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WHISPERS TO VOICES: Gender Transformation in Bangladesh

WHISPERS TO VOICES: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh

WHISPERS TO VOICES: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh

Huge strides in women’s progress

March 13, 2008 - Bangladesh has achieved impressive gains in women’s status and gender equality, but access to reproductive health services, labor markets, physical security and role in decision-making need urgent attention, says a World Bank report released today.

Titled “Whispers to Voices: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh,” the report documents changes in norms, attitudes, and practices related to gender equality based on national surveys and field work and is a comprehensive analysis of key development outcomes. It also addresses important regional variations with a focus on Sylhet. It concludes that there has been a far-reaching change in gender norms in Bangladesh, which has pervaded not only outcomes but also attitudes.

This change has been a result of constructive policies and programs that spurred much of the progress in gender equality, the report says. Between 1971 and 2004, Bangladesh halved its fertility rates. In much of the country today, girls’ secondary school enrollment exceeds that of boys. The gender gap in infant mortality has been closed. The micro-credit revolution continues to boost women’s solidarity groups and earning potential, and vast numbers of young women are leaving their villages to work in garment factories where, in earlier generations, young women were rarely seen outside their homes.

“Bangladesh has taken huge strides in women’s progress. Now it needs to address remaining issues and second generation issues. These include employment outside of agriculture, extending education to all sections, strengthening the demand and supply of reproductive health services and providing for women’s safety,” said Xian Zhu, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh.

The report says that while gender inequalities in children’s health have diminished, Bangladeshi women still lack adequate access to reproductive health services. Almost 90 percent of Bangladeshi women give birth at home, and over 86 percent do not have a skilled birth attendant to assist. The reasons for not seeking care during pregnancy and child birth are primarily related to low appreciation of women’s needs during this period. In addition to changes in methods for delivering care, the report calls for increased efforts to use information, education, and communication to raise the demand for health services among women.

This report is the result of intensive engagement by the women’s movement in Bangladesh and addresses those questions which were posed by Bangladeshi researchers and activists. It is an important milestone in the Bank’s involvement in gender issues in Bangladesh”, said Junaid Ahmad, Sector Manager Urban, Water and Disaster and acting manager Social Development at the World Bank.

Analysis on the state of women in Bangladesh

Maitreyi Das, Senior Social Sector Specialist for South Asia and lead author of the report talks about the state of women in Bangladesh.

Maitreyi Bordia Das, Senior Social Sector Specialist
Maitreyi Das, Senior Social Sector Specialist
  • - Gender equality changes in Bangladesh (30s) wmv
  • - Challenges remain (29s) wmv
  • - How country's policies have affected gender equality (33s) wmv
  • - Some of unintended effects of national policies (41s) wmv
  • - Are women impeded by gender norms? (36s) wmv
  • - Women employment remains a hurdle (41s) wmv
  • - Have women participated in South Asia’s economic growth? (29s) wmv

Girls' Education

Bangladesh’s success in girls’ education is now well-known. The report says a new reality in education is emerging –boys are at risk of being “left behind” and this could potentially have serious impacts on social and familial cohesion. Already there is evidence of “educational hypogamy” with a larger proportion of younger women compared to the older generation marrying men less educated than them.

There are also serious gaps in educational attainment between the rich and the poor and quality of schooling is an issue of concern. Poor children of either gender can rarely stay in school through to the upper grades. By Grade 9, when nearly 100 percent of children from rich families are enrolled, less than 20 percent of children from the poorest households are still in school. This gap in enrollment by poverty status at the lower secondary levels will be important to bridge for reasons of equity, but also for reasons of productivity.

Notwithstanding the remaining challenges in education, it seems to have wrought a virtual revolution in the Bangladeshi countryside. When girls were asked how education has made their lives different from their mothers’, they said it had helped them “find a voice,” allowed them to “have a say,” to “speak,” and “to be listened to.” Education is also changing relations between girls, their families, and their elders. The acceptance of and demand for equal education for boys and girls has pervaded regions and generations. Almost 75 percent of those surveyed believe that girls should have as much education as boys.

Continued focus on education will be critical to addressing new and remaining challenges,” said Maitreyi Bordia Das, Senior Social Sector Specialist and lead author of the report. “Education enhances both women’s entry into the labor market and their wages. Educated women seek maternal health services more than uneducated women, and in the arena of decision-making, we find that educated women are consulted more frequently. The other major area of focus has to be to attract more women into high quality jobs”, she said.

Women in Workforce

The report emphasizes that despite increasing education and declining fertility, women’s labor force participation rates are very low although they have doubled in the last 10 years. Women’s employment in South Asia is among the lowest in the world and Bangladesh is at the lower end of the South Asian spectrum.

Less than one fourth of men and 4 percent of women of prime working age work for a cash wage in Bangladesh. Women are concentrated in domestic services and home-based work, for which many do not report income. Women are also less likely than men to be self-employed in non-farm activities, and in fact, women’s participation in rural non-agricultural work has declined and unpaid work seems to have increased.

The report says that there may also be wage and hiring discrimination against women. In the casual agricultural labor market, women earn about 60-65 percent of men’s wages and 81.5 percent of the difference between men’s and women’s agricultural wages is unexplained and could be due to labor market discrimination.

"If Bangladesh does not give these (educated) young women opportunities outside the home, we can expect some dejection and some impact on social cohesion. Therefore I would like to reiterate the importance of women’s employment as a core growth issue and not just a poverty alleviation one", said Xian Zhu, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh.

Women's Role in Decision-making

Women’s role in decision-making is still small and restricted to the domestic sphere. Despite the formidable women’s groups in rural areas, most women’s influence over decision-making is confined to household functioning. The report says the difference in decision-making power between younger and older women is small, suggesting little change over time. Low access to land and property is an important part of their low voice in decision-making.

Less than 10 percent of all women and less than 3 percent of younger women (aged 15-25) have their names on marital property papers like rental agreement or title to land or a homestead. The reservation of seats for women in Union Parishads has definitely enhanced their visibility and decision-making at the community level but still more needs to be done to give them equal responsibilities and resources.

The report also addresses some of the issues that have dominated the popular discourse in Bangladesh. For instance, it finds that there has indeed been an increase in dowry over the last 30 years. This is the new preoccupation of girls and their families. In the arena of violence and public security too it finds that Bangladeshi women tend to condone spousal violence for minor infractions and men are more likely to admit to violence than women are to report it. Less than half of all women surveyed felt safe going out alone in their village or neighborhood at all times. The report emphasizes that public security for women will be an important factor in their ability to access new opportunities.

Additional Resources

- Gender in South Asia
Gender issues in South Asia represent a complex challenge. In most countries women have experienced improved access to services and credit markets. (Read More »)

- Blog - End Poverty in South Asia
Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for South Asia, shares insights about the fight against poverty in the region. (Read More »)

- South Asia: Development Data
A wide range of social and economic measures on South Asia, including links to the World Bank's most important online development databases. (Read More »)

- South Asia: Analysis and Research
Compilation of all the World Bank's publications on South Asia, with 'search' options and links to analysis and research on other South Asian countries. (Read More »)

- World Bank Program in South Asia
Launching pad to all information on World Bank activities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.(Read More »)

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