What Bangladesh can teach the world
John Hendra

Despite slower economic growth, Bangladesh has achieved more rapid progress in human development than its neighbours India and Pakistan. Gender equality is a key factor in its success. The Bangladesh experience shows that gender equality is also key for the new development agenda

  • A picture showing women walking in a rally holding the flag of Bangladesh 
    Photo- Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

As the world looks forward to the elaboration of a new set of post-2015 development goals, member states are reflecting on the contribution of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) including at a high-level event later this month at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. Understanding what has worked and why, and where the shortfalls have been, is critical to effectively build on the successes of the MDGs in the new development framework.

Given its rapid progress in achieving human development outcomes, Bangladesh has important lessons to share as member states review the achievements of the MDGs, and can act as a strong voice on priorities for the post-2015 development agenda.

In short, Bangladesh has localised the MDGs to meet national needs, setting new targets and indicators for women’s representation in local government, and for access to reproductive health services. Public expenditures in social sectors have increased significantly, supporting progress towards the MDGs and accelerating human development.

According to the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report, Bangladesh ranked 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), with an HDI of 0.515, and remains a less developed country. Yet, as Amartya Sen and others have pointed out, despite lower levels of economic growth, Bangladesh has achieved greater gains in human development than its wealthier neighbours India and Pakistan, with an HDI well above the average of 0.466 for low human development countries.

A number of statistics bear this out, including the poverty rate which fell from 56.6% in 1991-92 to 31.5% in 2010. GDP per capita (expressed as Purchasing Power Parity) in Bangladesh is half that of India: $1,777 compared to $3650 in 2011, and lower than that of fellow LDC Pakistan at $2,567. Yet, average life expectancy is 69 years, compared to 65 years in India and 65.7 in Pakistan, and well above the South Asian average of 66 years. 96% of children are immunised against diphtheria and measles compared to 80% of children in Pakistan, and 72% for diphtheria and 74% for measles in India.

The under-five mortality rate is 46 deaths per 1000 in Bangladesh compared to 61 per 1000 in India and 72 per 1000 in Pakistan. And according to Unicef, the literacy rate for young women aged 15-24 is 78% in Bangladesh, compared to 74% in India and 61% in Pakistan.

Bangladesh has also achieved faster gains over time as well. As a result of long-term investments in human development, Bangladesh saw an increase of 65% in its HDI between 1980 and 2012. For example, while maternal mortality rates (MMR) are higher in Bangladesh, the country has achieved a more rapid reduction in the MMR than India.

The MMR in Bangladesh fell from 800 to 240 deaths per 100,000 live births between 1990 and 2010, compared to a fall from 600 to 200 in India, and 490 to 260 in Pakistan during the same period.

As the Bangladesh experience shows, economic growth alone is not always enough to achieve higher levels of human development. Countries that invest in education, health and social protection, and critically those that promote equality do better, even when they experience slower growth.

Efforts to promote gender equality have clearly played an important role in this success. Bangladesh outperforms both India and Pakistan in the Gender Inequality Index (GII), a composite index that measures the cost of gender inequality to human development. It ranks 111th on the GII compared to 123rd for Pakistan and 133rd for India.

This reflects the country’s success in particular in achieving a higher level of girls’ secondary education (30.8% compared to 26.6% in India and 18.3% in Pakistan), and significantly higher labour force participation. According to the ILO, Bangladesh had a female labour force participation rate of 36% in 2010 compared to 22.3% in India and 21.5% in Pakistan. Bangladesh has more female seats in parliament at 19.7% than India at 11%. Similarly, Bangladesh ranked 86 compared to India’s rank at 105 and Pakistan’s at 134 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in 2012.

There are several important factors behind Bangladesh’s success in boosting human development and gender equality outcomes. First, higher rates of girls’ education are proven globally to both raise GDP and boost human development outcomes. In Bangladesh, there is gender parity in secondary school enrolment, and the country saw rapid gains in young women’s literacy in the decade between 2000 and 2010. However, ensuring a safe and empowering educational experience for girls remains a priority in particular as girls experience significant harassment in, and around, their schooling.

Education boosts child survival rates because it leads to later marriage and increased use of contraception; higher levels of women’s education are also strongly correlated with lower total fertility and under-five mortality rates in Bangladesh. What’s more, education is a critical factor in women’s empowerment.

A 2012 study on women’s participation in the workforce – published in Bangladesh Development Studies – showed a strong correlation between higher levels of women’s education and greater empowerment and welfare, including a greater say in decisions on use of contraception, children’s health and education, and mobility outside the home.

A second factor is women’s increased access to paid employment. In Bangladesh, women’s participation in the workforce and, in particular, in paid employment increased rapidly over this past decade – 60% of this increase was in urban areas, predominantly in manufacturing, with more than 2 million women estimated to be employed in the garment sector.

