Headlines and reports would have us believe that women have reached gender parity in Bangladesh. The female under-five mortality rate is 20 per cent lower than that of boys; girls are participating more, and better in primary education; and female work force participation rate has rapidly increased in the past decade. The prime minister and leader of the opposition are both women, and have ruled back and forth for more than 20 years. However, a thorough gender analysis reveals intrinsic gender inequalities imbued into Bangladeshi institutions and the social fabric, making a profound impact on development, cultural and economic outcomes. Efforts to promote gender equality has been undermined by a patriarchal social structure reinforced by religious, economic and political norms. This report analyzes the status of women in Bangladesh, and the role that gender plays in development outcomes.
The socio-cultural environment in Bangladesh contains persistent gender discrimination that hinders the development outcome of women, and the country. The political institution has made great strides towards gender inclusion, however the cultural institution has made significant progress in women’s empowerment impossible. Girls are often considered to be financial burdens on their family, receiving less investment in their health and education from the time of birth. However, recently there has been noteworthy advancements in the health and educational outcome of girls due to laws promoting education – both for girls and mothers.
As girls approach puberty, the differences in the way that they are treated in comparison to adolescent boys, becomes more prominent. Adolescence is viewed as an abrupt shift from childhood to adulthood, and not as a distinct phase of life. In rural communities, where the majority of Bangladeshis live, adolescence is when boys start working. For girls however, mobility is often restricted, limiting their access to livelihood, learning and recreational and social activities.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage and adolescent motherhood in the world. In 2011, the maternal mortality rate was reported as a high 220 per 100,000 live births[i]. Violence against women is another major impediment to women’s development.
The following is an analysis of the status of women in Bangladesh across several pertinent issues. It will be evident that although the political institution and emerging democratic values have seen the country make great progress in gender equality, the sociocultural institution reinforced by religious norms has hindered progress and perpetuated patriarchal values.
Health and Education
Traditionally in Bangladesh, preference has been given to the boy child, and this discrimination led to higher girl child mortality due to unequal provision of health care and less attention for girls. However, over the past decade girl’s health and education have improved drastically. Today, the female under-five mortality rate is significantly below that of boys, indicating that at this early stage in life, there is no sign of a non-natural gender bias[ii].
However, a closer analysis of the sex ratio reveals a disturbing picture. There are 107.5 males for every 100 females in Bangladesh, a ratio that is worryingly higher than the normal human sex ratio[iii]. There is a strong cultural preference for boys over girls in the male-dominated society of Bangladesh which exacerbates this imbalance. As girls grow up, reach puberty and become adolescents, the biological advantage with which they were born yields to the weight of cultural and societal norms which shape gender differences that limit the full enjoyment of their rights.
In education, the gender parity is strongly tilted in favor of girls (gender parity index in primary education is 103 and in secondary education a very high 117). Girls are participating more, and better, in primary education. A disproportionate higher number of girls are reaching grade 5(national definition of literacy), which will eventually result in a society where more women are educated than men. However, in adolescence, female school dropout rates soar. These rates are strongly related to social conduct norms such as not allowing girls to leave their home unaccompanied, being subject to sexual harassment (eveteasing), and physical violence. School drop-out rates are also strongly related to child marriage, a pervasive practice in Bangladesh despite existing legislation banning it.
Ownership Rights and Civil Liberties
Despite women’s growing role in agriculture, social and customary practices virtually exclude women from having direct ownership of land. A woman’s lack of mobility, particularly in rural areas, forces her to depend on male relatives for any entrepreneurial activities. While microfinance has expanded throughout Bangladesh, there is a growing concern to whether or not these women actually retain control over the loans they receive. According to the national law, men and women have equal rights to property, but in practice women have only very limited access to property. Their situation is further impaired by discriminatory inheritance laws that are dictated more by religious laws/norms than state legislation. Moreover, due to perceptions of women’s role in society and the household, Bangladeshi women are most often not likely to claim their share of family property unless it is given to them.
Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, most civil liberties extend to women in Bangladesh, particularly in urban areas. In rural Bangladesh, depending on the traditions of individual families, the Islamic system of Purdah impose some restrictions on women’s participation in activities outside the home, such as education, employment and social activities. To engage in any such activities, a woman generally needs her husband’s permission. Discrimination in civil rights and liberties in Bangladesh result in decreased economic and social outcomes that are felt both at the household and national levels.
