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Border Haats: An opportunity for women’s participation on the Bangladesh-India border?

Working towards change, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021.

Historically, women in South Asia are restricted from participating in the labour market due to various socio-cultural constraints. Gender norms in the patriarchal social structure often work against women’s mobility and empowerment. However, as with other countries in the region, opportunities for participation of women in the labour force have increased in Bangladesh and India. This has happened due to gender-friendly changes in some policy advocacy and the enactment of legal provisions in favour of women over the last decade. Yet, there is still much work to be done. An important area where changes continue to be needed are the Border Haats, a border market area between Bangladesh and India.

As most of the Border Haats are located in remote areas, the means of transportation are inadequate. Although there are a few women visible on the Indian side of the bordering areas, women are almost invisible on the Bangladesh side (two percent only). My recently published Briefing Paper argues that Border Haats can be instrumental to women’s empowerment in the region by enhancing women’s participation in the labour market.

In this Briefing, Paper I argue that Border Haats can be good avenues for enhancing women’s participation in the labour market, thereby contributing to their empowerment. While cultural norms and practices prevalent in a patriarchal society often restrict women from participation in public fora, the following measures could contribute to positive change:

1) Supporting capacity building of women in trading;

2) Making provisions for a flexible and safe working environment for women by putting in place adequate washroom facilities, transportation links and security measures;

3) Extending financial support and incentives to women, such as easy or interest-free loans;

4) Exploring and exploiting local resources and skills to get more women interested and involved in trading; and

5) Raising community and household awareness through gender-sensitive initiatives to help change entrenched patriarchal customs, attitudes, and practices that hold back women’s empowerment.

Crucially, in order to increase women’s participation as vendors and vendees, initiatives should focus on women’s interests and not just "business as usual". There are several handicrafts, homemade food products, and indigenous fruits and herbs which interest many women and which are, unfortunately, fading from market spaces. These could be revived and popularised through research on indigenous knowledge, interests and skills of local communities.

While this Border Haats project is something I have worked on with CUTS International, the key themes of women-centred, grassroots research and action also sit at the heart of the GRRIPP network. Through the soon-to-be-launched GRRIPP South Asia Funding Call, we hope that there will be the opportunity for many small organisations to undertake similar research to the CUTS project, and offer recommendations for action in previously invisible or under-researched areas.

Professor Mahbuba Nasreen is Director of the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the South Asia Regional Lead for GRRIPP.


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