Accelerating Digital Inclusion for Girls and Women

A virtual roundtable on ‘Accelerating Digital Inclusion for Girls and Women,’ was jointly organised on 22 April by Plan International Bangladesh and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme, with support from Grameenphone. Prothom Alo and Kishor Alo were media partners for the event. The discussion has been summarised in this supplement.

Particpants:

Zunaid Ahmed Palak MP, State Minister, ICT Division

Orla Murphy, Country Director, Plan International Bangladesh

Syed Tanvir Husain, Chief Human Resources Officer, Grameenphone

Tina F Jabeen, CEO and Managing Director, Startup Bangladesh, ICT Division

KAM Morshed, Senior Director, BRAC

Syed Almas Kabir, President, Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS)

Wahid Sharif, President, Bangladesh Association of Call Centres and Outsourcing (BACCO)

Tusabber Muntaha, youth representative, girl with disability, CSID

Asaduzzaman Asad, youth representative, Y-Moves Project, Yes Bangladesh

Safa Jarin Sukonnya, contributor, Kishor Alo, student, Viqarunnisa College

Moderator: Lafifa Jamal, Professor, Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering, Dhaka University

Discussion

Lafifa Jamal

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I welcome you all to today’s roundtable. The International Girls in ICT Day is observed on the fourth Thursday of every April, at the initiative of the International Telecommunications Union, in order to include girls in the fast growing ICT sector of the world and to encourage them to build their careers in this sector.

Half of our population comprises women. As in other sectors, women’s involvement in the ICT sector has also been increasing in recent times. The importance of ICT in women’s empowerment is extremely significant. In order to take the country forward in this age of globalisation, the ICT sector must be developed alongside other sectors. It will be a setback to women’s empowerment if they are not developed in this sector. The pandemic has emphasised the importance of ICT.

It is also very important to ensure internet safety for men and women alike. By using safe online platforms, we can sure women’s safety in the world of ICT.

In 2006, women constituted 16 per cent of our workforce. In 2019 this went up to 36 per cent. So from 2006 to 2019, women’s participation in the workforce increased by 20 per cent. The readymade garment sector has played a significant role in this increase. At present, around 25 per cent of women are studying in the ICT sector. Of them 10 to 12 per cent have taken up careers. And even less have a role in policymaking. Our discussion today is taking place in this backdrop.

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How can we increase women’s participation in startups? What are the factors women need to pay attention t in order to reduce gender disparity?

Tina F Jabeen

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Startup Bangladesh is the first venture capital firm completely financed by the government. Very recently, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of our independence and the centennial of Bangabandhu’s birth, we launched the ‘Shoto Borshe, Shoto Asha’ initiative which will invest Tk 1 billion (Tk 100 crore) in 50 startups. We recently invested in seven startup ventures, two firms of which are run by women. We will be cautious to ensure gender equality in investing in the remaining 43 startups.

Many women are studying ICT, but this is not proportionately reflected in jobs. We notice that many women entrepreneurs have shortcomings when it comes to leadership skills in business. It is not that they lack intelligence. Women are very creative. But they feel that they will not succeed in their objectives if they take up business. That is why we will take initiative for women’s leadership development skills.

We are using a gender lens in order to ensure a balance in our funding. In the case of social viewpoint, women can’t just look to the other side. When it comes to skills development, women have to view themselves as reliable consultants. Startup Bangladesh has a significant role in this regard. We advise other women entrepreneurs to ensure that women are given priority. This is a part of our everyday work.

Women and men are represented almost equally in Startup Bangladesh. There is a lot we can do from the social aspect. We can take up government and non-government policies. But at the end of the day, it is all about mindset.

It is not just in the ICT sector, but even the woman who has worked the whole day at Pathao, must be able to return home safely at the end of the day. People need to come forward in this regard at a social level.

What sort of support do you expect from the government and private sector level to increase women’s participation in the ICT sector? And for disabled women in particular?

Tusabber Muntaha

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The government has taken several steps for women to advance in the ICT sector. The Bangladesh Government has taken various measures to increase opportunities for the medical treatment, education, employment, etc of disabled persons. The Jatiya Mahila Sangshtha, under the ministry of women and children’s affairs, is implementing a district-based project for women’s computer training. This organisation has another project called ‘Tothyo Apa’ which has created a digital database. The non-government a2iprject has been launched. This project has significant contribution towards disabled persons.

