Women in Bangladesh are more self-confident and mobile than 30 years ago according to the recently published World Bank report “Whispers to Voices: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh“. The situation of women in society has improved considerably but many issues remain.
Although life has improved for women in Bangladesh it still remains incredibly hard for many
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries of the world. However, despite a relatively low per capita income it has achieved more for women’s education and healthcare than some of its neighbouring countries.
“From a standard South Asian situation where girls were actually lagging behind boys ten years ago, today girls’ secondary school education actually outstrips boys,” says Maitreyi Bordia Das, Senior Social Sector Specialist for South Asia and the main author of the World Bank report.
“Infant mortality has become so much better that girls and boys’ mortality is about the same. So that’s perhaps the biggest change that has taken place in Bangladesh.”
In the last 30 years, Bangladesh has succeeded in bringing the national birth-rate down by 50 percent. During the same time, the country has systematically improved the conditions for girls.
But a lot remains to be done, says Maitreyi Bordia Das: “Maternal mortality continues to be a huge challenge. Reproductive health services for women and malnutrition remain a huge problem.”
The employment rate of women has doubled since 1995, a positive development, according to the World Bank. A lot of women have found jobs in the garment industry.
But the World Bank report also emphasizes that the female labour force participation rate -- now at 26 per cent -- is still low in comparison to other South Asian countries.
Many women still have to cope with miserable working conditions and considerably lower wages than their male colleagues.
Benefits of microcredit
The report also highlights the efficiency of microcredit, saying that of all the countries in the world, this form of financing assistance is especially successful in Bangladesh.
But Petra Dannecker, a sociologist at the German Development Institute (GDI) explains that even though microcredit was initially designed for women in Bangladesh, there’s still some controversy about it:
“Very often women take up one microcredit after the other. They don’t use them in a productive way or even pass them onto their husbands. Studies have shown that we have to be specific when we speak about microcredit. The question is: are they really beneficial for women and their situation within the family or the community?”
Changing gender-related structures
The fact that many development programs focus on women has changed the gender-related structures in Bangladesh. Violence against women is becoming more common.
Experts have also observed a rising number of attacks on girl’s schools, especially in rural areas. And competition between men and women has emerged on the labour market.
Petra Dannecker believes that increasingly doubt is being cast upon the traditional role of the man as the family’s main breadwinner.
“This would explain why Islamic organizations have been very successful in the recent years,” Dannecker also suggests, “because they are trying to constrict the growing mobility and empowerment of women through their politics.”
Thus the World Bank’s report emphasizes that development aid should not just focus on women programmes alone but should shift to gender equality and changing traditional social patterns.
But one important question remains: How to make boys and men participate in this social transformation?