Abed, Senior Director, Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation, BRAC

KAM Morshed, Senior Director, Advocacy for Social Change, BRAC

Nobonita Chowdhury, Director, Gender Justice and Diversity, Preventing Violence Against Women Initiative, BRAC


Nobonita Chowdhury: I am delighted to welcome you all to the discussion titled 'Women Affected at work and in businesses’. Women are most likely to fall victims of any kind of disaster in regard to all aspects including the social and economic. But this reality is often overlooked because the volume and magnitude of women's losses are not separately measured while discussing about the damages of such disasters. Keeping that in mind, from the Gender Justice and Diversity program of BRAC, we wanted to look into the effect of women’s livelihood in the two sectors our economy largely depend on- one being the cottage, micro, small and medium (CMSMEs) and the other being the informal economy at large.


We are here to discuss on the statistics and findings we have acquired through the research on the women entrepreneurs of the CMSMEs and the women workers of the informal economy. Now, I would like to ask Mr. KAM Morshed to inform us all about the objectives, process and the findings of the study very briefly as his team Advocacy for Social Change of BRAC carried out the study.

KAM Morshed: We carried out this survey to understand the situation of women entrepreneurs of the CMSM (cottage, micro, small and medium) enterprises and women workers of the informal sector. The survey was done during 8-24 July on 1,589 respondents. 1,000 of them are from informal sector and the rest (589) are entrepreneurs from CMSM industries. We also interviewed 30 more entrepreneurs. We covered 10 informal economic sectors. Average age of the respondents was 35. 26 per cent of them received institutional education. We carried out this survey in 28 districts of the 8 divisions.

In this study, we included entrepreneurs in beauty parlours, garment accessories etc. while included workers from tailors and beauty parlours. At least 50 per cent of them said that they received their capitals from NGOs. 23 per cent received it from the banks. But 70 per cent of the medium scale enterprises received loan from banks while for small enterprises it is 30 per cent. Personal savings was a part of the capital for a significant part of the respondents. 90 per cent entrepreneurs and 80 per cent workers of informal sectors said that they have suffered a loss due to the COVID-19 situation. Online shops and garments have been severely damaged. Construction workers have also been badly affected. All have faced a two-third decrease in their income.


The government declared a package of Tk 20,000 crore. Tk 1,000 crore of that was dedicated for women entrepreneurs. Only 10 per cent of that package of Tk 20,000 crore was disbursed till the end of July when the study came to an end. We found that two-third of the respondents did not know about the package nor did know how to get it. 56 per cent said that they never tried for it. Those who knew but did not try to get assistance from the package said that they did not try for reasons like: they thought that the interest will be high, the banks will not help, or they did not have trade licence.


Government has taken several social safety programs for those who are in informal sectors. 57 per cent of them said that they did not receive any incentives. When we asked them why they did not get any, they replied that most of them are 'new poor'; they were not poor before the COVID-19 situation and that is why they were not listed with others who can get such assistances. And as their names were not included in the list prepared for social safety nets, they did not receive any food. Most of them who received it live in the urban areas.

And how are they dealing with that? Most common practice is to decrease the food consumption cost. 5 per cent of the entrepreneurs have cut off food cost. The workers have cut off food expense by 14 per cent. A significant part of the workers have said that they had to take loans from friends and relatives. 18 per cent of the workers had to spend their savings or sell their assets. 9 per cent entrepreneurs and 3 per cent workers took loan from NGOs or banks. 41 per cent of the entrepreneurs said that they have to go for a lay off. One good news is that 77 percent of the entrepreneurs said that they would go back to their old businesses if the situation get any better. 79 per cent workers said that they would go back to their old jobs if the condition changed positively. A positive thing is that the entrepreneurs and the workers emphasized on health and safety issues as a precondition to get back to work in full swing.

