The digital era came to Bangladesh rather belatedly as regimes of the eighties and nineties had rejected the opportunity to connect to the South Asian information super highway for fear of free flow of information, citing the need to protect classified state information (Hasan, 2003). As a result, the e-government landscape in Bangladesh was still in its infancy in the early 2000s.
In 2001, the United Nations Division for Public Economics and Public Administration (UNDPEPA) and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) conducted a study on the e-government environment and sustainable development of UN member states. It found that 11 per cent of countries did not have e-government, 16.8 per cent had emerging e-government, 34.2 per cent had enhanced e-government, 29 per cent had interactive e-government and 9 per cent had transactional e-government. Bangladesh was placed among countries with deficient e-government1 capacity where e-government registered as low priority in the policy agenda.2
However, by the October 2001 general elections, Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) had become a vital electoral issue. Both BNP and Awami League (AL) parties vied for votes promising to do anything and everything to bring about digital technologies. The BNP promised to build Internet villages with IT experts. The AL continued the IT agenda it had embarked on upon assuming power in 1996, including the launch of a Bangladesh Submarine Cable Network Project and waiving taxes on computers and computer accessories.
The BNP assumed power through the 2001 elections and delivered its IT pledges in 2005 when Bangladesh connected to the information super highway via a submarine cable costing US$ 35.2 million. It likewise formulated the country’s first National ICT Policy in 2002. With this connection, it became possible to launch the first blog site Somewhereinblog.net in December 2005 with 68,000 registered bloggers (Haq, 2013). By the end of 2006, the Norwegian telecommunication company Telenor opened 500 community information centres. Internet cafes started to mushroom in urban areas.
The Roadmap for Digital Bangladesh. During the December 2008 elections, ICTs once again became a central issue, highlighting citizen demand for more digitalisation. Hence, when AL popularized the slogan “Digital Bangladesh”, it resonated with young voters (who comprised one-third of the electorate at the time) as they saw digitisation as being synonymous with being modern and forward looking (Genilo, Islam & Akther, 2013). Subsequently, AL won the election by a landslide and the euphoria over ICTs spread to various sectors - the media, civil society, business, IT and academia – each of which developed their own interpretations of the buzzword. At first, the concept of “Digital Bangladesh” was unclear. It came to mean anything and everything. It was also linked to the war against poverty. Later, the media played an important role in facilitating dialogues on ‘Digital Bangladesh’; sponsoring multi-stakeholder forums until the concept was exhaustively discussed3 (Genilo, Islam & Akther, 2013).
Picking up on these public debates, the government furthered the conceptual development of “Digital Bangladesh” and published three documents on building an information society - Digital Bangladesh Strategy in Action 2010, National ICT Policy 2009, and Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh 2010. These documents set into motion the development of the roadmap for Bangladesh’s ICT development. The government presented Digital Bangladesh as a new society, where technology could help ensure education and health, generate jobs and reduce poverty, and promote human rights.
However, the roadmap was not well-received by all sectors of society. Scholars such as Bhuiyan (2013) mused that it seemed like double speak. After doing a critical discourse analysis of the official documents describing ‘Digital Bangladesh’, Bhuiyan (2013) concluded that the national ICT strategy was pro-business, but with several pro-poor messages integrated (resulting in a tension between marketization and egalitarianism of ICT). The digital inclusion of all sectors in society was not guaranteed in the said documents.
Under both National ICT Policy 2002 and 2009, the Prime Minister chaired the National ICT Task Force (composed of government representatives) that spearheaded all matters relating to ICT policy in the country. Each ministry had to appoint a mid-level government official (at the level of Joint Secretary or Additional Secretary) as the ICT Focal Point to coordinate e-governance activities and priorities within the ministry (Raihan & Habib, 2006). Based on the roadmap, all government agencies and quasistate bodies were tasked with looking at how ICTs can facilitate (in their respective areas): (1) social equity (2) productivity (3) integrity (4) education and research (5) employment (6) strengthening exports (7) healthcare (8) universal access (9) environment, climate and disaster management and (10) support to ICTs. The National ICT Task Force, meanwhile, were to monitor any deviation in implementing the policy; undertaking status checks, necessary reprioritizations and program changes.
