The SDGs and the Empowerment of Bangladeshi
Changes in the lives of Bangladeshi women and girls have been held up as
evidence that aid, political commitment, and partnerships with civil society can
transform gender relations and empower women in the development process.
The evidence of this transformation is visible. Bangladeshi women occupy
a broader range of roles in their society—as factory workers, teachers and
students, entrepreneurs, and explorers that have conquered Mount Everest,
ofﬁcials, prime ministers, models, journalists, protestors, international peace-
keepers, migrant workers, police ofﬁcers, as well as mothers, daughters, and
wives—than could have been imagined at the country’s birth, a mere couple
of generations ago. The social transformation this new visibility implies is real.
As the world gears up to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
it is worth understanding what Bangladesh has achieved, and how.
Bangladesh made surprisingly rapid and simultaneous progress on poverty
and gender equality in the 1990s and 2000s. Women were included in the
national development project in ways that recognised how their vulnerability
and lack of power bred poverty and deepened gender inequalities; programmes
and policies were designed to reach them in ways that amended, without
radically transforming, gender relations. Lessons from Bangladesh’s past devel-
opment successes have already been widely shared in a growing body of
literature1; this chapter looks forward, reﬂecting on the conditions under
N. Hossain (B)
Accountability Research Center, American University, Washington, DC, USA
© The Author(s) 2021
S. Chaturvedi et al. (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Development
Cooperation for Achieving the 2030 Agenda,
454 N. HOSSAIN
which Bangladesh made its gains on gender equality and women’s empow-
erment during the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (1990–2015),
and discusses how such inclusive policies became possible. It then builds on
that analysis to assess the prospects for the achievement of the SDGs, with
their stronger emphasis on inclusion, equality, and “leaving no one behind”.
It should be noted that Bangladesh is no paradise of gender equality, and
that women and girls face a broad range of discrimination and disadvantage
because of their gender and its intersections with poverty and minority status.
Violence against women and early marriage remain key concerns, and women
and girls experience routine violations of their political, civic, and economic
rights. Bangladesh faces signiﬁcant challenges in meeting its SDG commit-
ments, and these are being exacerbated by an apparent rise in the inﬂuence
of political Islam (Nazneen 2018). Yet Bangladesh stands out in respect of
women’s empowerment and gender equality, in that it made relatively rapid
gains from a low starting point—gains that could not be predicted from the
country’s social and gender relations at the time of its independence in 1971.
At that time, it was a country with extensive poverty and a predominantly
agrarian socio-economic structure, characteristics that do not usually facili-
tate rapid progress on gender equality (Mason and King 2001). It remains
a Muslim-majority society situated within what Deniz Kandiyoti termed the
belt of “classic patriarchy” (Kandiyoti 1988), which again are societal features
believed to deter gender equality policies and programmes. Bangladesh is
known to have performed “surprisingly” well in terms of reaching the most
disadvantaged with health, education, and social protection services, and it
is regarded as a “positive deviant” for having done so despite its overall low
level of development and public spending (Asadullah et al. 2014; Chowdhury
et al. 2013; Hossain 2017). Its performance on gender equality and women’s
empowerment is similarly surprising and merits explanation (Hossain 2018;
The main argument of this chapter is that the relatively rapid improvements
in the lives of, and opportunities for, Bangladeshi women owe in particular to
comparatively strong elite commitment and increasing state capacity to reach
and include women in the development process. As will be explained in the
following, this elite commitment in turn grew out of a series of crises that
highlighted the inadequate protections of patriarchal gender relations for many
women. It led to their incorporation within the political settlement as citizens
with rights as well as—through their reproductive roles—prime objects of, and
vehicles for, governmental social policy.
In the aftermath of a brutal period of political violence and instability,
a reasonably strong and enduring informal consensus emerged among the
political, civil, military, economic, and social elites about the need to reach
Bangladeshi women as integral to the larger project of national development
(Hossain 2005,2018). The elite were themselves a homogenous and close-
knit group, and the crises of the early 1970s signalled a threat to the survival
of the elite itself, and potentially even to national sovereignty. Forged in the
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 455
shadow of economic disaster, famine, and assassination, the consensus included
building better relationships with aid donors and accepting their conditionali-
ties and priorities—for instance, around fertility control—where these were in
line with the larger goal of development (Hossain 2017). The urgency of the
need for economic stability and growth and for reaching the poor and vulner-
able population licensed a range of innovative and experimental programmes
and policies in Bangladesh, with creative partnerships and space for all manner
of actors and ideas (Hossain 2017). From the 1970s to the 2000s, Bangladesh
was a major recipient of foreign aid, including food aid. With economic
growth, this relative dependence has declined signiﬁcantly: Ofﬁcial develop-
ment assistance comprised almost 6 per cent of annual gross domestic product
in the 1980s, a ﬁgure that had dropped to around 1.5 per cent by the 2010s
(Khatun 2018). At some point in the early 2020s, Bangladesh is expected
to graduate from the category of “least-developed country” (LDC), the ﬁrst
large country to do so. It is widely seen as an example of effective aid, and a
central focus on women was part of that (Abed 2013; Asadullah et al. 2014;
Chowdhury et al. 2013).
