Bangladesh Government Initiatives for Women in Agriculture | Harvesting progress: agricultural loans for women

Bangladesh, a country fed by fertile deltas, thrives on its agricultural sector. But beneath the waving crops lies a reality that is often invisible: the immense contribution of women farmers. Women farmers in Bangladesh form the backbone of the country’s agricultural sector and contribute significantly to the country’s food security and economy. Despite making up about half of the farm workforce, their efforts often go unpaid and unrecognized. Women are involved in every aspect of agriculture, from working the fields to post-harvest activities and even fetching water for family use.

The government has taken several initiatives to ensure women’s participation in every sector and empower them economically. The annual report (2022-2023) of the Department of Agricultural Extension states that the department has undertaken several projects aimed at women development and poverty alleviation to ensure that at least 30% of women from the country’s farming families is involved in agricultural activities. In addition, a 30% participation of women is assured in all types of training and exhibition activities.

However, women farmers in Bangladesh face numerous challenges, including patriarchal norms and practices that hinder their empowerment. A study in northwestern Bangladesh found that female farmers worked longer hours than men but received lower wages.

Despite their backbreaking labor of planting, weeding and harvesting, women rarely own land or control the sale of produce. Societal norms often relegate them to the role of helpers, with decision-making power vested in male relatives. This lack of ownership directly impacts their ability to obtain loans, as land is often considered the primary collateral. Even if women manage to overcome these barriers, the process of obtaining an Agri loan can be difficult.

Financial institutions also face difficulties in reaching women farmers in rural areas. “They are mainly concentrated on small, home-based poultry or dairy farms because they can easily take care of that in addition to their domestic duties. Other types of farming are male-dominated and there are also too many dependency relationships. Interestingly, we have seen that female farmers are shy to avail banking services thinking that it might be a hassle for some and furthermore they also don’t have much time to spare due to their busy schedule, however, BRAC Bank provides collateral-free agricultural loans to small farmers irrespective of their gender. Therefore, land ownership and documentation are not crucial for us when assessing loans. Still, we prefer a personal guarantee over loans of BDT 50,000,” said Syed Abdul Momen, Deputy Director and Head of SME Banking at BRAC Bank.

Moreover, Md. Katebur Rahman, senior vice president and head of Agriculture Banking Unit, Dhaka Bank, said: “The key challenges facing women farmers are education and land ownership. While rural women are getting basic education, financial institutions like Dhaka Bank are developing policies to provide agricultural loans to rural women.”

Another reason for women farmers’ lack of awareness regarding bank loans is financial illiteracy. Mr. Katebur notes: “The access to training and development of women in agriculture is very insignificant. The participation of women in training programs is much lower than that of men in Bangladesh. This may be due to social, religious and traditional bonds for women, which prevents the women from going to a crowd where many other men are present. However, we usually try to organize a day-long workshop for the women who work in farms, at their convenient place, so that they can participate easily and can apply the knowledge in their company.”

Nevertheless, several banks and financial institutions are working to ensure financial security for women. Mr. Momen of BRAC Bank shares, “TARA” of BRAC Bank is a special banking service designed for beneficiaries of the female segment, including the agricultural segments. To encourage the women farmers, we are offering special schemes with Tk 10 farmer accounts that do not include maintenance charges with certain conditions, access to bank branches, collateral-free loans with easy conditions, besides lower interest rates and minimal documentation costs than that of general loans, is also started to minimize the lead time in this segment.”

Md Nasiruzzaman, Chairman, Bangladesh Krishi Bank, said: “At Krishi Bank, this year we have adopted the policy of implementing the Kalikapur model of wasteland harvesting, which was invented by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute. Only the women farmers get a return of Tk 10,000. loan for this harvest model in their own courtyard, without any collateral fee. Through this ‘Amar Angina, Amar Krishi’ programme, we also hope to ensure food security for the poor.”

While numerous schemes target women entrepreneurs, there is a noticeable gap in agricultural programs tailored to them even at government level. “Most of the women-oriented programs fall under small initiatives. Moreover, we hardly see any women farmers coming forward, but there is more participation of women in the poultry and fisheries sectors,” said Kamrul Mehedi, head of SME at City Bank.

He further adds, “Without the presence of a strong distribution network, be it physical or digital, it becomes extremely difficult to reach out to the customers.”

Building on the strength of the distribution network, Ahsan Jamil, Vice President and Head of SME and Agri Loan, Midland Bank, says: “We distribute loans through various NGOs due to their robust agent network. NGOs are setting up micro-loan distribution committees and excelling in the field of recovery, an area that is challenging for banks. As private banks expand their reach to upazila and thana levels, grassroots NGOs continue to bridge this gap with their extensive agency networks, which is critical until banks have a gain presence at public level ‘We are making progress in agent banking, it is still evolving and needs more time to mature.’

By addressing these challenges, Bangladesh can unleash the full potential of its agricultural sector. Empowering women farmers through accessible agricultural loans will not only improve their living conditions but also contribute to national food security and economic growth.