It is heartening that Bangladesh has achieved commendable successes in numerous dimensions of gender parity over the years, thereby widening the economic opportunities for women. The fertility rate has been drastically reduced and gender parity attained in schooling, and millions of female workers have been absorbed in the country's garments sector.
Girls today have better prospect than boys to complete schooling and live up to the age of 60 years, shows the Human Capital Index of the World Bank. The Bank's publication titled 'Voices to Choices: Bangladesh's Journey in Women's Economic Empowerment' (December 2019) has examined the extent to which these changes were translated into greater voice and decision-making power for Bangladeshi women, their experiences during the previous decade, and ways and means of building on the past progress to improve their economic empowerment.
The publication has examined various characteristics of women's engagement and economic empowerment in the country. The former refers to the extent to which women participate in the economic spheres. The latter relate to four domains, viz. labour force participation and other labour market outcomes; women's ownership and control of household assets; their use and control of financial assets; and their opportunities for entrepreneurship.
According to the findings, Bangladesh's female labour force participation rate has risen substantially - a full 10 per cent from 2003 to 2016. But female participation is still only 44 per cent of the males. The persistence of child marriage continues to be a significant barrier, although married women are now employed at much higher rates compared to a decade ago.
Although many industries have witnessed a decline in sex aggregation, women still appear to have limited choices with regard to work options. Data from the Labour Force Survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) show that the share of women in industries with balanced gender proportions have quadrupled between 2003 and 2016, while women's share in female-dominated industries diminished by over two-thirds.
Interestingly, Bangladesh has the smallest gender wage gap among the regional countries; but gender norms and biases explain the remaining differential, especially on the demand side of labour. Female workers earned roughly 76 per cent of what men did in 2016, which was a significant improvement from the 43 per cent gap in 2003. Despite these advances, the fact remains that over one-third of women in the country's labour force are unpaid helpers informally contributing to the family.
In the area of ownership and control of productive assets, one of the most valuable household assets viz. land ownership by women, is much lower in rural Bangladesh compared to men. Only 12 per cent among rural women solely or jointly own agricultural land, the percentage for non-agricultural land being 7.0. Research indicates that rural women inherit land much less frequently (around 20 per cent) compared to those living in the urban areas; and agricultural land ownership is not positively correlated with greater empowerment of women.
However, many women exert more economic control over productive assets like agricultural land, cattle, houses and non-agricultural land than ownership patterns suggest. There has been marked improvement over the years in societal attitude towards women's asset ownership. The assets females are more likely to own compared to males include poultry, livestock and small consumer durables.
In the domain of ownership and control of financial assets, women's share is gradually rising over time, but gender gaps still persist. Bangladesh has fared better compared to lower middle-income group of nations with regard to borrowings by women from financial institutions. But women appear to be less diverse than men with regard to their sources of saving and borrowing money, and the financial products they typically use. For example, three quarters of rural women borrow from or save with NGOs, but the sources of borrowings and savings for rural men are much more diverse. Besides, loans to women continue to be of lower value and shorter duration alongside stricter terms compared to men.
The squeezed nature of women's credit is historically related to their dearth of collateral and low financial literacy, as well as gender norms that view men as more responsible and better suited in controlling finances. There is mixed evidence on whether microcredit empowers women economically in Bangladesh, as loans often end up under the control of husbands or other male household members. It has been found that only 12 to 16 per cent women are sole decision-makers on household financial issues and use of financial services.
In the field of entrepreneurship, Bangladesh has among the smallest shares of female-majority ownership of enterprises globally, despite government efforts to promote female entrepreneurship. In terms of percentage, it is only 1.7 per cent as against the South Asian and global averages of 9.6 per cent and 14.5 per cent respectively. Although female entrepreneurs' access to credit has increased over time, the total credit disbursed annually among them from 2010 to 2017 had been just 3.0 per cent of credit disbursed among male entrepreneurs. Barriers to flourishing female entrepreneurship include patriarchal norms that limit women's mobility and hinder access to market networks and financial institutions.
The World Bank report has made a number of recommendations to enhance economic empowerment of the Bangladesh women. The recommendations for improving labour force participation and other labour market outcomes include: further lowering of child marriage rate and addressing barriers to girls' education beyond class X; improving women's opportunities for technical education and skills in order to groom them for higher paying industrial and technical jobs; addressing the high rates of sexual harassment in workplaces and transports, and improving working conditions for women - especially in the private sector.
The recommendations for improving ownership and control of financial assets include: tackling the patriarchal norms that hinder women's ability to use and control financial services; raising financial literacy rates of women; increasing flexibility and expanding the types of financial services available to women; easing documentation and removing procedural barriers; and enhancing use of mobile and digital technologies for boosting access to finance.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of the government of Bangladesh and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.