To encourage ICT innovations, the government launched the annual Digital Innovations Awards in 2010. The award categories included e/m-business, e/m-culture, e/m-education, e/m-governance, e/m enterprise, e/m-health, e/m-inclusion, e/m-learning, e/m-localisation, e/m-news, e/m-science and environment and e/m-content.4 Under the e/m inclusion category, the awardees for 2010 and 2011 may be classified into two groups. The first group consisted of academic institutions and non-government organizations that have implemented specific interventions to address the digital exclusion of certain vulnerable groups (disabled, farmers, rural population and small entrepreneurs). The second group were government units that have made use of the digital to improve basic service delivery such as transportation, food and health (Genilo, 2012a). Some award-winning innovations included the RHD Central Management System (Ministry of Communication), Public Food Distribution System (Directorate General of Food) and Office Attendance Monitoring System (Directorate General of Health Services). Taking its cue from the government, non-government and development agencies became active in using ICTs for development. Genilo and Akhtar (2015), in mapping ICT4D projects, found at least 25 private sector and/or NGO-initiated projects that sought to make basic services available to poor and marginalised sections of the population (in sectors such as digital access, safe drinking water, health care, medicines, computer literacy, weather updates, flood forecast, online education, agricultural extension, nutrition information and life insurance).
Gender divide and Digital Bangladesh. Various initiatives in ICT4D put Bangladesh’s journey into motion towards digitalization. However, as Bhuiyan (2013) has highlighted, ‘Digital Bangladesh’ does not guarantee digital inclusion. ICT policy documents overlook the digital exclusion of women, gender inequality in ICT education, as well as the under-representation of women in ICT professions.
The documents simply assume that women can freely participate and benefit from ‘Digital Bangladesh’. Islam (2012) opined that “there are no reliable statistics on women’s use of ICT in Bangladesh but it is clear that the numbers are small. Most women who use information technology use it at work. Except in upper income enclaves, access to a computer or the Internet at home is not a typical phenomenon.” According to Islam, many factors affect the digital inclusion of women such as literacy and education, language, time, cost, geographical location of facilities, social and cultural norms, and women’s computer literacy levels and information search and dissemination skills. The gender digital divide is reflected in other statistics on patterns of use, as well. For example, a 2015 survey of Facebook use in the country indicates that 79 per cent of users are male and only 21 per cent female.
The lack of attention to the issue of the inclusion of women in technology professions is also a matter of concern. In 2009, the Bangladesh Online Research Network flagged the need to address the gross under-representation of women in ICTbased occupations. In fact, corporate executives and computer professionals came together in 2010 to establish the Bangladesh Women in Technology (BWIT) Forum, in response to this challenge. BWIT aims to empower women with technology in order to build a critical mass of women ICT workers in Bangladesh. Its main goal is to enhance the reputation of women in the ICT sector through developing their capacity in this field. For example, in 2015, it conducted a series of workshops for integrating women ICT freelancers and entrepreneurs into the labour market.
Though National ICT policy is not informed by a gender perspective, the government has taken a strong pro-women stance in its traditional sectoral programming and has advanced the women’s agenda. The Bangladesh government is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. It has also attempted to take concrete action to realize these international commitments. For example, between 2000 and 2014, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs enacted robust legal and policy measures for the prevention of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women and girls; and curtailment of dowry and child marriage. As a result, the United Nations reported that Bangladesh had met several targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) including gender parity in primary and secondary education at the national level. The government undertook interventions such as stipends and exemption of tuition fees for girls in rural areas, and the stipend scheme for girls at the secondary level.
The government adopted the National Policy for Women’s Advancement (2011)5 and a series of programs for ensuring gender-inclusive sustainable development6. It should also be noted that at present, there has been a surge in the number of female parliament members (20 per cent of the total seats). The government has further recognised the contribution of women in societal development and accelerated efforts towards women’s empowerment. In observance of “World Women Day 2017”, State Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Meher Afroz Chumki explained the need for effective resistance against women’s oppression in order to achieve Vision 2021, which is for Bangladesh to reach middle income status. She further indicated that women’s equal rights and dignity should be upheld and respected as an intrinsic value, and not just because of their instrumentality in attaining development goals. Women’s time use should also be appropriately valued; women should be given due value for their paid and unpaid work.
