“People passed many abusive comments when I started a restaurant business in Rangamati bazaar back in 2016. Male customers used to say they should not take meal from a woman-operated restaurant. While returning home after closing my restaurant some people used to follow me. They often offered money for bad intention (for sex work). However, in time, the situation changed. Now I can confront people who intend to harass me,” said Devoshree Rani (38), the first woman member of Rangamati Bazaar Market Management Committee (MMC) under Phulbari upazila of Dinajpur district. As an active member of MMC, Devoshree oversee the safety, security and development issues of women entrepreneurs and customers along with other market management issues. She also received government recognition for her leadership and contribution to women empowerment and was honored with ‘Joyeta’ award. To reach to this position she battled with the social barriers and crossed the patriarchal hurdles which could be an inspiring case for other women entrepreneurs.
Now let’s look back a few years; the years 2013-2015 was a very a tough time for Devoshree Rani to maintain her family with limited income from wage labor. Her husband was unemployed for most of this time and her in-laws along with two children were fully dependent on her income. With only BDT 4,000 as monthly income she was struggling to make ends meet. To overcome this situation she borrowed BDT 8,000 from ASA (leading Microfinance Institutions of Bangladesh) and set up a tea stall. Slowly, her business started growing and her tea-stall became a small restaurant. Early days of the business was difficult; she did not get many customers as the locals were not used to visiting a woman-operated restaurant. Nonetheless, she was determined and with her customer friendly behavior and management skills she overcame the barriers shortly. Initially she started catering for small social and official events. Now her husband and son assist her in operating the venture. Her husband also helps her in household chores.
In 2017, Shomoshti project of CARE Bangladesh, funded by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), shared the idea of women safe market in Rangamati bazaar. She remembers that it was a great day when Market Management Committee (MMC) included her as a member in the committee and shares the idea of women-safe market. “I was so excited to implement this idea because being a woman; I have faced many challenges in this market while working as an entrepreneur or even as a customer. I took this role as it was a good opportunity to create a safe and accessible environment for women entrepreneurs and customers”. To make this market woman friendly she maintains regular communication with Union Parishad (UP) and shares progress and as a result the UP allocated budget for building a sanitary latrine for the women in this market. Besides, she takes immediate initiatives if any women reports being harassed; she also checks the comments box with other member of MMC on a regular basis. Due to safer environment women customers and entrepreneurs are now increasing day by day and at present around 14 women entrepreneurs have shops in this market. Additionally 30% of total visiting customers of this market are now women which was just 10% two years back.
Devoshree said, “We have just started our journey, there are lots of issues that needs to be solved. For instance, 14 women are selling their products in an open place where they need a shade to cover them up during sun and rain. Shomoshti project is also supporting us to link animal feed and medicine companies and we have plan to build a one stop agro shop in this market.”
Seeing such an increase in women customers, male shop owners are now cooperating to extend their support to the activities of MMC to build a safer and easily accessible market for women.