Bangladesh and Women’s Empowerment

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Being the exemplary case where microcredit and microfinancing are put into practice–although the country has not been enjoying the Asian economic miracles the likes of India and China–Bangladesh has been extremely successful in improving the lives of its poorest, millions of women being among them.

The rate at which Bangladesh is developing is rather astonishing. Emerging as an independent country from Pakistan in 1971, the percentage of the country’s population living below the national poverty line has plummeted to below a third of the entire population in less than a decade. Its average life expectancy (both female and male) has also risen from 66 to 70 years within less than a decade.

All of this is a rather spectacular improvement when one considers that the country started off in 1971 with an average life expectancy of only 47.6 years. In addition, from 1966 to 2010 the average number of children a woman gives birth to fell from 6.7 to 2.6. Currently, the average sits at around 2.5 children per woman.

Not surprisingly, one of the major beneficiary groups of this stunning pace of development is women. Since the 1970s, Bangladesh has been a leading model in addressing gender inequality among the world’s least developed countries. In contemporary Bangladesh, more than 90% of girls are enrolled in primary school, a higher figure than that of boys. In addition, Bangladeshi women’s life expectancy now outpaces that of men by two years.

The fast progress at which the republic is eradicating maternal and child mortality rates is also truly impressive. The maternal mortality rate (MMR) was more than halved between 1990 and 2013, going from 724 deaths per 100,000 live births to 240 deaths per 100,000 live births. Bangladesh’s rapid development has been the most dramatic that Asia has witnessed since Japan’s Meiji Reformation in the late 19thcentury.

Not only have women benefited from the overall improvement in terms of health, the country is also determined to close the gender disparity gap. Despite the fact that it remains a low-income country, the country holds the 8th place in the world when it comes to gender parity. Within a span of 20 years, the number of seats in the national parliament held by women increased from 10% to 20% and as many women as men are employed within the manufacturing sector.

Furthermore, the country also holds the title of being governed by female leaders for longer than any other country in the world.

This admirable successful case of women empowerment is often attributed to the aforementioned microcredit and microfinance forms of bank loans. Due to the fact that microcredit loans permit people who possess very little to take out bank loans, many people were freed from being preyed upon by external lenders. This new possibility economically empowers women by allowing them to become entrepreneurs.

Since women had traditionally been tied to non-income generating activities such as house chores, the fact that they are allowed to take out loans without any collateral allows them to have the necessary capital to start their own businesses. This expansion of women’s economic horizons has also consequently improved their social statuses.

By becoming financially independent, many feel more entitled to important family decisions such as reproduction and important family investments because they, too, are income earners. Economic independence also allows many women to be able to escape domestic violence and start a new life.

Although the country is experiencing a rapid development in both economic and noneconomic terms, it is important to remember that there are many more battles to be fought. The tragedy of Rana Plaza in 2013 produced more than 1,100 casualties, an overwhelming number of whom were women. As for 2014, only an equivalence of a meager $519 dollars of “compensation” has been paid to the catastrophe’s survivors. In Bangladesh, more than 80% of the labor force in the garment manufacturing industry is women. These women still face poor and precarious working conditions and unfair wages. Furthermore, the employment rate among women is also around 30% lower than that of their male counterparts.

Thus, although Bangladesh’s development in recent decades has been incredibly rapid it is important to remember that—like many places around the world—women remain disproportionately vulnerable. Having the lowest labor costs in the world, the discrepancy remains glaringly vexing as to why instead of having a faster economic growth rate than China, Bangladesh is growing at an even slower rate than India (which is by any standard anything but slow).

Nonetheless, the case of Bangladesh reveals economic empowerment as a key factor in gender parity and many societies—whether they might be developed or developing—can certainly emulate Bangladesh in this aspect.

Sources: BDRC, Geoba, MNN, Index Mundi, IRIN Asia, Huffington Post, ILO, The Economist, The World Bank
Photo: Flickr

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Peewara Sapsuwan

Peewara is a BORGEN Magazine writer based in Alberta, Canada.

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