Since achieving independence in 1971, Bangladesh has lifted 15 million citizens out of poverty and made great strides in tackling food insecurity. However, while its government has been tirelessly working to develop economically, it has also been fighting another battle for women’s rights in Bangladesh.
Despite a patriarchal social framework, Bengali women have held the right to vote since 1947, and the country elected its first female Prime Minister in 1991. Women fought for their country in Bangladesh’s Liberation War, and the constitution that the country subsequently adopted promised equal opportunities for women in all areas. The following six facts about women’s rights in Bangladesh explain how the country has tried to uphold that promise, and what challenges remain.
6 Facts About Women’s Rights in Bangladesh
- The government has enacted numerous policies over the past decade focused on women’s rights in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs has increased allowances for widows, eased the burden on lactating mothers in urban areas and provided job training in fields such as agriculture and electronics. The National Women Development Policy of 2011 aimed to establish equal rights for men and women but also included specific goals such as assistance for female entrepreneurs. To oversee the implementation of the development policy, the government formed a 50-member National Women and Child Development Council chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina has also vocally supported women’s empowerment in global forums such as the UN.
- Men still dominate the country’s political system. With Hasina leading the country since 2009 and the main opposition party also being led by a woman, Bangladesh might appear to be a model for women’s empowerment in politics. However, out of 350 seats in the Bangladeshi parliament, only 22 currently belong to directly elected female legislators while 50 are reserved for women who are not directly elected. Female politicians and activists have described a culture of exclusion within the two main political parties, reinforced by male politicians who view their female colleagues as inferior. Still, the proportion of women in parliament has continued to rise over the past decade and women hold seats in 12,000 local political offices.
- Maternal mortality has dropped 60% since 2000. This drop has been the result of effective investments in prenatal care. The Government and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, has provided critical support by coordinating midwife training programs. Trained midwives alleviate a major risk factor for maternal mortality, which is a lack of healthcare access for pregnant women. More than half of Bengali women opt to give birth at home, but the proportion of births in which trained health personnel are present has been growing and now makes up more than half.
- Violence against women and child marriage remain major problems. Two out of three married women in Bangladesh have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. Religious law dictates customs such as marriage and cements discrimination against women. Almost 60% of girls are married before their 18th birthday, and their husbands’ families may abandon them if they are unable to bear children. Grassroots and international NGOs have attempted to change this status quo; for example, Girls Not Brides Bangladesh is a partnership of 25 organizations that lobbies the government and promotes advocacy. The government has answered by passing the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act in 2010 and the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2017, but the results of these efforts have yet to materialize.
- Civil society organizations have played a key role in improving women’s rights in Bangladesh. An example of a nonprofit that is supporting Bengali women is the South Murapa Underprivileged Women’s Cooperative Society. This organization provides medical care to women in Cox’s Bazar district. The group’s chairperson, Kulsuma Begum, escaped an abusive husband at the age of 16 and immediately set out to help pregnant women in disaster zones. Apart from domestic organizations like Begum’s, international charities such as Save the Children have made large gains in infant health and early childhood education.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities. An interagency evaluation by UN Women identified several factors that could erode women’s rights in Bangladesh due to the pandemic, including lack of healthcare access, unequal care work burden and a lack of decision-making power in the pandemic response. Experts also documented a rise in gender-based violence during the initial shutdown, fueling a spike in calls to national trauma hotlines. Luckily, local organizations on the ground have organized cash-for-work activities for women, such as mask making.
The Road Ahead
In the months to come, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present challenges for Bangladesh, especially the country’s women. However, Bengali women have long borne the brunt of their country’s struggles while still relentlessly pushing for change. Hopefully, their resilience will ultimately shine through.
– Jack Silvers