Engaging Rural Bangladeshi Women to Monitor Public Procurement

Every year, Bangladesh spends around $24 billion – half of its annual budget – on the acquisition of goods, services, and works by the government and state enterprises. Of this, the implementation of development programs accounts for $18 billion. Public procurement is closely tied to national development, and monitoring it is crucial to ensure that development goals are met.

Engaging communities to do so, however, can be a challenging task. Engaging women, even more so.
Over the last few years, Bangladesh has piloted citizen’s engagement for monitoring procurement contracts in rural areas. Female participation in procurement site meetings was, on average, 30 percent. Under the Digitizing Implementation Monitoring and Public Procurement Project (DIMAPPP), the Bangladesh government collaborated with our Citizen Engagement team, and we set out to find some answers in Sylhet division.

Local women were asked whether they were interested in monitoring the construction work of roads and schools. Initial responses were positive, along with the affirmation that they wanted to exercise their rights as citizens and contribute to ensuring better quality work.

Procurement or construction work is mostly perceived as “men’s work,” more so in the rural areas. Women’s participation in this sector, as tenderers, is minimal.

But, as we dug deeper, multiple reasons surfaced as to why this enthusiasm does not translate into active participation.

For starters, procurement or construction work is mostly perceived as “men’s work,” more so in the rural areas. Women’s participation in this sector, as tenderers, is minimal. Those who participate, are assumed to involve their male colleagues in the process.

Consequently, men became the dominant actors in the procurement sector. This apparent absence of women affects our field research, when we try to engage female citizens in monitoring public procurement work.
“A man understands better than a woman about construction work,” said one respondent. This seemed to be a widely-held perception.

Social structure also deters women’s participation in monitoring public procurement. In Bangladesh, women often bear the heavier workload with little to no help at home. Thus, it becomes burdensome for women to monitor a site, in addition to their household chores.

Mobility is another issue since rural women do not go out as much as men do. While it is easier for men to monitor construction on the way to their work or social gatherings, women need to take time out especially for monitoring.
Procurement or construction work is mostly perceived as “men’s work,” more so in rural areas, in line with current social norms.

In some instances, we observed some hesitation among women to hold men accountable. The problem surfaced when we asked women what they would do after detecting irregularities in procurement work.

One simply said that she would rather delegate it to her husband as she thinks, “it is better that men deal with men.” In other cases, there were permissions needed. In one case, we heard that women were barred from attending a site meeting organized in front of a mosque.

All these factors lead to absence or passive participation of women in site meetings and monitoring work, even when the entire program design and implementation team aims to assist women to participate.

However, despite these challenges, women are developing their own creative solutions and strategies to circumvent such hindrances. Uncomfortable to visit sites alone, women suggested that they monitor in groups and by taking turns.

As for speaking to unknown men, they believe forming a group will make their voices stronger. In some cases, although very few, vocal women are being proactive and leading efforts to organize fellow women to monitor.
With the project scaling up from 16 to 48 Upazilas (sub-district) next year, the team will take account of both obstacles and local solutions to ensure greater female participation.

Erina Mahmud was a Research Associate in the Governance and Politics cluster at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University. 

The article was first published on The World Bank’s End Poverty in South Asia Blog.