Community Capacity Building for Women In and Around the Sundarbans Reserve Forest of Bangladesh

The Sundarbans Reserve Forest, located in the south-west region of Bangladesh, is the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearly three million people live in and around the Sundarbans. Generations of this population have become highly dependent upon the forest for its environmental protection and nature-based economic opportunities. Conservation of this high-biodiversity and sensitive forest is vital for the livelihoods of the people of the Sundarbans. 

Solimar International is currently leading implementation of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Bangladesh Ecotourism and Conservation Alliance (BECA) project. By forming BECA, or the Alliance, private sector members in Bangladesh are united to generate sustainable development activities that protect both the Sundarbans Reserve Forest and the people that depend on it. The desired outcome of this project is to maximize tourism as a tool for both poverty alleviation and conservation. Solimar aims to achieve this outcome through tourism development efforts centered around community capacity building. 

This article will highlight the significance of capacity building in tourism development, and how it can serve as a mechanism to transform the socioeconomic standing of women. 

Why Capacity Building?

USAID identified the need to utilize tourism in Bangladesh for social and environmental benefits, but in order to do so, Solimar will find ways to stimulate the tourism industry and tackle the barriers hindering its growth. Some of these barriers include, but are not limited to, a lack of industry knowledge, weak governance, and a lack of organizational strength. The overarching issue at hand is the lack of collaborative capacity within the tourism sector in Bangladesh. 

To overcome this challenge, the Solimar team has devised many opportunities for capacity building. For example, the Alliance hosts tourism planning workshops across Bangladesh so that local stakeholders can network and learn about tourism innovations. The Alliance also supports the business development of local enterprises by providing shared resources. To improve local governance, Solimar engages community management organizations and institutions to consolidate viewpoints and strengthen impact. 

Evidently, capacity building is a central component of the Bangladesh project. However, I want to highlight its relation to a foundational goal of this project – gender equity. 

Capacity Building for Female Empowerment 

Gender equity is a thematic element noticeable across several project activities. The living conditions of women in Bangladesh are in constant struggle despite government initiatives. Women’s participation in the workforce is limited to low-paying sectors, such as the dangerous, labor-intensive garment industry. This economic inequality stimulates numerous social issues, including gender-based violence and child marriage – where 59% of girls are married before the age of 18 (USAID). 

Tourism opens doors for women in Bangladesh. The range of employment opportunities the tourism industry provides can help women break into the workforce. Globally, 54% of people employed in tourism are women; yet, it remains a rather male-dominated industry due to gender discrepancies in earnings. Solimar and the Alliance aim to equip women with the skills and resources necessary to not only reach employment opportunities, but also to grow within the industry. This effort does not stop at conventional job growth but further assists women with financing opportunities, network development, and individual capacity building. 

Here are some examples of programs that demonstrate these actions: 

1. Network Development through the Women in Tourism Club

As in any enterprise, it’s crucial to create peer networks to be able to grow within that industry. Working in a male-dominated space, women in the tourism industry across Bangladesh, particularly around the Sundarbans, lack skill-building and networking opportunities. To resolve this concern, the Alliance established the Women in Tourism Club to bring together female professionals looking to enter or grow in the tourism sector. From tourism marketing to tour agencies to hospitality management, women from all backgrounds in tourism have joined. The club has both online and in-person opportunities. Virtually, club members can connect on online platforms to support one another and access educational material. Offline, the Alliance hosts in-person meetings and workshops where women can receive training on leadership and entrepreneurship as well as share their experiences and ideas for collaboration. The club also promotes women-led national advocacy to break additional barriers that these women may face. 

Women in Tourism meeting led by Solimar’s Director of Community Development, Chloe King

2. Individual Capacity Building for Women in the Sundarbans 

The communities living on the edge of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest are incredibly dependent upon the forest for its environmental protection and economic opportunities but primarily live below the poverty line. Through its Student Research Placement Program, Solimar sent researcher Catherine Padgett from the University of Edinburgh to the Sundarbans to assess the relationship between the food security and regional stability for the Banojibi people, a community living in and around the Sundarbans, and conservation efforts that take place in the mangrove forest. During her time in Bangladesh, Padgett worked with the Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS), an Alliance member, to study the deeper impacts of their current initiatives.  

Student Researcher Catherine Padgett at a BEDS program in Bangladesh

BEDS’ current programs provide a platform for the Banojibi people to share the profound knowledge of the Sundarbans they possess to visitors while simultaneously promoting conservation. By creating nature-based income opportunities such as community-based nature education programs and conservation efforts like mangrove nurseries, women are given a chance to hone their skills and transition from home labor to an alternate livelihood. Padgett found that providing women with a chance to develop their individual capacity serves as a holistic solution. These initiatives not only strengthen food security and regional stability, but also provide women with more agency to control their finances. 

Solimar and the Alliance continue to promote research and initiatives that look into the needs of women in overlooked communities so that they implement activities that build capacity within these communities.

The Future of Women in Tourism 

Though women stand as the majority of the global tourism workforce, they earn almost 15% less than their male counterparts. By creating the aforementioned models of capacity building for women, Solimar is helping the industry bridge this gap while also promoting social and economic empowerment by creating innovations for women in tourism. Beyond Bangladesh, there are many examples of how community-based tourism is utilized to build capacity for women. Check out how the Artisan Development project in Southern Morocco promotes the business of hundreds of female-owned stalls in artisan markets. 

To many, the positive impacts of the tourism industry at first glance seem limited to leisure and economic development. When you take a closer look, you see the immense social change tourism prompts when people are equipped with the right tools. 

Solimar is here to create those opportunities. Contact us to learn how you can be a part of that mission. 

“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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