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Environment

Programs in Bangladesh offer women the chance at a decent day's work

The Bangladesh constitution might promise gender equality, but discrimination is still widespread – especially in rural areas. These are the areas EU-funded programs are targeting to try to lift women out of poverty.

Two women gather up mud and dirt

Women in the EU-funded REOPA cash-for-work program get their hands dirty

Bangladesh has made some inroads in its attempt to achieve gender equality: dowry payments have been banned, primary school classrooms around the country are filled with as many little girls as boys, and the top government job is filled by a woman, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But the South-Asian country still has a way to go.

The OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index puts it at number 90 out of a possible 102 non-OECD countries analyzed, making it one of the world's most discriminatory countries towards women. Rape and acid attacks are still relatively common, and in the home, men still wield most of the decision-making and economic power – which leaves Bangladesh's women, especially its millions of divorced, abandoned or widowed women, in a precarious position.

The challenges these women face can be especially severe in the more conservative rural areas. These are the places European Union donors have been targeting with programs aimed at helping lift women out of poverty for good.

In a small village in Sirajganj district, in the north-east of Bangladesh, 40-year-old Hasne is hard at work. She and a handful of other women are doing maintenance on the dirt track that is this the village's main thoroughfare. They take turns carrying mud and clumps of earth up from the main road and stamping it down onto the dirt path. It's tough work and especially so on a day like today, in the middle of the hot season. Hasne cracks a grin and says that, compared to her last job, this is great.

A woman wearing a REOPA work uniform stands on a road next to a crowd of people

REOPA employee Hasne says she prefers roadwork to her old housework job

When her husband died, Hasne took up work as a maid to try to support her three children. She worked long hours but received only meals and a monthly wage of just 200 to 300 taka, or around three euros, in return.

A way out of poverty

For Hasne, the turning point came when she was chosen to be part of a European Union-funded work-for-cash program, the Rural Employment Opportunities for Public Assets project, REOPA. The program employs vulnerable, poor women to do work that helps their communities, like fixing up the roads, and by Bangladesh standards it pays a decent wage: about 23 euros a month. So far the program has employed over 24000 Bangladeshi women – most of them divorced, abandoned or widowed women who would otherwise have little social capital and few economic prospects.

Now that she has a regular income, Hasne says she receives more respect from the community and is in a better position to look after her children. "The first thing I did was send my children to school, and I did some repairs on my house. I can afford good food now. And we installed a tube well so that we can have safe drinking water," she said.

There are thousands of programs like this one, not just in Bangladesh but across the developing world. The catch is that women like Hasne must leave the program after two years so that a new round of women can participate. Throughout their employment, the women save almost a third of their wages to be invested later in a business or in property.

"We mentally prepare them to become ready to take the fight on after the job, because the job is not for life," said Kajal Chatterjee, REOPA Capacity Strengthening Advisor for this region. "[We say:] you have to save some money, and you have to learn how to utilize this money on your own, and to survive. So I think the main principle here is self-sustainability."

A Bangladeshi woman wearing a sari stands under a shelter, patting a cow

Employment and assets like cows help women today - and hopefully tomorrow, too

REOPA has just entered its second phase, and with 98 percent of participants continuing to earn over a euro a day after leaving the program, organizers are calling the first phase a success.

Bangladesh's island poor do it tough

A similar program run in the river island region, the Chars Livelihood Program, offers poor families an income-generating asset – typically a cow – rather than employment. Program leader Malcolm Marks said that the program seeks to assist the poorest inhabitants of the Chars, or islands, rather than women in particular – although the poorest families are often female-headed households.

"Over time [the women] have become … economically empowered," he said. "They're actually earning a good income from their animals, and this in itself is also socially empowering. Bangladesh is a country that has a society that is very hierarchical. The class system is very much in place." Giving women a status symbol object like a cow helps them earn a living, but it also gives them a leg up the social ladder, Marks said.

A small child eats a piece of fruit

This little girl's parents can feed her properly, in part because of their participation in the Chars Livelihoods Program

According to the most recent UNDP Millennium Goals Progress Report for Bangladesh, wage employment for women in Bangladesh is still low – one in eight – and, unlike other development indicators in the country, it's on the way down. Purdah, or the segregation of men and women for cultural and religious reasons, is observed in various forms across the country but especially in conservative rural areas, where women are often expected to stay in the home and where many cannot travel without a male relative accompanying them.

More than mere glass ceilings to contend with

In the cities, where women often work outside the home, even women who make it to the top face a struggle.

Bilkis Nahar is a successful television news editor who works in the capital, Dhaka. She said that when she first became an editor, the male reporters working under her had trouble accepting their new boss because they were unaccustomed to women occupying senior positions. Nahar was one of the first female news editors in the country.

"Day after day I had to fight [to show] that I am capable of that position, and they accepted me after a long time. But it's not finished," she said.

Although the Bangladeshi government has passed legislation to ban dowry payments and discourage parents from marrying off their young daughters, women's advocacy groups have pointed to discriminatory inheritance laws as an area that must also be reformed if Bangladeshi women are ever to experience a significant shift in status.

Fundamental reforms may be needed for real change

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina waves to crowds

TV editor Bilkis Nahar says even though a woman, Sheikh Hasina, has Bangladesh's top job, ordinary women still face discrimination

Islamic law in the majority Muslim nation dictates that a daughter inherit only half as much as her brothers, and women are unlikely to claim their share of family property unless it is offered to them. "This situation is actually hampering the inner power of women to be empowered," Nahar said.

Nahar says that programs in which women are given access to an income or assets fail to address more fundamental structures in Bangladesh society that are halting progress in empowering women. "A very small percentage of women is working at a decision-making level. So it means that they're not enjoying a lot of freedom in their workplaces, or in their home, in their school or others, because of [the] male-dominated society, and the mentality and social structure of that country," she said.

But back in Hasne's village in Sirajganj there are some promising signs that those shifts are already starting to take place. Men and children are crowding around the track Hasne and the other women are working on. One of the men, Saiful Islam, says he and the other villagers have more respect for the women now that they're earning their own money. As a matter of fact, the 38-year-old rickshaw-puller says, he wouldn't mind trading places with them.

Author: Sophie Tarr
Editor: Anke Rasper

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