When her peasant father – the lone breadwinner in the family – died 11 years ago, Kalpana Akhtar, then 14, had no choice but help her widowed mother and siblings make ends meet by taking a job in Bangladesh’s garment industry.
“Inshallah, (God willing), with your blessings we’re doing fine,” Kalpana, now 25, told BenarNews as she sat outside a factory near Savar, a Dhaka suburb, where she works as a seamstress.
“My two older sisters are now happily married. But I’m not thinking of mine yet as I have to support my mother, sister and brother,” she said.
She has saved enough money to buy a television set, and Akhtar now is looking to acquire a small piece of land that she can call her own, she said proudly.
Kalpana is one of countless women in Bangladesh whose productivity is helping fuel the country’s robust economic growth, experts say. And their contribution to the national labor force has shot up, going from 15.8 percent in 1995-96, to 39.1 percent in 2011-12, according to the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a research organization in Dhaka.
“Women are definitely on the move. Before, they used to work within the four walls of their homes. Now they are working outside and getting paid, although not enough,” Hamida Hossain, a women rights activist, told BenarNews.
Women have a large presence in sectors such as ready-made garments, frozen foods, processed leather, handicrafts and tea, which account for the lion’s share of export earnings.
More than 16.2 million women are directly involved in different economic sectors, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). But while their contribution is significant, there is a large but unknown number who work for almost nothing in taking care of household chores, experts say.
According to a study jointly published last year by the CPD and Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), a local NGO, a woman aged 15 or older spends 7.7 hours a day doing unpaid family work, whereas a man of comparable age spends only about 2.5 hours in such daily work.
“Unpaid family work” ranges from agriculture to cooking, care-giving, tending domestic animals and keeping poultry, the study said.
“Women who do the household chores contribute 76.8 percent to the GDP but the cost of their labor is not calculated in the national economy,” said Fahmida Khatun, a research director at the CPD and the study’s main author.
In 2014, Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product stood at U.S. $173.8 billion, according to the World Bank.
How they contribute
The bulk of female labor is concentrated in the rural areas, mostly in agriculture. According to the Labor Force survey of 2010 – the most up to date – about 65 percent of women work in agriculture, close to 22 percent are in the service sectors, and 13.32 percent are in industry.
Women’s participation in agriculture has also grown exponentially during the past 10 years. According to the bureau of statistics, women’s participation in that sector has grown 108%, compared with a 2 percent-decline among men over the past decade.
“The male folks are abandoning farming in order to earn a livelihood in manufacturing, heavy industry, etc. On the other hand, women are taking over their responsibilities in a big way,” Sharmind Nilormi, who teaches economics at Jahangirnagar University, near Dhaka, told BenarNews.
A force in the garment trade and abroad
But the biggest contribution of women is in the country’s booming garment sector, where they account for more than 80 percent of the industry’s 4 million workers.
Several studies have concluded that the industry’s phenomenal growth over the past 30 years has not only turned the country’s economy around, but it has also opened new horizons for women. Until the early 1980s, most Bangladeshi women were confined to doing household chores.
This, experts say, is part of the growing empowerment of women in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and it is contributing to the country’s advancement in social indicators like girls’ education, infant and maternal mortality rates.
“Women garment workers are now taking some vital decisions like marriage, which, in turn, is helping to reduce the phenomenon of child marriage and planning a small family,” Protima Pal, an economist who has done extensive research in the field, told BenarNews.
According to official statistics, Bangladeshi women now are also making their mark through remittance incomes from abroad, a sector long dominated by Bangladeshi men.
In 1991, for instance, a paltry 2,000 women went aboard annually as migrant workers. Nowadays, their numbers exceed more than 300,000, accounting for 13 percent of the country’s remittance sector, valued at around U.S. $26 billion.
Women’s significant contribution to the economy, however, often goes ignored, feminists and rights activists say.
“From the paddy field to the peaks of the Himalayas, they have made their marks but their contribution is not recognized as it should have been,” Rasheda K. Chowdhury, head of the Campaign for mass literacy, an NGO, told BenarNews. She was alluding to Nishat Mazumder, the first Bangladeshi woman to conquer Mount Everest.
Government officials agree.
“There is no way we can undermine the contribution of our women in the nation’s overall development,” Mujibul Haque Chunnu, state minister for Labor and Manpower, told BenarNews.
“We’ve already earned the status of lower middle-income country. In social sector development, we’re also ahead of many countries,” he added.
“And women have played a major role in these achievements. But we want to do more for them. They deserve it.”