Bangladesh women in changed times

Shihab Sarkar | Published: August 13, 2018 22:10:07

Stocky young women on the driving seats of massive buses are common spectacles in many Western countries, especially in the USA. So are female chief executives running large organisations. In spite of their strong visibility in the work world, women in these countries view themselves as being underrepresented in the social mainstream. In contrast to the above scenes showing women at work, their counterparts in Bangladesh stand out with their indomitable work spirit and the rising engagement in the job market. Against this upbeat Bangladesh backdrop, the womenfolk being once regarded as sheer non-entities sound incredible.

However, unusual sights are also found making inroads into the comforting spectacle of the continued march of women in the country. Alongside women in large numbers entering the work scenario, many still are found left out. On being not provided in the traditional employments, nowadays many of them are picking unconventional works. In the capital Dhaka, intrepid women are seen entering the traditionally male-dominated professions. They range from running small shops, roadside tea-stalls, peddling, to even repairing cycle-rickshaws. In the small towns, young women driving easy bikes no longer make people feel surprised. Compared to the literate women, those not sufficiently educated are found going for new types of jobs -- that require manual labour. Female workers have been seen engaged in small-scale auxiliary agriculture since long. It includes growing vegetables in home backyards or raising poultry. In the past, women in fishing and sale of fishes were common rural scenes. In the second decade of the 21st century, these humble efforts have been replaced by entrepreneurship. Starting business on microfinance loans, village-based female entrepreneurs have impressively shown their mettle in attaining self-sufficiency. This has earned them a place of dignity in society.

However, notwithstanding women's isolated contributions to the rural economy, that of urban women continues to become distinctive. The fast expanding spheres of employment and the accompanying job varieties have a significant role in it. In spite of the hiccups, the country can now boast of a prospective ready-made garment (RMG) sector. Thanks to its speedy growth for decades in a row, it could emerge as the largest job destination for young women. The RMG industry in the country has, in fact, brought about a radical change in the lives of the women of Bangladesh. It has helped them make a break with their dreary times of the past. Unlike many other developing countries, Bangladesh found scores of areas of employments opening before women in quick succession. Apart from the RMG sector, the job-seeking women witnessed a good number of employment outlets beckoning them. They included industries dealing with frozen foods, processed leather, handicrafts, tea processing, fashion clothing and many other unconventional works. As most of these sectors manufacture and handle export-oriented products, the women workers in them came up as a potential force behind the nation's export earnings.

The women of Bangladesh have come a long way from the days when they would remain confined to a few specific jobs. In the past, down-and-out and desperately struggling rural women would be found doing manual work at construction sites, the ones engaged in building roads, bridges and embankments. Many would find work in projects run under the Food for Work programmes. A lot of others would join the day-long, back-breaking work at rice mills. Many women in villages survive financially nowadays on work at brick fields. The work pattern of women has undergone phases of change in the following decades. Spread of literacy and the emergence of newer income-generating opportunities weaned lots of these women off the arduous jobs. The rural job scenario for women has begun wearing a new look. It has been made easier thanks to the relentless campaigns and efforts undertaken by the successive governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

It is true women in the rural areas have long been displaying their resolve to break free of the shackles of poverty. Many came out impressively successful. But women residing in the cities appear to be lagging behind. They are generally conscious about their rights. They can identify the discriminatory biases against them as well as the social deprivations. Ironically, these realities cannot prompt them to become proactive in carving out a place in the urban professional domain. However, due mainly to a wider expanse of opportunities compared to that in the villages, a large section of these women can finally enter the job market. It is the two classes of urban women -- the educated and career-focused and the skilled workforce, who finally dominate the employment scenario. Female entrepreneurs are also emerging increasingly.

There are cogent reasons behind the optimists' feeling upbeat about the prospects awaiting the country's women. Positive changes in their lives are quite evident. They are now less afflicted by poverty; and the indicator of gender disparity in education and work has improved significantly. These positive features present the country's vast segments of women as having crossed a long hazardous path. The point from which the journey started over four-and-half decades ago was shrouded in uncertainties. But they have been aptly dealt with. Credit for it largely goes to the eventual emergence of an activism aimed at the emancipation of Bangladesh women.

The country's ongoing economic progress is driven, to a great extent, by social changes. Women's empowerment plays a remarkable role in it. Similar contributions to the nation's socio-economic uplift are made by women's greater access to education and health care.  Like in the other areas of national life, development is not free of its flipsides. In Bangladesh context, when it comes to women, they are seen facing new challenges. Opportunities are getting squeezed, competition becoming fiercer. As a result, many are found left out of the race for attaining specific goals; and the bond of camaraderie loosens. In the gap, the age-old scourges, discrimination being the most prominent, raise their heads. The task of women's emancipation loses all its steam if these realities remain unaddressed.

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