SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Through the tireless efforts of non-governmental organizations like CARE International as well as leadership within the country’s government itself, women’s participation in the Bangladeshi economy and politics has changed drastically. In the last 30 years, Bangladesh has made significant progress in improving women’s roles in the country’s political and economic landscapes. Although domestic violence and child marriage, among other gender-related issues, are still prevalent, the structural changes initiated by the country’s leaders have made it a case study for a speedy improvement of women’s rights.
Changes for Women’s Empowerment
With the support of NGOs in the 1990s, the Bangladeshi government started work on eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary schools by giving special stipends to female students “in rural secondary schools.” Moreover, the government and NGOs collaborated in providing comprehensive family planning services, increasing women’s agency over their own fertility. As a result, the number of children declined from seven per woman in 1971 to just below two in 2021.
The Bangladeshi government also initiated affirmative policies to help increase women’s participation in the economy and politics. For example, the country set aside a specific number of seats for women in parliament and other constitutional bodies. This helped secure their role in regional governments. Additionally, the government introduced quotas that ensured women’s role in the country’s “decision-making bodies.”
Women are still not equal to men when it comes to political power. However, Bangladesh today has a female prime minister, a female opposition leader and a female speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad — the country’s unicameral legislative body, which also has a female leader and deputy leader. Moreover, women have a greater role and visibility in the police, armed forces and local and regional governments.
Women’s Role in the Economy
The progress in women’s participation in the country’s politics has improved their economic role and status as well. Bangladesh is one of the few South Asian countries where, in the last decade, women’s employment rates significantly increased, while the gender wage gap diminished. For example, between 2003 and 2016, female participation in the labor force has expanded from 26% to 36%.
Despite the country’s significant progress when it comes to women’s economic empowerment, structural and social barriers remain. These limit women’s choices over employment and economic assets. The most important is the lack of power that they have over their income. According to a World Bank report, the majority of Bangladeshi women — regardless of where they live and what their employment status is — say that they hand over most of their earnings to their husbands or other members of their family.
Women-Dominated Apparel Industry
The apparel industry employs a significant number of women. In fact, “most of the four million workers” in the apparel industry in Bangladesh are women. The increase in women’s participation in the Bangladesh economy is strongly associated with the development of the apparel industry, which today accounts for about 80% of the country’s export income.
Although there is a reasonable criticism, when it comes to workers’ rights, many experts agree the industry’s importance for the Bangladesh economy as well as female participation in it has changed how society perceives working women. Social economist Naila Kabeer, argues that the garment industry raised the socio-economic status of Bangladeshi women by empowering them to make a greater “economic contribution” to their families and the country’s economy at large. Moreover, she emphasizes the tendency of women working in the apparel industry to be more aware of their rights compared to other women.
The role of NGOs has been crucial in the female empowerment process in Bangladesh. CARE — the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere — is one of the organizations working in the country since 1949. It has improved the lives of millions through its projects and campaigns.
CARE is one of the largest and oldest humanitarian aid organizations working to end global poverty. The organization is particularly active in Bangladesh. For example, in 2020 alone, CARE implemented more than 50 projects that are said to have helped more than seven million people.
CARE Bangladesh says it understands the importance of women’s economic empowerment in the process of eradicating poverty. For that reason, many of its projects help women get educated while fighting against child marriage and protecting working women from exploitation.
One of the programs aimed at empowering Bangladeshi women through education and training was accomplished through a collaboration between CARE and the Walmart Foundation. Under the program’s auspices, some 2,500 female apparel factory workers in Dhaka received workplace skills and literacy training. Those skills have a positive financial impact on the participating women and their communities.
Despite the structural and social obstacles Bangladeshi women face on a daily basis, the progress the country has made when it comes to the female contribution to Bangladesh’s economy is notable.
– Aleksandre Jgarkava