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Accelerating women’s participation in the BBIN supply chains is an imperative

In 2020, the female labour force participation rate was below 50 per cent in Bangladesh and India (36 and 20 per cent, respectively) and 59 per cent in Bhutan. While Nepal recorded 82 per cent women participation, it did not make it much different from the other three countries concerning the quality of female labour participation. In the Eastern-South-Asia sub-region, also known as BBIN, women mostly participate in either agriculture, the informal sector of the economy, or stages of value chains associated with a low value-added and perform informal work in a formal economy. It is not surprising then that the COVID-19 crisis, which caused a deep economic recession and left many millions jobless, impacted women in the BBIN, as it did worldwide, disproportionately in terms of income loss, increased burden of unpaid care work, and gender-based violence. However, the COVID-19 policy response focusing on women has been far from satisfactory, especially when it comes to trade and transport infrastructure planning in the sub-region.   

Analyses namely point that better inter-country connectivity and more trade can improve women's status in the labour force and contribute immensely to economic and social benefits. In this respect, the BBIN countries work together to realise the untapped potential of existing and emerging multi-modal trade and transport infrastructure in the sub-region. For example, under the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT), infrastructure capacity of the identified ports of call is improving and facilitating trade and transport through inland waterways between the two countries, while according equal priority for developing transit linkages to the PIWTT for Bhutan and Nepal. 

However, women-centric policies as part of sub-regional trade and transport cooperation have not been given much attention. This is even though such provisions can reduce gender-biased trade barriers that impinge more heavily on women and women-owned firms.

Refocusing trade facilitation with a gender lens would complement multi-modal trade and transport connectivity initiatives converting them into significant enablers of women's economic empowerment in the sub-region. The potential of this should not be overlooked when preparing COVID-19 exit strategies and efforts of the governments towards a sustainable and resilient future. 

Developing the gender-sensitive infrastructure requires an enabling environment that attracts women and promotes their economic participation. Border posts and supply chain infrastructure should be connected with adequate, accessible, secure, and well-lit roads so that women do not feel unsafe while travelling. Furthermore, ensuring women officials' presence at support desks could encourage and bolster women's participation in cross-border trade. 

Similarly, constraints due to bearing and caring for children restrict women to engage in economic activities. Measures that would facilitate women's work while caring for the children or elderly can make much difference (as shown in other countries) to keep women economically active. 

Established and emerging inter-modal trade and transport infrastructure needs to have inclusive infrastructure-related governance and governing bodies by provisioning and encouraging women's role as decision-makers. With gender-specific policies and governance models, sound infrastructure and a safe environment will help increase women's participation in cross-border trade. 

Women's participation in cross-border trade will lead to positive multiplier effects accelerating their involvement in forward and backward linkages. Women traders would be motivated to visit the border points themselves. They would no longer need middlemen as they are less likely to be intimidated by male-dominated public and private entities. 

Furthermore, when women are economically engaged and financially empowered, they are likely to reinvest their financial resources for their family's education, health, and nutritional needs. Imagine how much this will inspire other women and motivate them to be part of economic activities. 

As a hub for various inter-modal connectivity initiatives, the BBIN sub-region has an opportunity to become more proactive in fostering inclusive trade and transport infrastructure linkages. For this to happen on the ground, vocational training and awareness generation is also imperative.

This can help create a virtuous circle for women to engage themselves at higher value-added parts of supply chains. In turn, such participation of women would develop new platforms and avenues to catalyse their economic empowerment.

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