December 17, 2017

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When women have more access to financial as well as physical assets, it provides them with a base of authority that is important in staking her claim for equal or fair treatment.

Social enterprise – most of us in Bangladesh tend to be skeptical and see it as another system of siphoning money in the name of doing social good. These are essentially business ventures with a twist – reinvesting revenue to scale social and environmental impact instead of maximising profits. While there are cases of evident malpractice, social enterprises play a critical role when it comes to empowering communities and improving marketplace dynamics.

Most people find it difficult to differentiate between a social enterprise and a mainstream business – especially in terms of objectives and operational models. Social enterprises exist to fill the gaps in the marketplace, which in turn help create opportunities for both consumers and producers. Such business models can reach those who have previously had little to no access to services like healthcare, financial institutions, and education.

In addition to that, social enterprises also have the capacity to contribute to a country’s overall economy by generating employment and developing a skilled workforce. Even nonprofit organisations have started exploring social enterprise models to create a sustainable ecosystem that continues to fuel development activities.

However, in case of gender inequality, social enterprises cannot be considered an isolated solution due to certain inherent limitations. A recent study by the British Council reveals that social enterprises are helping to narrow the gap between “the empowerer” and “the empowered.” The report highlights that close to 30% of social enterprises operating in India, who are not working with gender rights, have highlighted one of their objectives to be empowering women. The reason behind this is that female representation is high and it is mostly women who play a decision-making role within these organisations.

The scenario seems quite promising in Bangladesh, with around 20% of social enterprises in the country being female-led, according to another British Council report. It also highlights that women comprise of 41% of the total workforce in social enterprises.

This is more than double the rate of women participating in full-time jobs across mainstream employment sectors. The main appeal for women to work in social enterprises is the aspirations of growth that come with it. Another factor of appeal is that women are able to resonate with the causes that social enterprises focus on – such as health care, education, ethical trade, etc.

The Government of Bangladesh is making considerable efforts to ensure a positive growth environment for social enterprises. This is part of a collaborative effort to meet the targets set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, one of which focuses on achieving gender equality. Since the 1990s, the government started adopting policies for the development of micro entrepreneurs among women living in poverty. These women entrepreneurship related policies have continued to be an integral part of the government’s five year plans ever since. The current social enterprise movement brewing in the country is a solid opportunity toward empowering more women and the government should continue extending its support in order to achieve durable results.

Social enterprises drive women empowerment in four powerful ways: creating employment opportunities, promoting ownership of economic assets, providing necessary services and funding women’s rights initiatives.

Ventures like BRAC’s own Aarong has made drastic changes for over 65,000 artisans, mostly women, by providing stable incomes, ensuring fair prices, and offering additional support. These benefits are not just restricted to empowering women who belong to maginalised groups. Laboni Afroz Chowdhury, a Manager at Aarong who has been with the organisation for over 20 years, found an encouraging environment to explore her professional horizons and is currently supporting her female colleagues in the same way.

There is always the lingering concern about how empowering women at the workplace will solve the other issues related to gender inequality. To put it into context, by supporting a woman to achieve her highest potential also helps her to break down many of the barriers that have been traditionally binding. Taking domestic violence as an example – women who are empowered at the workplace tend to be more aware of their rights and take proactive measures to prevent either themselves or others from being exposed to such situations.

When women have more access to financial as well as physical assets, it provides them with a base of authority that is important in staking her claim for equal or fair treatment. These incremental but important changes to women’s lives makes a significant difference in how they position themselves in society.

With all that said, it excites me to witness how social enterprise models are flourishing in Bangladesh and abroad while consistently having considerable impact on the lives of countless women. While many social enterprises in Bangladesh are critiqued as “cash in” schemes, their contribution to narrowing gender gaps in the workplace is becoming more evident as the concept continues to achieve maturity.


Ali Iqbal Murshed is an external communications specialist at BRAC.

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