International Policy/United Nations

Bangladesh Development Star Doesn't Shine for Women

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bangladesh promises to be a star this September when the U.N. reviews development goals. But despite a strong start on girls' education, many female-focused targets, including maternal mortality, are lagging far behind.

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Financing Alone Not Enough

But financing alone won't curb pregnancy-related deaths and injuries, said Sheepa Hafiza, director of the gender, justice, diversity and advocacy branch for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, widely known as BRAC.

"Maternal mortality will not reduce until gender disparities within the households are addressed," Hafiza said. "You have health projects where young mothers are targeted, but the elder decision makers in the family are not involved. That woman may not be able to decide whether she gets to see a doctor or not."

That kind of cultural resistance represents a huge disappointment for BRAC and the numerous civil-society groups that run through Bangladesh like the 220 rivers flowing through its low-lying land mass.

These groups developed enormous prominence following Bangladesh's 1971 independence from Pakistan, when foreign donors distrusted governmental corruption and funneled money instead to BRAC and other organizations, which amassed far more money than was controlled by the government.

BRAC offers income generating projects, microfinance opportunities and emergency humanitarian relief, among other programs, to nearly 70 percent of Bangladeshis. Microfinance services are at the heart of its holistic approach, designed to enable long-term business growth in rural areas.

BRAC recognized women's prominence in sustainable development at its 1972 inception.

The organization now employs close to 120,000 Bangladeshis, 60 percent of whom are women, Hafiza says. More than 98 percent of its 7.37 million microfinance borrowers and savers are women and female household heads.

Progress on Girls' Education

The government has also made some headway in girls' education. In 2001 Bangladesh started offering girls access to free public education, nine years ahead of providing it to boys. As a result of this staggered approach the country eliminated gender inequities in primary education in 2005, 10 years ahead of schedule.

The policy led to female-dominated classrooms as of 2007, but up to 85 percent of girls still drop out of school between the ages of 9 to 13.

Though the nation, as a result of BRAC and government initiatives, could still reach its goal of an even boy-girl admittance ratio in secondary schools, it won't come close to its target of equal representation in higher education by 2015.

The high dropout rate will also continue to counteract the goal of achieving equal representation of women in the non-agricultural work force, Momen says. If women haven't graduated from universities, they aren't able to fill certain positions.

"Eve-teasing," a euphemism for sexual harassment in Bangladesh, is one of the factors that's discouraged girls from attending school, rights workers say.

The U.N.'s goals do not take measure of sexual violence or harassment, yet 62 percent of Bangladeshi women in a rural province reported suffering sexual violence at some point during their lives in 2005, according to the World Health Organization.

"We need security on the way to schools," said Farah Kabir, country director of ActionAid's Bangladesh program. "We've had 18 girls commit suicide in 2010 because of the harassment they faced."

Another potential reason for the dropout rate is that teens in rural Bangladesh--whose families face more expensive dowry costs as they age--continue to marry as young as 13 or 14, and become pregnant within the next two years, say researchers.

"The strides we have taken are amazing, when you compare us to other South Asian countries, but that is not our standard," Kabir said. "We are talking about human rights, equal rights, and for those, we have a long way to go."

Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based out of the United Nations Secretariat.


For more information:

Millennium Development Goals Needs Assessment and Costing 2009-2015, Bangladesh:

Millennium Development Goals, UNDP:


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I am glad to see the progress Bangladesh has made in providing basic health care and rights for women and girls. But as this article shows, the country still has a long way to go.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has reported extensively on women's issues across the globe. Check out their online portals Women, Children and Crisis and Dying for Life for insightful stories on maternal mortality and gender and sexual violence.