With girls' education a top priority, Bangladeshi women flourish

From Himalayan heights to the garment factory floor, women forge trailblazing paths for the nation and the region.

By Shahriar Sharif for Khabar South Asia in Dhaka

July 04, 2012
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Two months ago, Nishat Majumdar and Wasfia Nazreen weren't well known in their native Bangladesh.

  • Women sew garments at a factory in Bangladesh, where female employment and empowerment have boomed in the last 40 years. Today, 90% of garment workers are women, as are more than half of all primary school teachers. [Laboni Khondoker/Khabar]

    Women sew garments at a factory in Bangladesh, where female employment and empowerment have boomed in the last 40 years. Today, 90% of garment workers are women, as are more than half of all primary school teachers. [Laboni Khondoker/Khabar]

Then, in May, a week apart, the two became the first Bangladeshi women to climb Nepal's Mount Everest.

Now, both are household names, the latest in a succession of extraordinary women in this conservative majority-Muslim country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held a June 21st reception for them, proudly declaring they have demonstrated what Bangladeshi women are capable of.

"Their courage and determination will inspire the future generations and they will be confident enough to tackle every hurdle in the nation's march forward," Hasina said. "Our women will continue to soar higher and higher."

They have, indeed. In the 41 years since Bangladesh became independent, women have made remarkable progress in the social, economic and political fields – laudable feats for a conservative Muslim-majority country where traditionally women are encouraged to stay home.

For the past 20 years, Bangladesh has been led by two women who alternated in the post of prime minister – Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina of the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) – except for late 2006 to late 2008, when a caretaker government was in place. As heads of the nation's two largest parties, both dominate the political scene.

At present, the cabinet has five women holding important portfolios in foreign affairs and the home and agriculture ministries. The women of Bangladesh are notably present among the civil service, police, judiciary and corporate sectors.

"This is a clear example of waning influence of religious fundamentalism in the country and the growing strength of women," women's rights activist Rasheda K Chowdhury told Khabar South Asia. She also heads the Campaign for Popular Education, a common platform of education-related non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Chowdhury attributes the growing empowerment of women to a national emphasis on girls' education. For 30 years Bangladesh has invested heavily in this area, making education free for girls up to Grade 10 and providing them with generous stipends.

One other area where women dominate is in the country's largest manufacturing industry – the garment sector – where they account for 90% of the workforce, bringing in 80% of Bangladesh's total export earnings of $23 billion.

These days, in Bangladeshi streets, bazaars and shopping malls, burkha-clad women are not seen very often. Every morning and evening, a vast army of young women can be seen walking back and forth to the garment factories unescorted by male relatives –a sight unthinkable even just 30 years ago.

The world famous microfinance institution, the Grameen Bank, is another shining example of women's advancement. Grameen, where women account for 90% of borrowers, is a role model for many countries of how women can be empowered through small loans.

Taslima Begum, a Grameen borrower and board member, represented the Bank and received the Nobel Peace prize in 2006 in Oslo along with its founder Muhammad Yunus, catapulting the obscure Bangladeshi woman to the global stage.

Further boosting female advancement is the phenomenal growth of women teachers in primary schools, especially in rural areas.

"Women now make up nearly 60% of primary teachers in the country," said Abdul Awal, former secretary of the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education.

Their numbers are also increasing at the secondary level, where they currently hold 30% of positions. According to Awal, some recent government measures, like reserving a quota for them, will see the number of women teachers rise in coming years.

"Bangladesh is clearly ahead of other countries in the region, especially India, Pakistan and Nepal, in women empowerment," said Salma Ali, president of Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association.

Her observation found traction in research done by Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize-winning Indian economist.

At a January seminar in Dhaka, Sen said Bangladesh today commands global respect as a success story of brightening socio-economic indicators, compared to other South Asian nations.

The education and empowerment of women, especially their participation in the garment sector and microcredit based self-employment projects, have impacted enormously the lives of millions in Bangladesh. Children have been the greatest beneficiary of the mother's income, he told the seminar.

Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, state Minister for Women Affairs, told Khabar considerable progress has been made, but more must be done.

"Think of the situation just 25 years ago when female workforce participation amounted only to telephone operators or personal assistants," she said. "But we need to do more and that's a priority of our government."

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  • ShehrinFebruary 5, 2013 @ 01:02:36AM

    excellent article and very informative too.

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