From the 1990s onwards, this developmental focus on women could be
seen in the rising number of girls enrolled in schools, women receiving health
care and other services, and women in paid work in export factories or self-
employment through micro-credit schemes (Kabeer and Hossain 2004). Laws,
policies, and programmes to protect women and children against violence
and to protect the most vulnerable from hunger and poverty were passed
and implemented. Women played a growing role in politics through quotas
and reservations, and they were employed in increasing numbers by the state,
including as teachers, health workers, administrators, and the police (Nazneen
and Sultan 2010; Nazneen et al. 2011).
But if elite commitment and state capacity were necessary elements of
Bangladesh’s unexpected success with women’s empowerment and the MDGs,
as is discussed further below, are they present and aligned in support of the
SDGs? Can Bangladesh sustain its remarkable progress as it graduates out of
the ofﬁcial LDC status of the United Nations (UN) in the early 2020s, with its
implications for preferential trade and aid arrangements? How successfully will
the country negotiate between a growing Islamist backlash against women’s
rights and the vocal demands of the country’s robust women’s movement
(Nazneen 2018)? To answer these questions, the chapter ﬁrst sets out the
scale and nature of Bangladesh’s success with gender equality, drawing atten-
tion to its MDG attainments and to debates about what worked in helping
to achieve those. It then moves backward in time to explore the origins of
elite commitment and state capacity to address (a limited range of) women’s
concerns, discussing the effects of a series of crises on how elites perceived
women and their part in the development process around the time of the
country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. It then returns to the chal-
lenges of the present—the early years of the SDGs—examining a select number
456 N. HOSSAIN
of the gender equality targets on which Bangladesh faces an enduring chal-
lenge to transform its society and the lives of its female citizens. The analysis of
the chapter focuses on exploring whether and to what extent the elite commit-
ment and state capacity necessary to address the SDG challenges are in place,
as they were for the MDGs, on which Bangladesh performed relatively well.
21.2 Gender Equality and Bangladesh’s
Unexpected Development Success
21.2.1 Advances for Bangladeshi Women: From Independence
to the MDGs
Since its liberation from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has made comparatively
rapid advances on gender equality, catching up with—and even overtaking—
regional comparators on health, education, and life expectancy, among other
dimensions (World Bank 2007). These gains were from a low base and at a low
level of public and private expenditure (Asadullah et al. 2014). Bangladeshi
women have beneﬁted from policies and non-state social programmes that
prevent hunger, improve livelihoods, extend life expectancies, expand access
to basic reproductive and other health services (Chowdhur y et al. 2013), get
girls into school, and provide social protection for vulnerable women (Hossain
2017). According to the Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the disad-
vantage women face compared to men in health, education, the economy,
and politics, the women of Bangladesh now score higher on some measures
of gender equality than their South Asian sisters (see Fig. 21.1), but they
lag behind on other important dimensions, notably early marriage (UNICEF
[United Nations Children’s Fund] 2014).2The Government of Bangladesh
increasingly frames gender equality as central to its development successes in
export production and human development, and as a goal in its own right
With respect to the third MDG (promote gender equality and empower
women), the Government of Bangladesh noted that it had achieved or made
rapid progress towards key targets, including:
•successfully eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary educa-
•rapidly reducing gender disparities in tertiary-level enrolments,
•a (slow) rise in the proportion of women wage workers in non-
agricultural employment, from 19 per cent in 1991–1992 to 32 per cent
in 2013, and
•women taking a leading role in national politics.
