Leveraging System Readiness to Address Socio-Cultural Barriers in Rural Female Entrepreneurship

In the heart of rural Bangladesh, where the hum of progress is often drowned by the echoes of tradition, lies a silent revolution waiting to be unleashed: the untapped potential of rural women entrepreneurs. Women in Bangladesh have made significant strides over the last decade in terms of coming out of their homes to engage with the economy. However, according to a study by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), women own around 7.2% of the total business enterprises in the country. The top barriers hindering growth in rural female entrepreneurship are limited access to finance, limited education and training, and socio-cultural barriers.



System readiness is crucial for women’s entrepreneurship to flourish with proper supporting systems and interventions.


Understanding System Readiness

In the context of rural women entrepreneurship in Bangladesh, “system readiness” refers to the preparedness of the socio-economic ecosystem to support and facilitate the participation of women in entrepreneurial activities. It encompasses various factors such as access to resources, education, infrastructure, technology, financial services, market opportunities, and supportive policies. A system ready for women’s entrepreneurship ensures women have equal opportunities to start and grow businesses, overcome barriers, and contribute to economic development. This readiness involves creating an enabling environment that addresses both institutional and societal challenges women entrepreneurs face.


Multiple government and non-government organizations are addressing the aforementioned challenges. However, we can see from the evidence that more positive outcomes have stemmed from interventions tackling limited access limited education and training scopes. A report by The Daily Star shows girls account for 49.5% of students in primary schools, indicating a marked departure from the numbers of previous years. Additionally, Bangladesh is on track to achieve gender parity in tertiary education, which has increased from 0.37 in 1991 to 0.80 in 2021.


Regarding access to finance, micro-credit schemes by financial institutions and banks have played an important part and MFS has brought about a revolutionary change. More women are coming under the umbrella of MFS. 20% of women-owned mobile money accounts in 2021, up from 2% in 2011 (BIGD, 2023).  Users through this can not only do transactions in an easy and convenient method, but they can also gain access to credit.


Some organizations primarily focusing on micro-credit schemes working in this arena are ASA, TMSS, Grameen Bank, Uddipon, RDRS, BURO Bangladesh, BRAC, and Manab Mukti Sangstha. Other organizations support women’s education and skill development through various scholarship programs, training programs, etc. USAID, UNICEF, BRAC, Save the Children and CARE are some of the organizations working in this sector. However, much is still to be done to address the socio-cultural barriers that are still persistent.


Understanding Socio-Cultural Barriers for Women in Rural Entrepreneurship

Socio-cultural barriers to women’s entrepreneurship in Bangladesh refer to the societal and cultural factors that hinder women’s ability to engage in entrepreneurial activities and impede their economic empowerment. These barriers are deeply rooted in traditional norms, cultural practices, and gender roles in Bangladeshi society.


Patriarchal Mindset Negatively Influencing Women’s Economic Participation and Decision-Making


An assessment by Innovision Consulting for the Women’s Empowerment for Inclusive Growth (WING) Programme of UN Women Bangladesh showed that 78% of married women cited a lack of husband’s support as a key challenge in joining the business associations. In another study focusing on rural women’s entrepreneurship, the analysis showed a direct correlation between working and being able to participate in the decision-making process. In regions where female employment is high, more working women co-participate in the decision-making process together with the male members. This advantage is however stunted due to more women dropping out of work. Some stopped working during COVID times and never re-joined. Due to easing the restrictions on mandatory age for marriage by reducing it to 16 for women, more parents are quickly getting their daughters married and they are further not being able to get involved in any sort of work due to restrictions from in-laws.


Traditional Gender Roles Constraining Women’s Mobility and Autonomy


Rural people are still skeptical about letting women go outside for work. There persists a notion amongst household members and religious figures that women should stay indoors and take care of family chores. Their concern about women’s veil and modesty also came to light in a study done by Innovision as many feared working women would not stay modest and might start neglecting religious duties. Family members are also worried about what other members of the community might say. A study conducted by Innovision highlights the misconceptions that community has towards working women.  Interviews with household members show that 36% feel women who work cannot manage household responsibilities properly. This form of community mindset is hindering the participation and growth of women in entrepreneurship.


Innovision has undertaken several studies relating to women empowerment in multiple districts in Bangladesh. One of the studies showed that 95% of the women wanted to earn money and engage in entrepreneurship if they had the option to work from home.


Cultural Stigma and Stereotypes Surrounding Women in Business


Many perceived that women would be unable to handle the pressure of running a business. Most guardians do not feel confident that the female members of their families can tactically do business transactions. Innovision’s study on gender-based campaigns shows that 54% of the husbands of women entrepreneurs thought that most women tend to be non-proficient in business accounting, banking, and management of money etc.


System Readiness

Despite the barriers in the socio-cultural context, much improvement has been made. Influential community members like government leaders, religious leaders, and teachers are becoming more accepting and want better participation from women in the entrepreneurial arena. This shows that the mindset and perception now is more positive.


There are many government initiatives like the Tottho apa initiative that lets village women get access to information from a designated female employee of the government. Besides, there are government-owned marketplaces like laalsobuj.com that collect products made by rural women entrepreneurs and sell the products through their e-commerce website.


Smartphone penetration is very high (63.3%) among households in Bangladesh (Dhaka Tribune, 2023). Households owning smartphones are also able to access the internet and use it for different purposes. Communication has gotten better due to increasing investments in roads which has made it easy for even rural people to commute.


How Strategic Interventions can be undertaken through Systematic Methods?

So it is evident that system readiness is high in most aspects but there still exists significant challenges relating to socio-cultural barriers that are persisting due to stigma and negative perceptions of the community people. Interventions are thus necessary to strategically approach this problem. Households need to be made aware of the opportunities that exist. Gone are the days when one could only do business by venturing outside and interacting with other people.  Women can now produce products within the confines of their homes and can use technology to do all forms of transactions. This can easily negate the community’s pessimistic views and can cultivate a positive mindset. Still, participation is low because of a lack of awareness and proper orientation.


Conclusion: Moving Forward

While work is being done to address socio-cultural barriers, there is still scope to do more. Multi-partner approaches integrating private sector agencies and the government can help address the issues relating to constraints that women face in entrepreneurship in rural regions. These can include conducting awareness campaigns to promote gender equality and entrepreneurship, providing tailored training programs to build essential skills, mobilizing communities to challenge traditional gender norms and foster support, facilitating access to financial services and resources through partnerships, advocating for policy changes that promote women’s economic empowerment, and establishing mentorship and networking opportunities to provide support and guidance.


It is crucial that interventions are directed at both women and men, engaging male members of households to effectively implement systematic changes. By involving men in these initiatives, stakeholders can ensure a more comprehensive approach to tackling gender-based constraints. By working together in these areas, stakeholders can create a more conducive environment for rural women to succeed as entrepreneurs.


Contributor: Soumik Siddique Plaban from Data Analytics & Emerging Frontiers Portfolio at Innovision Consulting.