The budget titled "Bangladesh Towards a Resilient Future Protecting Lives And Livelihoods 2021-22" was presented on June 3 in Parliament. The budget promised an economic plan to protect lives and livelihoods during the pandemic situation. It has proposed increased allocation in different safety-nets initiatives to protect lives and livelihoods, however, from a gender lens there are some observations and concerns as well.
GENDER BUDGET REPORTS - WHERE ARE THEY? : Two years ago, when Gender-responsive national budget statements completed eleventh-year, they reached a standard where most of the ministries published 'Gender Budget Reports' alongside the main budget. They explained how ministries' different activities have implications on women's advancements and rights. Since inception in the year 2009-10, the statements had been gradually improved; and discussions and recommendations were going on how to further strengthen the gender budgeting statements.
Unfortunately, from the last financial year 2020-21, separate gender budget reports were not published. Gender budget statements either were not prepared or shared on the Ministry of Finance's website like in previous years.
From a process perspective, the action unfortunately is a huge step backward. Its shift from gender-responsive to gender-blind planning process. Hence the budgets failed to show trends and patterns on national level changes in gender equality and women's rights.
SAFETY NET FOR WOMEN-LED SMES: While the pandemic has opened up business opportunities in few sectors including e-commerce and health and pharmaceuticals, over 3 per cent of the labour force lost jobs while 16.38 million people became new poor amid the pandemic (Study on 'Impact of Covid-19 on the Labour Market: Policy Proposals for Trade Union on Employment, Gender and Social Security for Sustainable Recovery' by BILS and CPD). The study further identified that the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) mostly led by women were marginalised during the crisis and about 50 per cent of those enterprises reported laying off 76-100 per cent of their workers. The study further shows that female entrepreneurs have received targeted support under the stimulus package of Tk.20,000 crore for small, cottage and medium-sized enterprises. And the cash transfer support was mainly received by the urban poor (25 per cent) compared to that of the rural poor (18 per cent). Overall, the stimulus packages reached only 8 per cent of the country's total employed population during the crisis period.
TAX EXEMPTION UPTO TK 7 MILLION: In these changed backdrops, the budget 2021-22 has proposed to keep up to Taka 7 million of business turnover of the women entrepreneurs outside the purview of taxation. That is, women entrepreneurs in the SME sector will enjoy tax exemptions on their annual turnover of up to Tk 70 lakh (7 million). Women entrepreneurs and the SME sector are expected to be benefitted from this proposed tax exemption facility.
SAFETY-NETS: To address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are proposed incentive packages for micro, cottage and small and medium enterprises including the continuation of low-interest working capital facilities. There has been proposed expansion of cash transfer to individuals and to Dairy & poultry and Fish farmers, Boro farmers, non-MPO teachersand employees, for instance. However, these might not be directly supportive to women-led SMEs and their laid-off staff members - for SMEs where women are mostly leading the cottage industries related to handicrafts, food and garment.
CAPACITY BUILDING: The budget has proposed e-commerce training to 5,000 new entrepreneurs. These are welcome steps. However, there is a need to share information, especially among women, so that those in need can take the capacity-building support.
NEW POOR - WOMEN AND MEN
'Livelihoods, coping and support during Covid-19' a study (May 20, 2020) by PPRC and BIGD suggested that drastic reduction in household income during the pandemic is causing a reduction in household savings, food intake, and increased borrowing and selling of assets. The study suggested that female-headed households, particularly in urban areas are in greater distress compared to those of their male counterparts when it comes to food security. Unfortunately, it was not evident from the studies about the adverse differentiated effects on women and men in a family, especially in terms of food intake, ownership loss of sold assets, borrowing by whom or from whom etc. According to the study's third phase, rural and urban economy are recovering with urban being slower than rural.
Among twenty-three proposed incentive packages, increased coverage of 'Old age allowance' and 'allowance for widows, deserted and destitute women' have been mentioned prominently in the budget speech. The allocation commits to support rights holders in 262 Upazilias from the current 112 Upazilas that are most poverty-stricken (Budget speech: page 69). The budget also proposed a considerably increased allocation for different ongoing projects like 'Amar Bari Amar Khamar' project to Tk. 41,010 crore in the local government and rural development sector which was Tk. 38,338 crore in FY2020-2021 (Budget speech ref: page 73).
While the expansions of safety-net allocations are welcomed, there was a need to allocate funds for people, women and men that lost jobs and are vulnerable to fall into extreme poverty level.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, A SHADOW PANDEMIC: Within households and outside, women's economic advancements and physical mobility are challenged in public places including transport facilities by different forms of violence mostly by men. According to different studies and report findings, during the pandemic, there is the rise in murder and rape of women and girls and child marriages. In response, along with various ongoing projects, the budget has proposed to increase number of One-Stop Crisis Centres. However, this reactive solution might not be enough to prevent violence against women and girls in the changed context.
The violence, the stress, the burden of unrecognised, unpaid work, takes their toll on women's health, their leisure time, and challenges work efficiency, and progression. The budget should have been more innovative to address gender-based violence, with more communicative interventions that promote non-violence, dignity and respect for all without stereotyping their roles, responsibilities, and interests.
ADDRESSING SPECIAL NEEDS
l VAT EXEMPTION ON SANITARY NAPKIN: The budget has proposed for VAT exemption of local manufacturing of sanitary napkins to support health protection of women, and two years extension of existing VAT exemption has also been proposed on importation of certain raw materials used for the production of sanitary napkin. The proposed changes would be supportive to reduce recurring expenditure as well as might increase access by more women and girls.
l TAX-FREE CEILING AT TK 350,000 FOR HIJRAS : The existing tax rate for individual taxpayers is also applicable for a Hijra taxpayer termed on the speech as 'third gender'. The budget has proposed to fix the tax-free ceiling at Taka 350,000. This is an acknowledgment of the marginalisation of Hijras and the change is expected to achieve Hijras' social inclusion.
l DAY-CARE CENTRE: In the budget speech, it was mentioned that Child Day-care Act 2021 has been drafted and awaits enactment. Once implemented, these are expected to serve children in extreme poverty and are living in marginalised conditions; and would generate employments as well. Hence a positive step towards development.
INCREASED ALLOCATION FOR THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN AFFAIRS MINISTRY: The Allocation has been increased to Tk 4,191 crore for the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs from Tk. 3,860 crore of FY2020-2021. The increased allocation is expected to be supportive to expand different schemes that the ministry is continuing.
LANGUAGE: In the English version of the speech, there was frequent use of gender-exclusive terms including the use of manpower instead of human resources. The term 'Jonobol' was rightly used in the Bangla version of the speech. However, the term 'third gender' has been used both in the English and Bangla versions of the speech. The intended word should have been 'Hijra' or intersex. The term 'third gender' is not promoted to use as this implies hierarchy among sexes which is not a desirable presentation of any of the sexes.
To conclude, the proposed budget is mostly the previous year's continuation with some expansion in ongoing schemes and addressing of some special needs. Instead of increasing considerable safety nets, it continues to focus more on industrial and infrastructure development - however, with a gender-blind approach, the structural advancement might not reach its desired development targets.
Overall, the budget promises to continue the economic advancement of women and other marginalised communities. Tax benefits are supportive, but these alone are not enough to reduce inequality. Socio-cultural barriers and the problems directly related to access to finance should be addressed through the budget.