Gender Mainstreaming at the Bangladesh Resident Mission: Why Has It Worked

Feature | 31 March 2009

"If we ignore 50% of the population, what benefit are we giving?" asks Wahidur Rahman, chief engineer at the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) in Bangladesh. "Whatever we do, we have to find out how women could be involved and be a partner."

How has this engineer reached this conclusion in a country like Bangladesh, which is often perceived as slow to change? The answer lies in the way the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its field office, the Bangladesh Resident Mission (BRM), approach their work.

Among the many good things going for Bangladesh today are changing attitudes toward women and their place in development. Government policies now routinely refer to the need to consult with women and ensure their participation in development activities. There has been an extended drive to increase the enrollment of girls in school to overcome their disadvantages. Large nongovernment microfinance institutions, such as Grameen Bank and BRAC, have demonstrated that women, even those with limited skills, can contribute to household incomes if they are given a chance to access small loans. The Government has taken the bold step of setting a quota for women's participation in local government; women are now frequently seen at public rallies and in political forums, obliging leaders to listen to their concerns. An LGED female officer says, "Culture was sometimes a barrier, women did not want to come out - now we have overcome this, and it is easier to bring women to meetings and to give their time to group work."

Against this backdrop of change, ADB's gender and development policy requires all operations to ensure that gender concerns are an integral part of activities and that women can benefit from development investments. As attitudes have changed in Bangladesh - and with careful guidance from the gender specialist and enthusiasm from project implementation officers - ADB's projects have illustrated how women can be encouraged to come forward and be involved in new development opportunities.

Compared with the whole ADB portfolio of loans and grants approved in December 2007, Bangladesh has a higher proportion of projects that either have a gender theme or are considered to be effectively mainstreaming gender issues. For ADB, 32% of approved projects from 1998 to 2007 are classified as having significant gender mainstreaming (i.e., having a gender and development thematic classification or effectively mainstreaming). For Bangladesh, 50% of projects fall under these categories. A recent assessment of factors contributing to this higher-than-average proportion of gender-mainstreamed projects identifies six critical elements:

1. Increasing Opportunities for Women's Involvement in the Loan Portfolio

The portfolio of loans in Bangladesh has offered good entry points for integrating gender issues. Although the largest investments are in infrastructure, many projects in both rural and urban development have increasingly required community involvement in designing and maintaining small infrastructure. Thus, it is relatively easy to explore ways for women to participate in this process. It is now accepted that strong governance and effective management of public resources require all community members to be engaged. Women now rely on newly elected female councilors to help raise their concerns. With training and separate facilities supported through ADB projects, women are becoming more effective in new decision-making positions, and more women are encouraged to take on more responsibilities in public life.

Projects have also sought ways to extend economic and other benefits to women. Women are now trading in newly constructed market areas and creating new consumer niches by selling directly to women, thus changing stereotypes of women's roles in the market place. With more opportunities open to them, women in project communities are no longer wholly dependent on men and their incomes are increasing.

2. Willingness to Try New Ideas

Some partner government agencies of the BRM have been willing to try new ideas for involving women in project activities. The Government's quota for elected female local councilors has given impetus to making government services meet women's needs more effectively. The BRM gender specialist capitalized on this supportive environment and was able to test ideas in several projects. As some approaches to involving women proved particularly successful, these ideas were picked up by other executing agencies and resident mission staff as the designed new projects. Although many were doubtful that women could work as laborers in infrastructure construction or manage road maintenance, these women have often been successful. As a BRM project officer notes, "Women are more sincere. Therefore, contractors want to hire them - not just to exploit low wages but also because women can be relied upon - they are serious and sincere in their jobs." In another project, agricultural extension officers, despite initial doubts, were encouraged to train women instead of men in nontraditional tasks with new crops. These women found new respect within their families and the community as they passed on new farming technologies and knowledge.

3. Inclusion of Gender Action Plans in Project Design

With growing evidence that women's participation has increased development results in the resident mission, new tools were tested and introduced across ADB. Among these are the gender action plans (GAPs). Possible entry points for women and special measures to ensure that they can participate are set out during project preparation for all relevant activities. A project-specific GAP pulls together all elements for mainstreaming gender, including required resources and monitoring and evaluation indicators. Key aspects of the GAP are incorporated into loan assurances to encourage buy-in from executing agencies and other project partners.

"ADB was a pioneer in incorporating assurances into the structure of the loan agreement to ensure gender is incorporated and monitored," declare several executing project directors. They further state that such assurances were acceptable only because ADB offers gender and development technical support in the design phase and budget allowances.

To simplify procedures, the gender specialist at the resident mission has refined requirements to a two-page GAP to be included in the core appendix of the report and recommendation of the President (the base loan document). A more detailed analysis and GAP are provided in a supplementary appendix. Each GAP also has provisions elaborating on each element of the plan during the early stages of project implementation, to revalidate the approach and reassess the resources required.

4. Successful Implementation of the Gender Action Plan

The need for flexibility has created tension in some countries, where disbursement schedules have been threatened, as elements of GAP implementation (as well as other social inclusion elements) have brought about delays. Project directors from executing agencies such as LGED noted that a GAP has to be designed hypothetically and then regularly reassessed throughout implementation to improve elements. Community resistance to challenging gender relations may take different forms or may not occur at all. Women may come up with new ways to smoothen implementation as they gain confidence and knowledge of expectations from other project components. Such factors cannot be readily predicted. Although GAP elements may have to be implemented innovatively, the flexibility that can be expected from other project elements is limited.

5. Willingness to Learn from Previous Success

Gender successes in nontraditional sectors, such as rural infrastructure, have encouraged several ADB staff members to use these as models for other projects. Learning from previous successes has been supported by recent country directors at BRM and the senior management of ADB's South Asia Department. Documents and case studies of good practices were developed with support from the Regional and Sustainable Development Department, and relevant analysis was provided in the country gender assessment for Bangladesh. These documents and tools were most useful to the social development and gender officer and project gender specialists. Increased attention to gender mainstreaming also coincided with a shift in focus within ADB to address capacity gaps within partner developing member country agencies to improve governance of infrastructure investments and promote sustainability. This provided an important entry point for including women in more accountable governance in communities, thus supporting the government policy to increase the number of women participating in political decision making.

6. Strategic Placement of the BRM Gender Specialist

Mandated to work closely with the project management unit staff, the location of the gender specialist in the policy and program unit at the resident mission has facilitated the flow of information and availability of timely technical advice to resolve implementation issues quickly. This approach has demonstrated the importance of technical advice to be informed by the overall direction of the program. It is also important for the gender specialist to be able to focus more attention on certain projects at the beginning or at midterm review.

Although technical advice during the design phase of a project is important, experience over the past few years has demonstrated that ongoing monitoring is also essential but can be time consuming. Systematic tracking of gender component outputs, debating how challenges might be resolved, and regular reporting are among the contributions of the BRM gender specialist to more effective project implementation.

An LGED officer concludes, "Compare women's empowerment now and before the project - there is very great change. Now women raise their voices and know about responsibilities as elected officials and as citizens." A colleague concurs, "We understand now - engineering is not just bricks and mortar. We learned that we need to be working with people so we had to learn the capacity to address 'soft issues' as well as issues with engineered solutions."