Women are key drivers in Bangladesh’s rapid economic growth
It is more than clear that social trust and cohesion with women’s equity are well established as a necessary impetus for growth and sustainability
Is there a correlation between the greater participation of women in the labour force and a country’s growth trajectory? Any study of Bangladesh would suggest that this is so.
Bangladesh, now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has been tagged by the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme as a “lower-middle income economy” for the past several years, with a dramatically improved multidimensional human development and gender development index.
The first and clear reason is the major role of women in the Bangladesh workforce, economy, politics, public spaces and civil society. In 2020, the female labour force in Bangladesh was reported at 30% and growing. Even in sectors like agriculture and medium- and small-scale sectors, women’s role, participation and leadership is on the increase. Compare this with India where less than one-quarter of women are in the labour force (similar to Pakistan) and only a fifth are employed. In almost all indices, whether it is the ratio to male wages, education or women in politics, Bangladesh now fares better than other South Asian countries. In some areas like sex ratio at birth, Bangladesh is among the best in the world. Public spaces are being transformed to accommodate women, factory floors have facilities to support them.
This does not mean that patriarchy has ended in Bangladesh. Domestic violence remains as high as in the rest of South Asia, social oppressions and the dual burden of work and household continues. But Bangladesh continues to put in place measures to encourage women’s participation in all sectors of economic, social and political life.
Bangladesh’s politics has a comfortable relationship with its civil society. There is no anxiety over “foreign-funded NGOs” as a threat to national security. Unlike much of the third world, which has curbed trade unionism and changed labour laws to favour corporates, Bangladesh resisted this drive and created labour laws to support cohesion for labour and industry. Even though this is not enough and labour unions want more, they still have the strength to demand their rights.
The regime is no idealist either, and has been rightly criticised by intellectuals for not tolerating dissent and yielding to majoritarian measures at times. Freedom of expression has been curbed and the government has tried to censor critics. But the political trajectory of the last few years shows that this regime has a level of tolerance, the inclusion of all communities, and space for the intelligentsia and organic intellectuals. Bangladesh has protected democratic spaces which are shrinking even in countries that were known to be leaders of the democratic movement.
Bangladesh’s leadership has managed well in its role in the region and geopolitics. Bangladesh is among the least militarised counties in all of South Asia. It has negotiated border issues with India and others, and does not see any neighbour or any community within it as an enemy. It has not been particularly kind to the Rohingya refugees. It has no intention of becoming a client-state or leveraging itself with any great power, or joining a militarist regional alliance. It has kept out of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, but is a strategic partner to both China and India, happily negotiating benefits for itself from both. The “guns versus butter” debate has favoured social expenditure in Bangladesh.
Major Indian economists Kaushik Basu, Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze and Jayati Ghosh have repeatedly advised on these very policies. They have advocated multidimensional poverty measures and for giving women’s real empowerment, and shown the importance of trust and social cohesion as building blocks to sustainable development. Clearly, it is the Bangladeshi leadership that has taken them seriously. Perhaps it’s time for others to do so.
There are many challenges before Bangladesh. Prone to natural disasters and vulnerable to climate change, much will depend on its political and economic choices. However, it is more than clear that social trust and cohesion with women’s equity are well established as a necessary impetus for growth and sustainability. It’s time Bangladesh’s example became a mantra for development.
Anuradha Chenoy is professor (retd), Jawaharlal Nehru University and adjunct professor, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat
The views expressed are personal