In a country blanketed by pervasive culture of obscurantism, adult women in villages coming out of home was once an absurd proposition. In recent years, the spectacle has changed almost radically. Like their counterparts living in cities, sizeable numbers of rural women are found engaged in commercial activities. Unlike the female labourers, especially farm hands, they are specifically committed to attaining self-sufficiency, and also supplementing their family income. They prefer to remain independent in their income generating ventures. Researchers dealing with rural economy do not hesitate to call these women 'entrepreneurs'. They are indeed. Running a small grocery shop, raising ducks or Bengal goats, making handicraft items and supplying them to town-based wholesalers mainly comprise female entrepreneurship in villages. These women are now found scattered all over the country.
In the distant past, the few village women who used to earn their livelihoods independently included mainly those selling fish at kitchen markets; and the 'bedeneys', the female members of a boat-living gypsy community. These women would sell phony herbal medicines, and were also known as snake charmers. Owing to the rising popularity of newer forms of entertainment, the 'bedeneys' have had to leave their ancestral profession. Many have left the boats and their earlier modes of earning. Besides the waning of social taboos, the mainstream village women entrepreneurs nowadays do not have to go through the obstacles which they had to face in the past normally.
With the increase in literacy and opportunities to come out of their homes, a number of women have taken to income-generating activities. A new career-related chapter opened before the rural womenfolk after the country's independence in 1971. Around two decades after independence, i.e. in the 1990s, few villages were found which did not have women engaged in commercial activities. Many were found to have started their business individually with small capital. Others stepped into their humble entrepreneurship jointly. Years later, a handful of NGOs (non-government organisations) came up with micro-credit for women interested in launching individual businesses.
It was the resolve of a section of women to explore a firm economic footing and come free of dependence on their husbands' income. It drove many to pick their own way of earning. In Bangladesh, rural families in general go through economic hardship. In the last couple of decades, enthusiastic women came forward to augment their family income. A great number of them is found to have attended school up to at least the primary level.
Elementary literacy serves as a basic impetus behind the quick success of village-based entrepreneurship. It doesn't take much time for the aspiring businesswomen to realise this truth. In the cases of family-based ventures, with its members extending a helping hand, prospects for success and expansion of particular businesses become easier. Alongside, many fledgling ventures, individual or family-run, are also seen failing half way through due to misspent capital. It is caused by lack of the knowledge of basic business techniques. Pragmatic women and their partners or associates may not have to face these debacles. Newer entrepreneurial horizons have long been opening before the women who completed school and earned SSC certificates. They are few and far between. But their small number could not deter them from emerging as role models for other young women. These women think big.
Following in their step, a lot of women with entrepreneurial dreams are now found opening small-scale boutique factories and sales outlets at villages on the outskirts of upazila or district towns. Days are changing fast. Nowadays young women from rural upper middle class have picked the trend of visiting suburban beauty parlours before participating in social celebrations like wedding. The spectacle of women with the latest facial make-up and hairdo was unthinkable even years back. Many originally village-based beauticians, who attained their skills in town, later shift their parlours to the district or divisional headquarters.
Of late, moderately educated women with fluency in speaking correctly pronounced Bangla are found joining rural community radios. Bangladesh is currently dotted with these sort-range radios. They broadcast basic information about agriculture, health and hygiene, housekeeping as well as entertainment programmes. Jobs at community radios are mostly part-time. Yet they have provided many women, along with men, the opportunity to choose a prestigious profession in the rural areas.
However, not all women are capable of enjoying these privileges. In fact, the majority of the rural women remain engaged in back-breaking menial works at farmlands or now-mushrooming brick kilns. A lot of others remain happy with nondescript business ventures. Those include 'pitha' (rice cake) making and paddy winnowing. The women who make rice cakes or light snacks at home sell those at village markets. A few others sit under improvised sheds to sell home-cooked rice and curry. Many women sell tea at corners convenient for them. The idea of the petty businesses of selling food items comes from the cities.
But the income-generating activity of operating cycle-rickshaws or battery-driven auto-rickshaws by a section of courageous women in upazila towns has bested their underprivileged counterparts in big cities. The scenario is still completely uncommon in the large cities like Dhaka. The small-town women's resorting to commercially driving vehicles proves one thing amply: the rural female folks these days are prepared to pick any traditionally male-dominated job. The reason is clear. It's a question of surviving with dignity. Good news is few rural women these days are prepared to sit idle at home. Even those who do not belong to the ultra-poor class want to augment the family income. Living a tolerably decent life is becoming costlier by the day.
Housewives with conscience appear to be willing to add to income-enhancing efforts of their husbands. It also ensures their individual self-sufficiency. But they might still have miles to go before they could attain full freedom in earning a living of their choice.