There is a strong correlation between women’s participation in paid work and greater access to assets, a say in fertility decisions and freedom of movement. The rapid entry of women into the paid workforce has also changed the face of urban public space and normalised women’s public mobility and access to public institutions.

While women in the garment sector may have achieved greater autonomy and mobility, women’s increased access to paid employment does not come without a cost: it is often at the price of women’s safety and health. For example, recent research suggests that married women in paid work are more likely to be subject to domestic violence, due in part to more vulnerable women entering paid employment.

Garment work is hard, has a short lifespan, and women report significant harassment and abuse in the workplace, as well as poor living and working conditions. At worst, as the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza building last April, which took 1,129 lives shows, it can be deadly.

Women’s access to formal, paid employment, social protection and safe working conditions has declined as a result of the economic crisis and austerity measures adopted in many countries. Much more remains to be done to ensure that women have access to safe, decent and equally paid work, and that labour standards are effectively monitored and enforced.

Finally, UN Women’s own research shows that the presence of strong women’s associative networks and organisations has benefits for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Bangladesh has a good track record in this respect with its strong partnership approach and support to the non-governmental sector.

For example, while microcredit initiatives targeting women do not always lead to economic empowerment, Bangladesh has done better than most. Microfinance has facilitated the collective participation of women in the economy, strengthened their ability to participate in household decision-making, improved their access to economic and social resources, and enabled increased mobility and access to public space.

Moreover, the services offered by NGOs and associations including Brac and Grameen Bank include not only microcredit, but also much-needed health and education services, together with social protection and support. This is a game-changer for women and for gender equality.

While a positive story overall, much more remains to be done to achieve gender equality and women’s rights. Rates of domestic violence remain very high in Bangladesh. 49% of married women report experiencing violence from their spouse in their most recent marriage. 66% of women aged 20-24 were married or in union before the age of 18, with a median age at first marriage of 15 years among poorer women and those with no or incomplete primary education.

According to a recent Economist article women own only 2% of the land, and their land ownership has actually decreased slightly over time. And women remain significantly under-represented in decision-making. Only 4% of candidates in the 2008 elections were women, and even with 50 reserved seats for women, just under a fifth of the parliamentarians are women.

Also of concern, Bangladesh has relatively high income inequality, with an estimated national Gini coefficient of 0.458 in 2010 (where 0 equals absolute equality and 1 equals absolute inequality), up from 0.388 in 1991-92. The inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI) measures the loss in human development due to inequality.

According to the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report, Bangladesh has an IHDI of 0.374, showing a loss in the HDI of 27.4%, due largely to inequality in education. Inequality acts as a constraint on growth, and, if unchecked, can undermine hard-won gains in human development.

What’s more, economic crisis and austerity measures are slowing economic growth, increasing inequality, and hindering MDG attainment in many countries. Bangladesh is no exception. According to a study by ODI and Plan International, women in Bangladesh cut their nutritional intake and reduced spending on and use of health services, and there were widespread school dropouts, mostly among girls, as a result of the crisis.

That’s why Bangladesh must accelerate efforts to promote equality, including gender equality and women’s empowerment, and put an end to discrimination in all its forms, in line with international commitments set out in CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action.

Both government and civil society must continue to champion women’s rights, even in the face of pressure from conservative forces to restrict them, if Bangladesh is to continue to realise gains in human development for its entire people. This means going much further than the targets set out in the MDGs, which did not set the bar high enough for gender equality, and did not address structural inequality or discrimination.

Looking forward to post-2015, it’s therefore very welcome that in its recent report to the UN General Assembly the Government of Bangladesh has identified ambitious development goals. The report highlights the critical importance of addressing both poverty and inequality and putting gender equality and women’s empowerment at the centre of the new development agenda.

The goals set out in the report are designed to ensure sustainable development, equitable growth, promote decent work and ensure good governance. A strong focus on sustainable production and consumption, and environmental sustainability also feature in the proposed framework.

The proposed goals include a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment with four main priorities: eliminating violence against women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, participation in decision-making including in the home, and eliminating child marriage.

This ambitious framework echoes the calls being heard around the world through thematic, regional and national consultations for the new development agenda to be a much more transformative one that ensures equality, human rights, and sustainability in line with the spirit of the Millennium Declaration. Bangladesh has a key role to play in advocating that this vision be realised in the next development framework.

There are just over two years left to achieve the MDGs, and agree to the goals, targets and indicators for the next post-2015 development agenda.

The Government of Bangladesh has a unique opportunity not only to accelerate all efforts to achieve the current goals and targets, but also to advocate that the bar for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the new development agenda be set high so that an ambitious framework is put in place that can truly deliver the future people want.

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John Hendra

John Hendra is UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programme, UN Women

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