Gender equality

A quiet revolution: Women in Bangladesh

Women in Bangladesh have made major strides over the past decades, putting the South Asian country at the forefront among the least-developed countries in addressing gender disparity.

Comment | 29 January 2014
By ILO economist Sameer Khatiwada

Farjana K. Godhuly / AFP
Since the World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975 – which was a milestone in the battle for equality – Bangladesh has been at the forefront among the least-developed countries (LDCs) in addressing gender disparities.

Bangladesh has the eighth lowest gender gap in political empowerment in the world. This is partially due to the fact that it has had a female head of state for longer than any other country in the world. In addition, the proportion of seats held by women in the national parliament doubled from 10 per cent in 1990 to 20 per cent in 2011.

Women’s growing presence in the political sphere has had important implications on the family structure. Society is moving away from the traditional view that women are an economic liability and that sons are more desirable than daughters. Studies show that the growing independence of women is one of the major causes of a decline in the “missing women” phenomenon – gender based infanticide – in Bangladesh.

In the economic sphere, women have played a vital role as well, as evidenced by the importance of the ready-made garment (RMG) sector. While the share of men and women employed in manufacturing is roughly the same, the vast majority of RMG sector workers are women – 80-85 per cent. And, Bangladesh’s economic success in the last two decades is in large part due to the RMG exports to Europe and North America.

Despite the fact that women do not generally have ownership over land and tools necessary for agriculture, their labour has been a vital part of the success Bangladesh has had in agricultural productivity – the country stands out compared with other countries in Asia in terms of enhancing agricultural productivity.

In addition, Bangladesh has experienced significant improvements in women’s health over the past three decades. Women’s life expectancy, for example, increased from 54.3 years in 1980 to 69.3 years in 2010, one of the largest increases in the region.

A textbook example…

In the social sphere, Bangladesh is a textbook example of what is possible when women are involved in decision-making. Indeed, it is a heartening story of social innovation and development, in no small part due to the help of microfinance, which has played an integral role in rural and social development in Bangladesh – 92 per cent of the borrowers are women and 90 per cent live in rural areas.

While there is some debate over the efficacy of microfinance in poverty reduction, studies have shown that in Bangladesh, female participation in microfinance activities has led to an increased sense of empowerment, measured by factors such as decision-making, social acceptance and political involvement, which in turn have led to general welfare improvements.

Take for example the fact that Bangladeshi mothers increasingly have a say on their children’s education. The country has managed to reduce the gender gap at all levels of education, particularly at lower levels of education, i.e. youth literacy and secondary school enrolments. In these two areas, disparities have been reduced at a faster rate in Bangladesh than the global average.

…but challenges remain

Yet, Bangladeshi women continue to face numerous challenges. The recent industrial disasters in the RMG sector, where a large majority of workers are women, highlight the serious concerns about occupational safety and health.

The Bangladeshi government, employers and workers organizations are making important strides in the right direction, with the support of the ILO and many development partners, but still a lot needs to be done.

Women also have been getting the short end of the stick in the labour market. The employment rate of women in 2010, at 58 per cent, was close to 30 percentage points lower than the rate for men.

Women are also disproportionately affected by unemployment, underemployment and vulnerable employment.

Moving forward, it is important to put in place gender-responsive labour market policies that would pave the way for more equitable employment outcomes and decent work for all.