What kind of help they do seek? 83 per cent workers and 56 per cent of the entrepreneurs prefer monetary help. 79 per cent of the entrepreneurs and 22 per cent of the workers want loan from NGOs or banks. We do not have any data of the workers from informal sectors. Gender focused response is not mentioned in our disaster management manual. We could have easily reached out to the women entrepreneurs of small and medium scale if we had a nationwide information database on their whereabouts.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Thank you, Mr. Morshed for sharing the study details with us. Ferdaus Ara Begum, now we would like to hear from you. We know that your institution works very closely with the Prime Minister's office. You are working to widening employment opportunities by inspiring entrepreneurship. We have seen that many people have lost their jobs. Employment initiatives are also in danger. Three women lost their jobs against one man – as we have found in the study by BRAC. However, only 5 per cent of the incentive package has been prioritized for the women.Do you think that this amount is sufficient? Till July, only 29 per cent of women entrepreneurs knew about the package. 44 per cent do not have any idea how to reach for it.

Ferdaus Ara Begum: We do not have enough research on micro and cottage entrepreneurs. In this context, your data source includes cottage (33%) and micro (55%) which is very positive. We can get an idea of them from this data. Yet, they are always lagging behind for not being institutionalised. They cannot reach out to receive loans from banks and other programs. As we see, capital is not a big challenge for many during the outbreak of COVID-19; it is a concern only for 14 per cent. Rather, we see that 65 per cent said that they have no income as the demand has decreased in the market. 5 per cent of the incentive package has been allocated for women but with specific directions. A total of 11,183 have received loans. 170 women got the loan among 9,500 persons. That means 2 per cent women received loans from the incentive package of Tk 20,000 crore. The BRAC study found that 67 per cent enterprises was closed in April while it decreased to 4 per cent in June. This means that they are coping well with the current situation.


The government has declared a social safety program of Tk 95,576 crore in the current budget. A large part of it will be distributed through PKSF (Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation). Tk 2,000 crore has specially been allocated to create employment opportunities. Creating employments is a challenge. Cottage and micro enterprises are employing 15 million out of 26 million. Agriculture is an important sector. 40 per cent of our total employment are from agriculture. If we give attention on agriculture, we can create more employment opportunities. In regard to realizing incentive packages, they said that they do not know anything or the help could not reach out to cottage, micro entrepreneurs or women.

We could have a better result by involving SME Foundation, BSCIC, PKSF, Chambers, Micro Finance Institutions, and NGOs. Conventional loan facility will not do much. In India, up to 3 lac rupees are given as collateral free loans. We also have it in Bangladesh but this is not being utilized. Another option is cluster based financing. There are 172 clusters each having enough numbers of micro entrepreneurs. We could get results by financing them.One more option is order based funding. We have guidelines for that, but this is not being effective. The guideline clearly outlines allocations for trading sectors, manufacturing and servicing sectors. 51 per cent our GDP comes from the service sector. Retail and wholesale are important parts of it. Retail and wholesale are parts of trading sector. So, if we did not have a limitation of 20 per cent, then the allocation there could be productive. There should be separate credit rating systems for micro and cottage entrepreneurs.


Nobonita Chowdhury: Dr. Nazneen Ahmed, a large part of the women entrepreneurs are absent in the institutional list. They did not go to banks, nor received any formal facilities. If they cannot be reached out for providing assistance, it will negatively affect the economy and create more new poor. And if I remind you of the informal sector, 83 per cent workers are asking for monetary help, 31 per cent are looking for earning opportunities. 28 per cent are asking for food assistance and 22 per cent wants loans. We do not have any list of the workers in the informal sectors. Isn’t this a big challenge to formally help those who are absent in the formal concept of economy.

Nazneen Ahmed: Unlike others, BRAC directed their study where they took cottage and micro enterprises into account separately. I thank them for that. If we mix up cottage with small and medium, it does not accurately display the problems of medium and small or cottage and micro because they are not the same. As Mr. Morshed shared, most of the entrepreneurs did not receive formal education. In regard to medium and small enterprises, the picture is different; most of them have jobs or they have personal savings or assets. That is why the small and medium ones depend on banks or personal savings while the rest on the NGOs. It is important to create opportunities wherever they are going to. Ms. Ferdaus told us that women in MSM received 2 per cent of incentive packages; I doubt how many from micro and cottage are there. It is because the banks say that it is not profitable for them to finance the SMEs. Banks are interested in big enterprises; so, they will come forward to finance micro and cottage ventures - we cannot hope so.


