Gender relations have been subject to interpretations since the days of Adam and Eve. The United Nations (UN) observes that women's struggle for participation in governance on an equal footing with men dates back at least to the 4th century BC. But in Bangladesh, it is a rather recent development.
A good society is a reflection of good families, and within the family, the role of man and woman is equally important. The more balanced the relationship between the husband and the wife, the better it is for the family. However, while this may be true, it is also a known fact that most societies in the world either in the past or at present have been or still are male-dominated. In the modern world, however, the scope of women's role in society is widening due to factors like education and women have spread their wings to almost all areas.
But there are still considerable differences in women's and men's access to and opportunities to exert power over economic structures in the societies. In most parts of the world, women are virtually absent from or are poorly represented in economic decision-making, including the formulation of financial, monetary, commercial and other economic policies, as well as tax systems and rules governing pay.
Now in Bangladesh, 1.5 million garment workers are working in 2,700-plus readymade garment (RMG) units, of whom 80 per cent are women. RMG roughly covers 76 per cent of the total export of the country and is the highest profit-making sector. These women are obviously working to support their families despite facing countless workplace discrinations such as low wage, irregularities in payment, forceful overtime, bad working envernment, termination etc. But despite all these odds, fact remains that the RMG sector has crerated the much-needed employment opportunity for the otherwise illeterate, half-literate and unskilled women and brought them some degree of financial freedom.
Even without modern education, the women in the rural area are proving their intelligence and shouldering the twin responsibilities of family and social life very ably. The women of the country are contributing greatly to the national economy by carrying out small but vital jobs in areas like fishing, handloom, tea, tobacco, handicraft and processed food industries. Besides, they are working in the fields, running micro enterprises, collecting firewood or herbs from the hills (especially the ethnic women). This way, they have been supporting family economies greatly. The activities of these women are instinctive, based on the fight for survival and their intelligence is spontaneous, arising out of the necessity for supporting their children and families.
This silent workforce is active in a variety of economic areas, which range from wage labour and subsistence farming and fishing to the informal sector. However, legal and customary barriers to ownership of or access to land, natural resources, capital, credit, technology and other means of production contribute to impeding the economic progress of women.
Women contribute to development not only through remunerated work but also through a great deal of unremunerated work such as providing child and elderly care, preparing food for the family, protecting the environment and providing voluntary assistance to vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals and groups. These works are often not measured in quantitative terms and are not valued in national accounts. Women's contribution to development is seriously underestimated, and thus, its social recognition is limited. Moreover, young workers in the informal and rural sectors and migrant female workers remain least protected by labour and immigration laws.
True that in many regions of Bangladesh, women's participation in remunerated work in the formal market has increased significantly and changed during the past decade. While women continue to work in agriculture and fisheries, they have also become increasingly involved in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and, in some cases, have become more dominant in the expanding informal sector. Becoming a micro-finance client has led to increased self-confidence in women and improved status within the community. Through micro-credit, the rural women have become independent and becoming a co-partner in the decision-making team to some extent.
Due to difficult economic situations and a lack of bargaining power resulting from gender inequality, many women, however, are forced to accept lower pay and poor working conditions and thus have often become preferred workers. On the other hand, women have entered the workforce increasingly by choice when they have become aware of their rights. Some have succeeded in entering and advancing in the workplace and improving their pay and working conditions. However, most women have particularly been affected by the economic situation and restructuring processes, which have changed the nature of employment and, in some cases, have led to loss of jobs, even for professional and skilled women.
Discrimination in education and training, recruitment and pay, promotion and horizontal mobility practices, as well as inflexible working conditions, lack of access to productive resources and inadequate sharing of family responsibilities continue to restrict employment, economic, professional and other opportunities and mobility of women and make their involvement stressful. Moreover, attitudinal obstacles inhibit women's participation in developing economic policy and in some regions restrict the access of women and girls to education and training for economic management.
Surprisingly, however, women who become victims of discrimination in the education sector, are sometimes seen to become good teachers. Patience is a great quality for teaching that women are usually endowed with. This noble profession not only gives the women some degree of financial freedom, it also helps to mould, create the future generation. Similar is the case in the field of medicine, where female doctors are most likely to be more dedicated and caring towards their patients than their male counterparts.
Although some new employment opportunities have been created for women as a result of the globalisation, there are also trends that have exacerbated inequalities between women and men. Globalisation, including economic integration, can create pressures on the employment situation of women to adjust to new circumstances and to find new sources of employment as patterns of trade change.
Many women have entered the informal sector for lack of other opportunities. Like other countries, in Bangladesh as well, women are increasingly becoming involved in temporary, casual, part-time, contract and home-based employment. Boutiques, beauty salons, different food corners are a few examples. It has been seen that fashion and interior designing are also becoming very popular among urban women.
For those women involved in regular paid work, many experience obstacles that prevent them from achieving their potentials. While some are found increasingly in the lower tiers of management, attitudinal discriminations often prevent them from being promoted further. The lack of a family-friendly work environment, including a lack of appropriate and affordable child care, and inflexible working hours further prevent women from achieving their full potentials.
All this is an admiration of the energy that remains untapped within most women. It is crucial for national development to help unleash that latent power and energy. As Bangladesh is undergoing fundamental political, economic and social transformations, the skills of women, if better utilised, could rejuvenate the economy. The input of women should, therefore, continue to be developed and supported for further realising their potentials.
(The writer teaches English at the State University of Bangladesh)