Bangladesh's female workforce powers silent revolution

Eric Prideaux

The women of Bangladesh are a force to be reckoned with. At the country's factories, they represent a majority of the workers churning out the ready-made garments that are the country's most important exports. It is incredibly hard work, and these days when bosses do not treat them fairly, they are increasingly likely to demand redress.

But do not call these women unruly. Bangladesh's female workforce is known for discipline, efficiency and quickness in adapting to new technology. Add to that financial savvy: Village women — many of them illiterate — turn profits as commodities traders by staying informed of market prices on their cellular phones.

These are big changes, carried out with little fuss.

"It's kind of a silent revolution," said Rasheda K. Choudhury, adviser of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, which is a post equivalent to minister.

Uphill battle

In a one-on-one interview with The Japan Times, Bangladesh's top woman shared her perspective on what impact recent economic and political change has had on the female population in this land of over 150 million, mostly Muslim people.

Choudhury had her work cut out since her appointment by the caretaker government that took control of the nation in January 2007, following an outbreak of political unrest.

The new regime imposed a state of emergency and suspended parliamentary elections until late 2008, promising to drastically reduce corruption and improve the developing country's economic prospects. There have been signs of progress on those fronts, but how the agenda benefits female citizens remains to be seen.

Even though Bangladesh has experienced average yearly growth of 5.6 percent for a decade — clearly thanks in large part to the labor of female garment workers — research has shown that women's lot has not improved in tandem with the economy.

According to the noted Gender Equity Index 2007 compiled by international antipoverty network Social Watch, equality between women and men during the 2004-2007 period fell faster in Bangladesh than in almost any other country surveyed.

The index of 154 countries compared the percentage of women in top jobs and political posts, male-female gaps in income and economic activity and gaps in literacy and school enrollment rates. By this measure, gender equity in Bangladesh fell by more than 9 percentage points during the study period, the seventh largest decline after the Central African Republic, Turkey and No. 1 loser Angola. Experts say that across the South Asia region — which includes India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — women who try to improve their situation face a raft of seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

"While women are concentrated in agriculture far more than men, their rights to land and recognition as the main contributors to the agricultural economy remains weak," said a report by the U.N.-affiliated Institute of Social Studies Trust titled "Progress of Women in South Asia 2007." According to the report, South Asian women's wages range between only 40 percent to 60 percent of their male counterpart's, while mothers of small children remain bound by tradition to shoulder the burdens of parenting, effectively blocking many of them from socially empowering careers.

Against all odds

Be that as it may, Choudhury said efforts made over the years to level the playing field for women and girls are beginning to pay off.

One of those initiatives is what she called "affirmative discrimination in favor of girls' education," in which schooling has been made free until 12th grade for Bangladeshi girls, whereas for boys that is the case only until primary level.

Policies favoring girls are nothing new, insisted Choudhury, saying the main Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its rival, the Awami League — both led by women now detained on suspicion of corruption — agreed on that principle as they took turns running the country between 1991 and the current state of emergency.

"They've been fighting amongst themselves on all other issues, but not on this issue," Choudhury said as Dhaka's busy traffic rumbled by below her office. "That's why we have achieved gender parity in the primary and secondary level in terms of enrollment and attendance. India has not achieved it."

After a long period of being nurtured, she hoped the tree would soon bear fruit.

"Within five years we may be getting the positive results of all this intervention the government is focusing on girls," said Choudhury, herself a mother of three. Results she believes will be reflected in a rise in the literacy rate for females, which stands at 31.8 percent compared to males' 53.9 percent.

Financing equality

Another area where the government has proactively supported women, said Choudhury, is in financial support aimed at turning impoverished women into successful businesswomen.

Here, the public sector has taken a page from Grameen Bank, devised in 1976 by economist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to help the poor advance through small loans called "microcredit," using peer pressure between borrowers rather than collateral to ensure repayment. Grameen Bank calls women borrowers "not only reliable . . . but astute entrepreneurs," and targets most of its loans at them.

Like Grameen Bank, the Bangladeshi government's own microcredit lender, the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation, aims its loans primarily at women. And that support is likely to continue: Fakhruddin Ahmed, the de facto prime minister, previously served as managing director of PKSF. "He knows what it is all about," Choudhury said with a chuckle.

Choudhury said those women are employing a combination of strategies to turn their contribution in the export sector into greater economic clout.

Women workers now work with professional researchers to amass hard evidence of exploitative labor conditions when arguing disputes before decision makers, she said, adding that they are also strengthening ties with nongovernmental organizations and community groups. "Previously, the women's movement worked in parallel stream," she said.

Getting to the root

As with that growing labor cohesion, a similar coalescence has taken place among grassroots political organizations. Choudhury noted the demand by activists that a third of seats for public office be reserved for women to contest through direct election. About a decade ago that demand was met in the case of the lowest level of local government when some 13,000 seats were set aside for women.

"Initially, when the draft bill was placed before the women's movement, decision makers asked us, 'Where are you going to get all those women leaders at the rural level?' " recalled Choudhury. "And you know what? For each seat, at least three women contested. Thirty-nine thousand, together, contested."

This, said Choudhury, is proof of a groundswell of political ambition.

"This leadership is now coming, coming slowly. In some constituencies women directly contested for the chairmanship and won," she said.

Ongoing battles

"But at the national level," she said, "I'm sorry to say that the last successive governments committed to have at least one third reserved for women in the national Parliament, but it didn't happen."

As part of its reform push, the caretaker government has been quietly trying to persuade the feuding political parties to take women's empowerment to heart, she said.

"We have been getting a signal," she said, adding that in seeking change, the election commission's role is to motivate rather than dictate.

"It depends on the political parties and their commitment," concluded Choudhury. "Within the parties' decision-making processes they are asking the political parties to at least introduce gender-responsive, democratic mechanisms."

The Japan Times: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

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