Gender Equality Strategy of a2i program. Whilst State ICT policy documents have overall been gender blind, one exception has been the Prime Minister Office’s Access to Information (a2i) program, which has a specific strategy on gender equality. In general, the a2i program aims to increase transparency, improve governance, and reduce inefficiencies in public service delivery. The program is the facilitator for the government’s innovation agenda, known as ‘Digital Bangladesh’. According to a2i People’s Perspective Specialist Naimuzzaman Mukta, “the objective [of the program] is increased-gender responsiveness in the project structure, leadership and interventions. Together, an inclusive Digital Bangladesh can be built – reducing the digital divide between men and women and ensuring an enabling environment for all sexes.”
The a2i program has four gender strategy pillars - organization and staff; programmatic intervention; institutional behavioral change; and partnerships. The first pillar deals with the a2i program itself. The program strives to become a women-friendly organization by ensuring equal opportunities for both male and female staff and promoting a gender sensitive work environment. The second pillar is about program intervention – whereby gender considerations are sought to be integrated in designing, implementing and reporting. A gender dashboard has been set up, to facilitate the results management team of the a2i program in tracking progress towards the gender inclusion strategy. The third pillar focuses on government organizations; building government officers’ capacity and awareness to incorporate gender considerations in daily and strategic decision-making. As part of this strategy, all ministries need to appoint a gender focal point and ensure the involvement of women in their digital innovations. The last pillar looks at the partners of the a2i program in the private and NGO sectors, proactively exploring with them different strategies for promoting gender sensitivity and empowerment.
The a2i program began in 2007, with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Instead of delegating Digital Bangladesh to certain ministries, the government opted for a whole-of-government approach through an innovation intermediary. In this approach, the responsibility for digital innovations rests with the entire government machinery - the a2i program being the focal point of digital innovations. In fact, the program spearheaded several e-government projects focused on women, particularly in the areas of commerce (Service Innovation Fund), livelihoods (Joyeeta.com), education (Teacher’s Portal) and health (Government Hospital Service Delivery). It has also launched initiatives to provide ICT access to rural areas (Union Digital Centers) and increase public awareness about women’s empowerment (through television commercials).
Alongside with the a2i program, the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs pursues digital strategies to advance women’s issues and welfare. In addition to a website, webmail and Facebook page, the ministry has internal and central e-services. The internal e-services include the Joy Mobile App (an ICT tool to fight violence against women). The central e-services include e-tax payment and an inheritance calculator. Such services are offered to improve women’s economic empowerment; for women to be aware of their rights to inheritance and increase their capacity to understand the country’s taxation system. Given the presence of a gender focal point, which is part of the a2i program’s third pillar, other ministries have formulated future plans regarding ICT and gender. The ICT Department under the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and IT has the “She Power Project”, which aims to create an enabling environment for women’s participation in the ICT sector and thereby develop their careers as entrepreneurs and generate employment opportunities for them. For example, in April 2013, the ministry signed a MOU with Dell to teach rural women about careers in ICT and absorb them as Dell service engineers.
The overall picture reflects shifting trends, with an explicit commitment to a gender responsive approach catalysed by the a2i programme. Although there was an initial a lack of a gender perspective, the a2i program has slowly moved some government ministries such as the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and IT towards greater gender inclusiveness through its four gender strategy pillars. However, there is still a need to incorporate gender inclusiveness in other ministries.
The following sections of this paper will discuss the digital initiatives in the country, including good practices in the area of e-government for women’s empowerment. In examining e-government, it covers the aspects of service delivery, citizen uptake and connectivity.
- The categories of e-government capacity in the research study included high (2.00 to 3.00), medium (1.60 to 1.99), minimal (1.00 to 1.59) and deficient (below 1.00). See Benchmarking E-Government: A Global Perspective. https:// publicadministration.un.org/egovkb/Portals/egovkb/Documents/un/English.pdf
- Benchmarking E-Government: A Global Perspective. Available at: https:// publicadministration.un.org/egovkb/Portals/egovkb/Documents/un/English.pdf
- From January until September 2009, journalists brought together stakeholders from different sectors to engage in dialogue about Digital Bangladesh. The journalists worked for various media houses such as Dainik Jugantor, South Asian Media Net, Financial Express, Bangladesh Observer and Daily Star.
- National Women Development Policy 2011. Available at: http://mowca.portal.gov. bd/sites/default/files/files/mowca.portal.gov.bd/policies/64238d39_0ecd_4a56_ b00c_b834cc54f88d/National-Women-Policy-2011English.pdf
- Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. http://www.mowca.gov.bd/site/ page/72926d78-cf02-442f-bf19-99122b6b082d/Implementing-Programs