In the case of ICT, we disabled women receive lower wages than others, even lower than disabled men. Many disabled women do not have smartphones or laptops. From a government or non-government level if they could be provided with devices and given training in ICT, they would not be a burden on society. The honorable state minister for ICT from last year has been providing disabled persons with free laptops. Around another 1000 laptops will shortly be distributed among the disabled. If other ministries also came forward in this regard, then disabled persons would not lag behind in Digital Bangladesh.

The ICT division has created a software called Emporia for disabled persons. This will help them participate in job fairs. This needs to be spread quickly among the disabled. At government initiative, the disabled are provided with training in freelancing. However, there is no follow-up to check if they are able to work after the training, what are the reasons if they are unable to do so, etc. As a result, many are dropping out after training. The quota facility had been halted now, but a quota for the disabled is required in order to ensure equal and fair opportunities. Various projects of the ministry need to be monitored to ensure the participation of the disabled. We look to private organisations to ensure inclusion of the disabled, particularly disabled women.

What areas need attention to increase women’s participation in the software sector?

Syed Almas Kabir

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While women make up half of our population, their participation on the ICT sector is still not satisfactory. BASIS has carried out several surveys which indicate that women’s participation in the ICT sector is 12 to 13 per cent. And in the case of women entrepreneurs, this goes down to 2 or 3 per cent. This is unfortunate.

The government’s ICT division has taken up several projects for the inclusion of women in the sector. We have a separate standing committee regarding women in the ICT sector. We have a women’s forum too, where women involved in the sector can become members. There is a strange fear among women when it comes to studies involving science, technology and math. Women are particularly scared of math. But this is not a real fear. They have been conditioned since childhood to nurture this fear. We have to mobilise a social revolution in this regard. BASIS will offer a special discount on its services to any member firm or company that employs 25 per cent women. We encourage these companies to have 25 per cent women employees.

Our biggest programme is the BASIS Softexpo, one of the largest expositions in South Asia on the software and IT sector. We allocated around 20 stalls free of charge there last time for women entrepreneurs. Out internet network has been a blessing for small scale women entrepreneurs. Women even in the small towns are using this to launch themselves as entrepreneurs through Facebook. This initiative is aimed to facilitate the expansion of Facebook-centred business or f-commerce. There are thousands of f-commerce entrepreneurs and 50 per cent of them are women.

There has been talk of trade licenses for f-commerce entrepreneurs. This shouldn’t be suddenly imposed upon them. However, there can be registration as in the case of freelancers. BASIS has a lot of vacant space. If these spaces can be let out to women entrepreneurs at nominal prices, they can set up their offices there.

The budget proposal submitted to NBR calls for a Tk 3 billion (Tk 300 crore allocation). A soft loan with just 2 per cent interest will be given from there to women entrepreneurs. The women entrepreneurs will be exempted from corporate tax for the next 10 years.

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What is the state of women leadership in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector?

Wahid Sharif

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BPO is a positive area for women entrepreneurs. But women’s presence at a mid-level in any industry, including BPO, is not all that visible. There are certain reasons behind this. There is actual a shortage of persons overall, not just women, in mid-level management. The ICT Division has taken up several training initiatives. These must continue. Attention must also be paid to our education sector.

We note that there are still certain social challenges in the BPO sector. Work in this sector continues 24/7. Women working overnight are still frowned upon by the society and their families. It is positive, though, that we have a lot of women working in this sector.

Women constitute about 30 to 40 per cent of our workforce. Women are more efficient than men in the BPO sector. There are still social challenges in the sector. We lag behind our neighbouring countries in their work environment, social environment and social understanding of the BPO sector. Women face all sorts of harassment when they return home late. These areas need attention.

The BPO sector is excellent for women. It has a lot of flexibility. There is scope here to work from home, to work part time. That is why there should be more focus on this sector. Private firms which employ more than a certain percentage of women, can be offered incentives. This will encourage them.

Girls and women are often subject to cyber abuse. What role can media play in mobilising awareness in this regard?

