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The skilled girl effect: Worth more than the US and Chinese economies put together

by Asif Saleh and Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh, BRAC | BRAC - Bangladesh
Tuesday, 8 March 2016 10:08 GMT

Khadija Akhter, an 18-year-old mechanic, fixes a motorbike at a workshop in Rajshahi in northern Bangladesh. Photo by BRAC

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Bangladesh, parents generally spend more money on their daughters' weddings than their education. But things are changing ...

A computer whirs to life in a small shop in Bangladesh’s chaotic capital Dhaka. Outside rickshaw drivers bargain for fares and street sellers call out the day’s fish prices. The phone rings. Hasna Hena, 15, takes the call in one hand, her other flying over the track pad to open Photoshop. It’s another new client needing a poster design.

An hour away in the rural town of Tongi, Mahmuda Akhter, 16, sits in a mobile phone servicing shop in the main market. A stressed looking customer rushes in with his phone. Holding a small screwdriver, Mahmuda pries open the cover of his mobile and diagnoses the problem.

In the outskirts of Rajshahi, six hours from Dhaka, Khadija Akhter, 18, kick-starts a shiny red and black motorcycle she has just fixed. “Everything should be fine now,” she tells the owner. She jumps on to take it for a test ride around the block, disappearing in a cloud of dust.

Not so long ago it would have been unusual for a young woman to be a graphic designer, a phone service provider, or a mechanic – especially in a country where few women drive.

Women are relatively new entrants to the formal workforce in Bangladesh and the majority of this new demographic are the first in their families to have a job. Across the country, women are increasingly taking up leadership positions as well, which has tremendous implications for the country’s workforce.

If Bangladesh stays on track, more than 80 percent of women will be working in a decade’s time – up from a third at the moment, says the World Bank’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

The story of economic empowerment is rapidly changing. A USAID-funded study showed that labour force participation for 20- to 24-year-old women in Bangladesh more than doubled over the past 10 years, coinciding with the garment boom. The industry now employs over four million workers in the country, 80 percent of them women. Garment exports accounted for $24 billion last year, 80 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports. 

A new report from The McKinsey Global Institute indicates that if given the same job opportunities as men, women could contribute $28 trillion to global economic growth. That is roughly equivalent to the US and Chinese economies combined.

There are moral reasons why countries should foster gender equality, but there are economic reasons as well. Women are more likely to spend their earnings on health, education, and investing in the future. Empowering women is also a critical component of each new sustainable development goal. But beyond advocating for gender equality, women’s participation in the workforce also makes economic sense.

Brishty Akhter, 18 is a skilled tailor who owns a shop where she trains and employs other girls in southern Bangladesh. When she was 16, she became an apprentice tailor and developed her skills. Then she did something almost unheard of. She convinced her parents to spend the money they had saved for her marriage to buy her a shop so she could start her own business.

In Bangladesh, parents generally spend more money on their daughters’ weddings than on their education. The country still has the fourth highest child marriage rate in the world.

What gave Brishty, and her parents the confidence that her shop was a good investment?

Brishty is a graduate of a BRAC skills training pilot programme called Skills Training for Advancing Resources (STAR) that has seen over 11,000 apprentices graduate in Bangladesh. Over 6,000 of them are girls. Ninety-five percent of graduates are employed upon completion of the program. They are employed in the informal and formal sectors or start their own businesses.

The programme pairs apprentices directly with master craftspeople, innovating on the traditional informal apprenticeship model that has existed for men in South Asia for thousands of years. It is significantly cheaper than costly training institutions. After just six months of training, apprentices begin working. Women and men are given the same choice of trades to pursue. Trades are chosen based on the demands of an increasingly service oriented economy, continually mapped through smartphones.

As a result of skills training, Hasna, Mahmuda and Khadija, and hundreds of other girls across Bangladesh are now working in trades like IT, mobile phone repairs and motorcycle servicing. In a region with the lowest gender parity in the world, these women are working the same hours and employed in the same sectors as men.

According to the Bangladesh Labour Force Survey 2013, labour force participation for women is 33.5 percent, compared to 81.7 percent for men. If female labour participation rates in Bangladesh rose by 2.5 million per year, it would take just 10 years for the participation rate to equal the current rate of male participation.

Now we need to give millions more women those opportunities. Empowering girls like Brishty will not only improve the economy but can also help decrease child marriage and give families the confidence to invest in their children’s future careers.

Gender disparity is a complex issue, but simple solutions exist. Significant political and social changes are also required, but harnessing the skilled girl effect could dramatically accelerate those changes.

It costs a few hundred dollars to equip a girl with skills through an apprenticeship. Let’s #PledgeforParity this International Women’s Day. Invest in girls, they’ll take care of the rest.

Asif Saleh is BRAC Director of Strategy, Empowerment and Communications and Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is BRAC Strategic Communications Specialist