We are repeatedly talking about enlisting the workers from informal sectors, but we do not have any updated database even for the ones in formal sectors. One element of the social safety program by the government was 'Khana Jorip' (household survey) to collect data about assets at individual level. But this project ended at the pre-test level. If it was completed, we could have known who are the poor, where they are and what are their income sources. And then, there would be no need to search for informal workers or formal entrepreneurs individually.

NobonitaChowdhury: Ms.Kohinoor Yeasmin, our study says that 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs are facing losses. And our very study found that jute based products and handicrafts entrepreneurs are in most vulnerable situation. Most of the workers in this sector are women. You, too sell your products to world famous brand like Harrods. But the outlets around the world are either operating in limited capacity or are closed. When do you think we can get back to business in full swing? Do you see any hope?

Kohinoor Yeasmin: The demand is increasing in the global market since June. But we will not find ten people who export jute products from Bangladesh. According to JDPC, the current number is 295. Total 720. Only around 10 out of 295 is involved in export. The local market has been destroyed. But the export market has increased. Harrods emailed us to know if we have any stock loads; they want to buy it all if we have any. This is optimistic.


We asked them to know why the order has increased. They mentioned three reasons: one is that people across the globe is giving preference to natural products due to COVID-19; secondly, women are the key workforce in this sector and they are suffering a great loss due to the present situation; and thirdly, they are saying that they are helping us as we do not have much opportunity to test for COVID-19. In that context, if we can utilize the global market, then we will be able to recover from the great loss we have experienced recently. The government must take enough initiatives in this regard.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Let's go to Ms. Parveen Mahmud in reference to what Ms. Kohinoor just said. So, it is clear from Ms. Kohinoor's perspective that the demand of many products will increase. Now, we have to grab the market. On the other hand, the whole business process from packaging to marketing needs to be done differently in the COVID-19 reality. Our study found that 36 per cent of the respondents are worried about health safety. 19 per cent entrepreneurs have said that IT related skills need to be enhanced and they also felt the need for training on different issues regarding business. What this means is only monetary or loan assistance will not be enough rather skill development training is also necessary. Has the reality for skill development training also changed due to COVID-19?

Parveen Mahmud: We know that we need capital to do business. But in the study, a few other issues alongside capital have come out. Business service development is also necessary for doing business. I have to produce the right product and with quality. We have to learn that. We are shifting to better normal from new normal. Women need training to achieve business management capabilities to survive in the new normal. It is time to consider micro insurance seriously.


Guidelines have been introduced in the government insurance sector. Multi-insurance has been mentioned there. But it cannot be applied to micro and small enterprises. The families that are in vulnerable conditions need a chance to do better. A positive atmosphere is necessary for micro-insurance and for the women. The ministry of ICT is also conducting trainings.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Ms. Rokeya Rafique, more than half of the workforce of Bangladesh is in informal sector. And 90 per cent of the working women are engaged in informal sectors. We found in our study that at least 84 per cent of them have been affected. Construction sector has been damaged most. Household workers and those involved in handicrafts could not get back to work in full swing yet and when they will be able to do so is uncertain. Do you think that there are enough initiatives for them? You are working for them for long...

Rokeya Rafique: This is true that 90 per cent of the informal workers are women. According to BRAC, 84 per cent of them have been affected. We conducted a study on 150 household workers during April-June, and also in August. We found that they have lost their jobs. No one is employing them. They got a little help from their employers in a few cases. They had to take whatever jobs they could find to survive. But only 10 per cent of the 150 respondents went back to villages. The question is, the rest (90 per cent) who stayed in town, how did they survive? We surveyed among the slum dwellers and found that they cut off their food cost by 50 per cent; they survived only on rice and lentils. So, they have suffered from malnutrition.