Safa Jarin Sukonnya

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We turn more and more towards working online during the prevalence of coronavirus. And it is not only women who are facing cyber abuse, all sorts of people are being harassed.

A very small percentage of the cyber abuse faced by girls is being reported to the police’s cyber crime unit. There are many reasons behind this. They do not know where to go for help. They do not know how to report. Many find reporting to be too much of a hassle.

The police department has a Cyber Support for Women helpline. There is also an app called Eagle offering assistance in the case of cyber harassment. The problem is that not all of us know about this. I myself was unaware about this. Hardly anyone is aware that the police headquarters has a helpline for victims of cyber harassment. This information needs to be spread through the media. Workshops should also be held in this regard.

There is a gender gap in all sectors and relatively more in the IT sector. What impact does this have on the economy?

KM Morshed

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The question has arisen whether the government can provide incentives. We are not sure. Studies show that if a company has a degree of versatility, it can be more profitable. If we understood this, we would have to sit and wait for government incentives. We would try to introduce this versatility on our own accord.

We note there are less presence of women in the IT sector and also fewer women entrepreneurs. Are there many entrepreneurs outside of the IT sector? Not really. A survey was conducted last August to look into the state of women entrepreneurs during the corona pandemic. It was seen that women entrepreneurs mostly have small and medium enterprises. There were only a handful of big businesses run by women.

Child marriage is a big problem at present. Girls are still considered to be a burden. Even in the colleges where they study, the teachers might be thinking it’s high time for the girl student to get married.

Are the workplaces safe for women? During the pandemic, we had to start sending the women their money by bKash, but they didn’t have bKash accounts. It was said women won’t understand these things. We took this up experimentally and saw with just a little effort, women could be made to understand these things.

What steps have you taken to encourage women’s inclusion in your company?

Syed Tanvir Husain

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Globally, there are fewer girls in STEM -- only 30 per cent of students in STEM education are girls and the rest are boys. A study shows that 65 per cent of the children who are studying in school pr getting enrolled in school now, will enter professions that don’t even exist today. Most jobs in the future will be run by technology and innovation. So having a STEM background is vital. We place emphasis on inclusive culture. To encourage more women in these fields, we need to look at what hampers them from joining STEM careers area. We need to consider factors such as their safety, enabling work environment for women and women-friendly policies. An example could be, before we started working from home in the Covid-19 pandemic, we offered pick and drop services for our employees. Women safety in public transport is a challenge and the facility of availing office transport helps to remove that worry.

Many of our colleagues do not come from a tech background. However, the industry we are in,requires a certain level of technological knowledge. All our colleagues, including those who come from business backgrounds, undergo structured learning to acquire the required technical skills. Over the last 2 years, around 30 per cent of our employees have received STEM focused expert training.

Over the past 2 years we recruited 61 women employees, with 30 among them from STEM background. We are not happy with the current number of women professionals.We believe we need to work towards goals to ensure more women join us as colleagues.That is why we have mandated that 80 percent of all our external recruitments will be female.We ensure that the women being recruited in Grameenphone are not being selected solely because of their gender. Rather, they are recruited because they are qualified for their roles.

We also believe that we need to create capabilities in university students. We have a mentorship platform called Platform SHE where 80 percent of mentees are from STEM background. We also have an initiative called GP Explorer, which is an innovative upskilling program. In GP Explorer 2.0, we have selected a total of 357 students all across Bangladesh with 50 percent of them being female. 44 of these female students are studying in STEM. We have also imparted online safety training to 90,000 young adolescents from marginalized background.

How helpful can technology be in the employment of differently-abled people?

Asaduzzaman Asad

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Alongside academic education, we use Coursera, Udemy and other platforms. A dual currency card is required to pay the fees for these courses which is not easily available. That is why the Bangladesh government should have an online course platform where jobs, freelancing or business skills can be accessed. They will be given certificates from there which will enable the disabled persons turn their lives around. We salute the government’s initiatives for a hi-tech park, increasing opportunities for freelancers and creating new entrepreneurs.

Classes have been running online for a year during the prevalence of corona. This poses certain challenges. There are many places, including villages, where the network is not strong. Again, there are many who do not have laptops or devices and so they drop out or lag behind. If deals could be made with the companies for special data packages and devices, then the dropout rate could be decreased.

