The Global Gender Gap report 2022 is out and, once again, Bangladesh leads SouthAsia – an evidence of the commitment the highest office of the land has attached to empowering women. The index ranks the countries on four indices – educational attainment; health and survival; political empowerment and economic participation.
By Vanita Suneja
Bangladesh has illustrated the correctness of putting girls’ education first to achieve development. The country made special efforts to educate girls over the years and achieved gender parity in primary and secondary enrolments. To consolidate the gains and to nip the dropping out of young girls from schools, a stipend scheme was initiated in rural areas in 1994 to incentivise continuance of education. Initiatives like the Female Secondary Stipend and Assistance Program (FSSAP) ensured attendance, performance in academics and delaying marriage. Indeed, the complaint against FSAAP is that more girls attend rural secondary schools than boys!
This focused incentive scheme for girls had spin off impact on health , fertility, employment and overall wellbeing.
Much followed as a result of such attention to education from the highest office in the land. Not surprisingly, the latest Global Gender Gap report 2022 places Bangladesh at the very top among its SouthAsia peers. Not surprisingly – because this has happened for the eighth year in a row.
Education efforts have had roadblocks – child marriages and household responsibilities have deterred girls from completing their higher education, the high rates of enrolment notwithstanding. The Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, 2017 showed dropout rates for girls at 42 per cent at the secondary school level. Though it is unlawful to marry a girl before her eighteenth birthday, the prevalence of child marriages in Bangladesh remains very high. Adolescent girls are at the core of Bangladesh’s Secondary Education Development Programme, giving out cash incentive as also addressing menstrual issues and separate sanitation facilities for girls.
Education instils a scientific temper and prompts enquiry and creates in young people an awareness of their rights. It ignites dreams. Aren’t these the foundations for equality in society?
Addressing women’s health needs
Gender parity comes from an awareness that an education programme brings with components that include enrolment, schooling, stipends and attention to adolescent concerns, especially sanitation issues. Bangladesh shows the way on these.
A country reeling under poverty prioritised its health spending to strengthen its health system. Bangladesh has achieved great strides in life expectancy, vaccination rates, tuberculosis control and a child’s chances of surviving past the age of five, a series of focus papers published in The Lancet say.
Health is a big area of ongoing work in this respect. Bangladesh is a role model in birth control with fertility rate of just two children per women. Bangladesh reduced maternal mortality to 163 in 2021 compared to 269 per 100,000 live births in 2009. Bangladeshi women live longer compared to their menfolk. Empowerment of a women is dependent on her ability to control her reproductive life. A nation supportive of girl’s education, smaller families, and contraception is going to have long term health benefits for all its citizens.
It might sound like a paradox for the world’s eighth most populous country, but the primacy its leadership accorded to health and its health planners drawing up specific health programmes focussing on such issues as gender equality, family planning, immunisation and diarrhoea treatment through an army of grassroots health workers is a lesson to cherish.
For instance, a series of awareness advertisements aired on national television in the 1990s focused on educating women about nutrition, vaccination, pregnancy and neonatology. The initiative helped Bangladesh grapple with polio, decrease child mortality by more than 200 per cent and neonatal mortality rate by over 70 per cent.
Politics – women’s oyster
Bangladeshi women got their place in society with women Prime Minsters as the country’s top executive over three decades in successive governments. The Speaker of the national parliament and the top opposition leaders too were women; and seats were reserved for women in the national parliament and in the local governments.
These progressive signs determining parity for women in governance and in the political space is reflected in the global gender gap index. Bangladesh has got a good ranking and continues to improve its overall ranking due to a sensitive political leadership.
However, there is a long way ahead for women to take command of nation building as political leaders. Women at top in the national government and reservations of seats for women candidates at the ward councils does not automatically translate into more political space for women in general. But the start with education has helped drive the engine of empowerment. Indeed, education is the fuel of the engine of empowerment.
Worker to manager
Women’s participation in workforce especially in the garment industry has been substantial in Bangladesh. Of the total workforce, around one third workforce are women but only 8.2 per cent women are employed in the formal sector. Bangladesh’s micro credit movement has helped women and approximately a third of the country’s women have access to microcredit. There is progress in diversity of Boards as 18 per cent of listed companies have women as board directors . Women in the top managerial roles in white collar jobs and in decision making positions still limited. Another challenge is of Sexual harassment at formal and informal work spaces and one of the study by Karmajibi Nari and CARE Bangladesh assessed it at 12.7 per cent percent of women employees having experienced sexual harassment at their workplaces.
Apart from such affirmative initiatives, it is also important how a nation chooses its symbols. Bangladesh embraced the legacy of South Asian feminist – Begum Rokeya of undivided India as torchbearer and ambassador of women education. Bangladesh celebrates Rokeya day on 9 December every year, lauding women achievers. Non-government organizations too have played a significant role for women empowerment in Bangladesh, especially on micro-finance, gender mainstreaming and making use of non-formal education for children in hard to reach areas. Rights based organizations, feminist groups and women movements contributed changing social thought process.
A lot has been achieved in the last fifty years. However, access to education, health, jobs are necessary conditions but not sufficient enough to automatically disrupt the traditional roles for women and work-life balance. Women can only fly high in political spaces or rise up on the ladder of workforce if there is respite from traditional caring roles expected of them. Taking a cue from a feminist utopian story written by Begum Rokeya, Sultana’s dream, examining a role reversal of men and women, a cultural campaign for role reversals is further required. Bangladesh also requires a road map specifically to work on abolition of child marriages; violence again women, getting more women in decision making positions in politics and business, access to equal property etc .
This is the eighth consecutive instance of Bangladesh’s numero uno place in the ranking of South Asia on the Global Gender Gap. Now is the time to not limit its comparison on gender parity within SouthAsia but instead it should look up to countries doing much better for inspiration.
Vanita Suneja is Regional Advocacy Manager with Water Aid (South Asia).