Women's Status in Bangladesh

Historically, Bangladesh is a country that has experienced much hardship. Starting in the 18th century, Bangladesh had been considered as a region of British India. By 1947, the country became a province of Pakistan, located hundreds of miles away. Despite this, Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, held a large representation in the Pakistani assembly. In 1970, East Pakistan's Awami League won the Pakistan majority, and by early 1971, the league asserted Bangladesh's independence. Until December of that year, Bangladesh engaged in a cival war with Pakistan that resulted in the loss of a million individuals. With India's aid, Bangladesh defeated Pakistan, and thus, were faced with the business of creating a political structure for the country. This structure proved to be unsteady, as several military coups changed Bangladesh's leadership throughout the 70's and 80's. In 1991, free elections were instituted. But many claimed that the government elections were fraudulent, again creating unrest. During the 1990s, Bangladesh's government was the target of many protests and strikes. The ultimate goal of these actions was to create an environment where new elections could be held. Compounding Bangladesh's problems, too, is the high frequency of natural disasters experienced-- like cyclones and floods-- the country experienced in the years following independence. It's people have been plagued by famine. Factoring in all these conditions, it is evident that Bangladesh is a country whose people face severe economic plight (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2000).

Shown below are statistics that exemplify this observation:

Profile of Human Deprivation
Population 119.3 million
Population in absolute poverty
total (1992) 93.2 million (78%)
rural (1992) 84.3 million (71%)
Population without access to:
health services (1985-93) 62.0 million (52%)
safe water (1988-93) 18.0 million (15%)
sanitation (1988-93) 77.8 million (65%)
Population growth rate (1995) 2.4
Life expectancy at birth (1995)55 years
Adult literacy rate (1992)36.4%
Enrollment ratio for all levels (percentage 6-23) (1992)32%
Low birthweight babies34%
Infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births108
Underweight children (as % of children under five, 1990)66%
Under 5: mortality rate per 1,000 live births164
Source: www.foundation.novartis.com/bangladesh_poverty.htm

Female-Male Gaps in Bangladesh - females as percentage of males
Life expectancy (1992)99-100
Population (1992)94
Adult female literacy (1992)51
Years of schooling (1992)29
Enrollment rates (1990)
  • primary
  • secondary
  • tertiary
Economically active women (1994)73
*Figures expressed in terms of male average, indexed at 100
Source: www.foundation.novartis.com/bangladesh_poverty.htm

In situations where no income is earned from a male provider within the family, it is necessary for a woman to seek work. However, by doing so, a woman within the culture defies the popular practice of Purdah, defined as: "the moral obligation of the woman to live in seclusion, in submission, and with modesty" (a href="www.foundation.novartis.com">www.foundation.novartis.com). Women who follow the Purdah, in public activities, are expected to be accompanied by a male relative and covered in dress from head to toe. This practice is highly esteemed. Upper class women adhere to it tightly, as they have the luxury to do so. Consequently, women who seek work outside the home are frowned upon. Women whom derive income from domestic activities-- raising cattle, craft making, etc.-- enjoy both a source of income and intact social status.

Despite this, there have been many programs instituted since the 1970s that give women the ability to work outside the home, most notably the food-for-work programs. Due to the subordinate status of women in the country, several problems arise when trying to institute these programs. For example, as the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development noted: "The growing popularity of female labor is not difficult to guess, under the pretense that their weaker physical constitution makes them less productive, they are as a rule paid notably less than men" (a href="www.foundation.novartis.com">www.foundation.novartis.com).

In order to fix significant pay differences between men and women workers, organizations like the Advisory Committee on Women's Participation in Food-for-Work, formed in the late 1970s, advised that: "women be recruited in equal numbers as men and be paid the same as men (by adopting a separate work-payment norm for women)" (Chen, 1995). In addition, micro-lending programs, at both the international and state level, have given women small loans, typically around a hundred dollars, to start their own businesses. As stated earlier, women who use the loans for home-based pursuits enjoy greater success, as their social status is not compromised (a href="http://www.columbia.edu">www.columbia.edu).

Works Consulted:

  1. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press, 2000.

  2. Morris, Jennifer. "Behind the Veil: The Changing Face of Women in Bangladesh", www.columbia.edu.

  3. Murshid, Tarzeen. "Women, Islam, and the State: Subordination and Resistance", www.lib.uchicago.edu.

  4. www.foundation.novartis.com/

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