There is no entertainment for them; buying new clothes or going out - they had to set aside everything. As the schools have been closed, this was an opportunity for them to save the expenses in this regard. But they have been facing burden of loans. They are paying a little amount as 'installments' to the shop-keepers to keep getting daily essentials. That means, losing works has not affected only them but also the shop-keepers they buy things from. They are getting their jobs back since the end of July. This means people are overcoming the fear. So, they are getting part-time jobs but they cannot bargain as they could earlier.


Rokeya Rafique

A guideline was prepared for the household workers in 2010. But that has not been enacted yet. They could have received papers like identity cards if that could be enacted and it would be easy to make a list of those workers with that. And it would also be easy to help them by using the list.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Mr.Shameran Abed, what we are seeing that is a large part of the informal sector workers are facing long-term unemployment crisis. They are looking for new jobs but they will not be able to earn as much as they could earlier. They need to be enlisted and assisted with employment opportunities so that they can be kept outside the circle of extreme poverty. On the other hand, the study found that 66 per cent of the women entrepreneurs never went to the banks; they always depended on the NGOs and till now, 50 per cent of them are looking forward to reach out to the NGOs for investments after COVID-19.

Shameran Abed: Micro and cottage are of one kind, and micro and medium are of different kind. Usually, micro and medium entrepreneurs do not get sufficient loan facilities. To be specific, women entrepreneurs do not get any at all. So, loans should be distributed to the small and cottage enterprises through the NGOs. But there are some problems as well; MFIs are facing liquidity crisis. BRAC has been able to contribute in this regard because it is a large NGO. We are distributing loans and also re-financing. Government has disbursed a fund of Tk 3,000 crore for the micro-finance institutions but this is not enough. And there one MFI can only access up to Tk 60 crore. We distribute Tk 250-300 crore a day. That is why large MFIs are not going for this fund. Small and medium scale MFIs may able to benefit.


Such government packages are distributed among the NGOs through the central bank (Bangladesh Bank). The central bank reserves 1-2 per cent. When it is sent to the banks, they keep 2-3 per cent. NGOs get the money for 4-5 per cent and they are asked to distribute it to the marginal farmers or women entrepreneurs for 8-10 per cent interest. We have to bear the operating cost and loan loss. The central bank and others are keeping 4-5 per cent of to themselves but they have no expenses in this regard and they are not taking the credit risk either. For suchreasons, these packages are not working well. In that context, there should be far more financing supports. But the reality is rather the opposite of it; the NGOs are distributing whatever they recovering. On the other hand, how can we help the workers in the informal sectors? There is much to be done. Social safety policy has been formulated long time ago. There were many initiatives to be taken. Targeting was to be improved. But many of them have not been done. Now is the time to complete them. We should find out the new poor and bring them under social safety programs. If we want to keep them out of extreme poverty, we must do these right now.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Let's go to the Secretary Mr. KM Abdus Salam. Our study found that within June, 39 per cent women workers of informal sectors had to get loans to survive. 18 percent sold their assets. 35 per cent failed after trying to get back to their jobs. 62 per cent women fear that they may not be able to get their jobs back. Most of them are the only or the chief earning member of the family. What is the government thinking about helping them out with loans or employment opportunities?

KM Abdus Salam: BRAC has done a wonderful survey and presented its results with recommendations. There is a photograph of a woman selling tea on the cover of that presentation. But reality is, maybe she has lost her shop and now working in someone's house. Or, according to the survey, maybe she is surviving on loans from acquaintances or institutions. The coronavirus situation started in March and it is September now. At first, the government set its priority in keeping people safe. It is because saving people's lives is the first priority. Relief was distributed during the first few months. The government led, many others helped out.