Direct recruitment is carried out at various career fairs but movement here is challenging for the disabled. There is need for an online platform in this regard for the disabled. And skills can be acquired at home by means of online internship and apprenticeship.

The Learning and Earning Project is an important initiative of the government. Around 166,320 women are given basic ICT training here. Disabled persons could go forward if special batches could be arranged for them along with post-training follow-up and assistance in building a freelancing career. I strongly appeal to the government to declare International Girls in ICT Day a national day.

How can we use technological opportunities for gender equality and to improve women’s situation in Bangladesh?

Orla Murphy

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Technology has an impact in every area of our lives and this will simply increase. We observe that very few women enter STEM education and go ahead. Gender equality is extremely important if we want to go forward. Plan International Bangladesh is committed to ensure that every girl in Bangladesh can utilise her inner potential. We have a global campaign, “Girls Get Equal.”

Bangladesh has come far ahead in terms of education. The primary education rate is about 100 per cent. But by Class 8, around 36 per cent of the girl students drop out. For boys, the drop put rate is 5 per cent. Inequality is seen from a very early age. Plan International is carrying out a study with a2i and Grameenphone where such data will be collected. This data will help us how to go forward by means of partnership. Attention must be paid to the education system too. A plan of action must be determined through government-private partnership t reduce gender disparity in the technology.

SDG gives importance to gender equality. What are the government’s steps to bring women forward in ICT?

Zunaid Ahmed Palak

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On 12 December 2008 when the prime minister Sheikh Hasina declared the vision of Digital Bangladesh, there was very little participation of women in the IT sector. We did not even see computers in colleges and high schools. Now ICT is a compulsory subject from Class 6 to 12. Boys, girls, persons with special needs, everyone has access to this.

Just over a decade or so ago, there were 5.6 million (56 lakh) internet users in the country. That now stands at 115 million (11.5 crore). From a union level to all over the country there are around 650,000 freelancers. With rapid and big change in the IT sector, there is an increase in girls joining the sector and their access to this field. Women’s employment opportunities have been created in the IT sector.

Through the ICT division’s initiative, over 50,000 IT freelancers have been created by means of the Learning and Earning Development Programme. We took up the pilot She Power Project in 21 districts, aiming to create women IT maintenance engineers, e-commerce entrepreneurs, call centre agents and freelancers. In just a few years, 10,500 women entrepreneurs have been created. We have taken up the Women ICT Frontier Initiative (WIFI) with the United Nations. BRAC, Grameenphone and Plan International can be partners here.

The stories of thousands of women in e-commerce and f-commerce are winning praise from all over. From the ICT Division’s LICT project, we are running several master classes. At these master classes, marginalised rural women learn about digital marketing and creating a business model starting from production to sales.

Over the past few years we have been running a national high school programming competition. There has been extensive response from girls and so we have started a separate programming competition for them.

We have also set up 8000 Sheikh Russel Digital Computer Labs in the country. If interest is to be generated among girls to study science, technology, engineering and math, then the teachers and parents have to be conscious too.

We will establish 35,000 Sheikh Russel Digital Computer Labs by 2025, which will encourage girls directly and indirectly towards IT. We have a central dashboard and website to ensure and monitor girls’ access. This year through the Shoto Borsho Shoto Asha project, we will provide 50 startups with Tk 1 billion (Tk 100 crore). This will include a minimum 30 per cent women entrepreneurs.

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Lafifa Jamal: Employment opportunities have fallen drastically during the prevalence of Covid. Many people are losing their jobs. But they are managing to turn around with the help of IT. These times have taught us what a powerful force IT is, and now our girls are able to develop their skills in this area. Previously it was the urban girls who were involved in the ICT sector, but now ICT has reached the remote areas. The rural marginalised population is working with ICT. The first national girls programming competition was organised around the year 2015. The number of girls in programming then has increased tenfold.

If women are to advance, there is no alternative to self confidence, skill building and adequate practice. We believe IT can help overcome social and gender obstacles for girls to become financially independent. They will be able to contribute actively to the country’s economy.

Thank you everyone for participating in the discussion.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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