Employment in the Formal Sector
Women’s participation in economic activity has increased in both rural and urban Bangladesh. The established garments production sector employs over 1.2 million workers, 74% of whom are women. Women’s employment rates remain low despite progress, and their wages are roughly 60-65 per cent of male wages[iv]. This wage differential by gender is widest in nonagricultural employment, in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, women are primarily employed in the lowest productivity sectors. The Bangladeshi government has introduced legislation that guarantees women a specified percentage of public sector employment but the quotas have never been filled, and there is no system for monitoring or implementing them[v].
Although the prime minister and leader of the opposition party are both women, there remains an unequal power relation in the political arena. Many women politicians, including the prime minister and leader of the opposition, hail from influential political families. Despite the low participation rate of women in the political arena, state policies promote equality. For example, at the regional (Union Parishad) parliament, 25% of seats are reserved for women[vi]. However, the Bangladeshi cultural institution discourages women from entering the political world through the pre-existing social norms that associate leadership with men. Overall, women’s participation in the political arena on the local, regional or state levels remains a rarity. The under-representation of women in parliament results in legislation that is gender insensitive.
Access to Capital
Bangladesh has seen a boom in organizations active in the area of credit provision. The government also operates subsidized credit programs targeted towards rural women that reaches over 20 percent of the rural population[vii]. Although women participate in such programs, the extent to which they alleviate women’s poverty and improve their position as economic actors is not so clear. There exist sociocultural barriers that prohibit women from entrepreneurship. Moreover, due to historically low rates of education and training among adult women, the productivity of loans tend to be lower than that for men. There needs to be a focus shift on improving women’s access to market as a means of enhancing the use of capital and also meeting women’s empowerment objectives.
The different manifestations of violence against women have the same premise of deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs that are perpetuated by the cultural institution in Bangladesh. The government has enacted numerous laws protecting women, and has passed landmark court decisions over the last decade. However, the patriarchal legal system that governs rural communities allow crimes perpetrated against women to continue unabated. In 2000, the Supreme Court ordered every incident of eve-teasing to be considered ‘sexual harassment’[viii]. Other laws protecting Bangladeshi women from various forms of violence include the Acid Crime Control Act 2002 and the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980. The existence of laws is an important first step towards social justice for girls and women’s rights, however without full enforcement, the laws are meaningless. Moreover, without a shift in the underlying attitudes towards women’s role in society, any initiative to abate gender-based violence will be unsustainable.
One third of the Bangladeshi population lives below the poverty line. While poverty stimulates gender inequality, the reverse also holds true. The aforementioned factors of gender inequality has sustained poverty among women. In spite of increasing awareness of the economic and social values of women’s role in Bangladesh’s development, the economic progress of women has been mired by cultural dogmas. In Bangladesh, 62 percent of the women are economically active, which not only ranks above the average of 50 percent for developing countries, but also is the highest rate in South Asia. However, despite a high proportion of women in the labor force, the share of total earned income for women is less than one quarter. Overall women have made little gains in economic well-being and Bangladesh has seen the “feminization of poverty”.[ix]
The political and sociocultural institutions have divergent impacts on women’s development in Bangladesh. Perceptions of women’s role in society has negatively impacted the country’s economic and social output. Cultural and social influences and practices, including the distorted interpretation of religious texts have resulted in an imbalanced society. Concerted efforts are required to raise awareness and educate on gender equality at all levels of society – from grassroots initiatives to governmental policies. Moreover, women must be empowered to challenge social norms that are detrimental to the human rights of women. Education, change in social norms and conditions, a conducive political and legal environment, and girls and women’s empowerment will help break the vicious cycle of gender disparity. Only when the political and cultural institutions in Bangladesh act in unison will this be realized.
[i] Every Mother Counts, Bangladesh Factsheet 2012
[ii] UNICEF, Women and girls in Bangladesh
[iii] UNICEF, A perspective on gender equality in Bangladesh
[iv] The World Bank, Whispers to Voices: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh 2008
[v] War on Want – Stitched Up – Women workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector
[vi] Asia Foundation, Are Bangladeshi Women Politicians Tokens in the Political Arena?
[vii] Jonathan Morduch, The role of subsidies in microfinance: evidence from the Grameen Bank
[viii] Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act, Bangladesh, 2000
[ix] Sylvia Chant, The ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ and the ‘Feminisation’ of Anti-Poverty Programmes: Room for Revision?