The government has already taken many economic policies. A 20-year (2021-41) perspective plan is also under process. We are planning to remove poverty by 2030-31 and become a medium-income country and become developed by 2041. We are working on the perspective plan with these specific objectives. We made it clear that the key goal of the latest budget is self-preservation. This is a year of survival for us. The Honourable Prime Minister gave 31 directions in March. These directions include health safety, and economic, agricultural and industrial work-plans among many others. The government has declared a huge incentive package. This has helped out industries, manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Much more attention has been given on agriculture this year. On the eve of the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu, the Karmasangsthan Bank and others have taken specialized loan schemes. The government is taking initiatives to reach out to the doorsteps of those who are lagging behind. Wait till December and you will see that everything will get better.

Nobonita Chowdhury: Mr. Asif Saleh, the COVID-19 situation, again reminded us the systemic flaws we always had, but on the other hand we can turn it into a great opportunity by trying to include women in the value chainof the formal economy at both national and international level. How can the comprehensive effort of both the GOB and NGOs ensure that for the women workforce including entrepreneurs in micro, small and medium enterprises, and workers of informal sectors? We will end our discussion today hearing you out on that issue.

Asif Saleh: We all want to hear optimistic words. Everything will be fine again. But do we want to go back to what we had earlier? The COVID-19 has showed us the systematic discrimination we had. If we correct those and step forward accordingly, only then we will be able to say that we have recovered and moved forward towards 'build back better'. We have seen a huge difference in social safety. We tried to provide assistance during lockdowns and the government supported us a lot but we all had to struggle to reach out to the right people at the right time. Social safety net strategy was formulated four years ago but there is a huge gap in implementing it. We have to give attention to that. Pandemics and natural disasters will be a part of the new normal. If the state does not come in assistance, we will be facing such problems again and again.

We have structural problems at many places. Health sector is a significant example of it. The second issue around building back better is counting the sectors where we have lagged behind in the past six months. Contraceptives were not distributed adequately. In many cases people did not go to hospitals even when they had health issues. TB infection will increase - I fear. One big problem is, we will not get all students back when the schools reopen. A large portion of the students may drop out and the majority of them will be girl children. Although I hope this will not happen, but we all have to work together to prove this fear wrong. And we have to look into the social issues as well, not only the economic issues in this regard. Violence against women has increased which is very much related to their economic capabilities.


The third issue around building back better is that there are many more new opportunities now. The digital sector has become a new potential. There will be increasing employment opportunities in the health sector. Women are lagging behind in regard to employment opportunities in digital sectors. We should not consider any job suitable only for men. If we can train women and assist them in becoming employed or being entrepreneurs in the digital sector, then they will be able to move forward. Women are more eager to become successful and they are more likely to be successful as well.However women usually do not get enough assistance during disasters. In this case, we have to make opportunities for them by bringing out new financial products. Compulsory savings system in micro finance have supported many people to deal with the new normal.Women are more eager in savings as well. NGOs have played a role in that. By connecting the government and NGOs, we have achieved great success in MDG, women development, and human development index than our neighbouring country. We know that all will be normal again. But we want this to be based on equality in its true sense.

NobonitaChowdhury: We have nothing more to discuss although we could not address many issues in details today. Our research experience clarified that if women's income decreases, so does the spendings behind food and nutrition in the families while violence against women and mental stress see a rise. We could not discuss those issues minutely today. Let's hope that there will be sincere efforts and initiatives from both government and non-government sectors to help out the women who experienced losses due to the COVID-19 situation. Thanks to you all.


1. Skill development trainings are necessary for women to improve business management capabilities especially on e-commerce.

2. Government initiatives are required to make sure that the products (including jute based ones) made by women entrepreneurs can enter the global market.

3. Cluster based financing should be introduced for small entrepreneurs. Banks, NGOs and other financial institutions should begiven directions and assistance in this regard.

4. An easy system should be developed to distribute loans on minimum or zero interest among micro, cottage and small entrepreneurs on relaxed conditions. Insurance should be introduced to assist them in dealing with losses due to disasters. An updated database of entrepreneurs should be made available.

5. An updated database containing information of the women workers of the informal sectors should be developed. Also, they should be provided with Identity Cards. For example, it would have been easier to find out the household workers if they had ID cards.

6. Those of the women workers of the informal sectors who have fallen into poverty should be identified and brought under social safety programs.