Despite progress, Bangladeshi young women still lag far behind


By Nusrat Jahan

Editors’ note: One objective of the Gender Action Learning Project Writeshop, held in March, and hosted by Gender at Work, IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative, and ASIES, was to build capacity of researchers to share the results of their research in a way that would also appeal to non-academic audiences.  The outcome, told from the perspective of our talented writing coach, Ethan Gilsdorf, appeared earlier in this series (see Crafting and sharing powerful narratives in Guatemala City). In this blog, Nusrat Jahan demonstrates her skills in her compelling analysis of the results of a nationally-representative (and gender-sensitive) survey on the thoughts and aspirations of youth in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi women have come a long way in terms of economic and social empowerment. Yet beneath these encouraging statistics, we find some unexpected anomalies that call for serious attention.

Let us start with some positive statistics. Starting from a very low base in the early 80s, today girls are at par with boys in completing education up to higher secondary level. Before the days of producing ready-made garments (RMG), women’s participation in the formal economy was minimal and their back-breaking work in the informal economy was invisible. Capitalizing on the abundant female labour force, Bangladesh has become the second largest RMG exporter. Women’s labour force participation more than doubled in the last couple of decades.   

Bangladeshi women are not only progressing on the socio-economic front, they are also dominating the political arena. They have been filling prominent leadership positions— notably that of prime minister — for the last three decades. The country ranked fifth in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) on closing the gap in political empowerment. In fact, Bangladesh ranked 48th in the overall GGI ranking across the spectrum of economic, educational, health and political empowerment indicators, just above the U.S. and way ahead of all other South Asian and most African nations.

So, at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), when we wanted to gain some insight into the thoughts and aspirations of the Bangladeshi youth, as well as their readiness to embrace the world of opportunities offered by the 21st century, we hoped to find young women moving forward with young men from a close distance, if not hand in hand. But, to our surprise, we discovered that they are still falling far behind young men.

In our 2018 nationally-representative survey among the youth aged 15-35, we see that up to higher secondary level, young men and women indeed have equal completion rates across all socio-economic classes, including the extreme poor. But how much of this achievement is translating to other indicators of empowerment?

Compared to their male counterparts, many fewer female youth  across all levels of education say they are confident about their English language and computer skills — two most sought-after capabilities for better jobs. Female youth are also far less confident that their education will help them get a job. 

Among those who have completed their education, young women are much less likely to be involved in earning activities than young men. We achieved gender equality in education up to higher secondary level through incentives such as a financial stipend. Three-quarters of the young women we surveyed have between primary and higher secondary education, but their involvement rate in earning activities is the lowest. In this group, only 25% participate in earning activities, compared with 90% among young men with similar levels of education, and compared to about a third among women with low or no education, and almost 60% among women with higher education.  

As we see, young women with higher education almost close the gap with young men in earning involvement. But only four percent of young women study beyond higher secondary level; the rate is seven percent among young men.

Stark economic disparity between men and women is not uncommon across the world. But with so many powerful female leaders in the country, we wondered, do Bangladeshi young women feel empowered? Our survey is especially interested in the youth’s perceived freedom of choice, not just because it is a basic human right, but also because it is closely related to an individual’s sense of agency — the subjective experience of controlling one’s actions — and, through those actions, one’s motivations and behaviours.

In our survey, much higher rates of young men, compared to young women, reported enjoying freedom of choice in all crucial aspects in life — choosing education institution, occupation, friend and spouse, freedom of physical movement and spending money. And, we see the starkest difference in the case of freedom of physical movement; only 40% young women believe they can move freely, half as much as young men.

Lack of freedom in physical movement for young women is particularly troubling. As we have seen already, young women are lagging far behind young men in most important aspects of life — higher education, skills and participation in the economy. Being able to move freely is essential for women to access education, training, social networks and employment. And physical mobility is exactly where young women are struggling the most. 

In 2015, Bangladesh has been elevated to the category of lower middle-income countries. But we have a long way to go; still, almost a quarter of the Bangladeshis are poor and 13% are extreme poor. In this long quest for prosperity and equity, our youth should play the main part. When half the population, our young women, are lagging far behind, this process is neither fast enough, nor equitable.   

So, what can we do?

First, it is imperative to investigate: 1) why the educational achievement of women — up to higher secondary level — is not translating into jobs, and, 2) why the rate of pursuing higher studies is so low among young women despite better earnings prospects. Our data suggests early marriage may be a reason. Sixty-two percent of  married female youth got married before turning 18 and, among the early-married youth, less than one percent studied beyond higher secondary level.  

Second, we also need to think how we can ensure safety, security and comfort of women outside home. In our survey, sexual harassment and rape were mentioned by a large number of youths as  major problems of the country. Violence against women in many different forms is frequently featured in headlines. So, one reason for restricted mobility could be the feeling of insecurity among young women. But further research on this matter to identify the root causes and taking necessary action is crucial. As we argued, this is not just a basic human right, but also crucial for women to becoming productive citizens of the country.

Women are supposed to hold up ‘Half the Sky’. How are they supposed to do so when they fall so short?  

These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.

Photo Credit: Zehad-Al-Mehedi

Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Knowledge Management and Business Development at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University. Nusrat Has been working as a development professional for the last fifteen years with a passion for equity and justice.

More to explorer

Feminist School

Empowering changemakers for gender justice and social transformation: a recap of the Feminist School journey

Co-created by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Gender at Work, Feminist School was first structured to provide a unique virtual space for young feminist activists from across the world who were interested in deepening their understanding of feminist practices, principles, and approaches via experiential learning to advance gender equality in and through education in their communities.

Gender Equality & Inclusion Conversation Guide

For Gender at Work, the approach we take to gender equality and inclusion work typically focuses on longer-term action learning processes. We value reflective space and aim to create an opportunity for people to work together and to learn from each other over time, and typically tailor our support to meet specific needs.