Facts: - Girls’ secondary school enrollment exceeds that of boys in many parts of the country. - Gender gap in infant mortality has been closed. - Women still lack adequate access to reproductive health services. - Almost 90% of Bangladeshi women give birth at home. - The growth of the garment sector provided young women entry into the labor market. - While employment rates for women have doubled since 1995, they are still extremely low at 26%.
Several recent reports have highlighted the dramatic improvements in education - especially girls’ secondary education - in fertility, mortality, immunization, water and sanitation, rural roads and micro-credit. This is despite low per capita incomes. Countries with similar levels of per capita income have much worse outcomes and Bangladesh emerges as a positive outlier. We add to this list of paradoxes. One of these for instance, has to do with age at marriage. Low age at marriage in Bangladesh is lamented by demographers and while age at marriage is important in itself, in Bangladesh it is not a corollary of either fertility decline or female secondary education. Positive outcomes in fertility and education have occurred despite low age at marriage. We also identify a second though “negative” paradox – that despite increasing education and declining fertility, women’s labor force participation rates are low although they have doubled in the last 10 years.
The enhancement of women’s status in Bangladesh has been as much a product of the vision of a new state as the unintended consequences of development policies. The newly independent state in 1971had a dream of a new society, for which the state created a Constitution that focused on principles ofequality and liberty. The state then proceeded to ratify several international conventions and participatein international conferences for women. After the first phase of rehabilitation of the war-ravaged newstate was under control, the political imperative was to create the bulwark for a just and egalitarian societyand make a break with the past.
Chapter 2: Health: Charting the course of progress and addressing maternal health
The speed of fertility decline,increasing life expectancy and declining infant mortality have fueled a scholarly debate regarding theirdeterminants and impact. Links to other aspects of Bangladesh’s development, notably the microcreditrevolution and changes in women’s autonomy have played a large part in this literature. The policyliterature is trying to analyze how this came to happen, and what it is in Bangladesh’s institutional set-upand policy framework that facilitated this.
Chapter 3: Education: Spectacular progress and emerging issues
The growth of education, especiallysecondary education for girls, is perhaps Bangladesh’s most dramatic achievement in the last twodecades. Compared to other low income countries, Bangladesh stands out as a shining success story infemale secondary education, along with countries such as Nicaragua, Vietnam, and some countries of theerstwhile Soviet Union. Bangladesh’s success is especially commendable because the growth in femaleeducation took place within a democratic regime and started from a really low base. But this was not justhappenstance. Specific and deliberate policy levers propelled Bangladesh’s success in education.
Chapter 4: Women's employment in Bangladesh: Conundrums amidst progress
Unlike other countries in South Asia,however, there has been a sharp growth – an increase of almost one and a half times - in women’semployment in Bangladesh in the last decade (1995-2003) coinciding with economic growth and betteropportunities. But rates are still very low at 26 percent for women 15-59 years of age. The gender gap inemployment too, while narrowing slightly, still remains very high as male labor force participation isclose to universal.
Chapter 5: Norms, decision making and partcipation
Bangladesh’s successful education and micro credit programs arealso testimony to how policy levers and programs can influence norms and create incentives for them tobecome more egalitarian. Similarly, culturally sensitive delivery of Bangladesh’s family planningprogram was an important determinant of fertility decline. Availability of garment work allowed younggirls to leave their homes and migrate for market work. The successful sanitation program changed theface of Bangladeshi villages through an incentive to change behaviors. The inroad of television and thereach of the sometimes retrogressive entertainment industry in South Asia have nonetheless alsointroduced greater choice and acceptance of new forms of dress for young women. There are otherexamples of how policy, programs and structural change have changed norms and behaviors.
The women’s movement in Bangladesh has taken up the issue of pervasive violence against women as its preeminent concern in recent years. It hasbecome the most important cementing non-partisan issue propelling women’s mobilization in Bangladesh. The national discourse on violence against women in Bangladesh is mature compared to many of its neighbors. In recent years, public violence against women and the notorious rise of acidattacks have captured public attention. There is some speculation on whether increasing violence is a backlash arising from “threats to masculinity” in the wake of (especially younger) women’s visibility in schools and factories but there has been little empirical evidence for this.
Women marry very young, or it would be more appropriate to say that their parents marry get them married young - for marriages are mostly arranged. Age at marriage has remained low at about 16 years. In that respect marriage patterns in Bangladesh are not unlike those in India or Nepal. But they are different as well. This chapter argues that the conventional focus of demographers on increasing age at marriage as an important corollary of fertility decline and increasing labor force participation does not hold in Bangladesh. The important development in Bangladesh is not that median age at marriage has remained low (although there have been some improvements in the last decade) but that education has improved and fertility dropped despite low age at marriage.