In addition, Bangladesh made rapid progress on a number of other
indicators with direct impact on women’s lives and well-being, including:
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 457
Bangladesh India Nepal Pakistan Sri Lanka
Global index Economic parƟcipaƟon & opportunity
EducaƟonal aƩainment Health & survival
Fig. 21.1 Global Gender Gap Index rankings, South Asia, in 2018 (Note Lower
scores indicate lower levels of gender inequality in the particular domain, that is, better
scores. Source Author, based on data from the World Economic Forum )
•halving the proportion of the population living in poverty (from 57 per
cent in the early 1990s to 25 per cent in 2015) and in extreme poverty
(from 25 per cent in 2005 to 13 per cent in 2015);
•rapid reductions in child mortality (under 5 years old—from 151 per
thousand live births in 1990 to 36 in 2014) and infant mortality (from
94 per thousand live births in 1990 to 29 in 2015);
•a reduction in maternal mortality rates (from 472 per 100,000 live births
in 1991 to 181 in 2015); and
•increases in maternal health care coverage (General Economic Division
In practical terms, this progress has meant the passage of laws to protect and
advance women’s rights within marriage, to property, personal safety and secu-
rity, and political representation; the building of tens of thousands of schools,
clinics, and hospitals; the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of health
workers, teachers, and administrators—a rising proportion of them women;
and the provision of services and social protection to tens of millions of women
and their families through cash and food transfers, pensions, micro-credit,
work, and income-generation schemes (Begum 2014).
It should be underlined that despite its good progress and general aura
of success, Bangladesh did not meet all its MDG commitments on gender
equality. In key areas of women’s and girls’ lives—in particular with respect
to violence, poverty, and early marriage—signs of “empowerment” have been
less evident than continuing powerlessness and discrimination, reﬂecting the
458 N. HOSSAIN
persistence of certain patriarchal norms and practices, despite the signiﬁcant
changes marked by the MDG achievements. Whether incorporation into paid
work in the export apparels industry or self-employment through microﬁ-
nance is “empowering” for women—and if so, what that means for those
women in those contexts—has also been the subject of much debate among
feminist activists and scholars (Goetz and Gupta 1996;Heath2014;Heath
and Mobarak 2015; Hossain 2012; Kabeer 1999; Kabeer et al. 2018;Karim
2011; Siddiqi 2009). Women face a growing range of new challenges from
their greater public civic, political, and labour force participation, including
the rise of a new Islamic platform with inﬂuence over current politics. At
the same time, the SDGs are widely understood to be a more challenging
and broader index of development rooted in human rights and the analysis
of the structural determinants of poverty, exclusion, and inequality, compared
to the MDGs’ narrower agenda, which was focused on income poverty and
scaling up service provision (Esquivel and Sweetman 2016; Kabeer 2005).
Can Bangladesh translate its (modest) successes in the MDGs into a strategy
for achieving the SDGs? To understand the prospects for Bangladesh, we ﬁrst
need to understand how it achieved the change it did.
21.2.2 What Bangladesh Did Right
How were these comparatively rapid (if uneven) gains for women possible? We
can draw on the analysis of Bangladesh’s “surprisingly” inclusive development
progress more generally by Asadullah et al. (2014) to identify the following
determinants of women-oriented or gender-equitable policies in this context.
First, Bangladesh had crafted “an inclusive development strategy involving
various non-government stakeholders” including religious bodies, aid donors,
and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), “which complemented public
education and health interventions” (Asadullah et al. 2014, p. 151). Partner-
ships between state, international aid, and non-state actors helped bring about
poverty reduction through services designed speciﬁcally to beneﬁt impover-
ished and marginalised people, and in particular women; they also allowed
new approaches to be innovated and tested as well as built on or scaled-up by
the government (Hossain 2017).
Second, there were synergies between different forms of social progress
so that, for instance, gains in health helped kick-start gains in education
at different times. Fertility decline helped improve women’s overall status,
thereby improving their own health and enabling them to care for fewer chil-
dren and undertake paid work and civic engagement. Girls’ education meant
more educated mothers, smaller families, and more investment in children’s
schooling (Asadullah et al. 2014, p. 151).
A third set of broad factors identiﬁed by Asadullah et al. included the very
broad category of the geographical and sociocultural context. A small, densely
populated landmass and a broadly shared cultural and linguistic heritage
helped ensure that policies and programmes could be designed and rolled out
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 459
with comparative ease and at a low cost. In addition, a strong political commit-
ment to inclusive policies, including “[p]utting women in the forefront”,
featured in these gains (Asadullah et al. 2014, p. 151).
21.2.3 Ruptures in the Patriarchal Bargain and the Origins of Elite
These factors help to explain how Bangladesh transformed aspects of gender
relations, thereby changing the relationship between Bangladeshi women and
their state over a short space of a couple of generations. But they tell us little
about why it overcame such strong gendered cultural and religious norms and
traditions in order to do so. We know from political economy research that the
broad factors driving inclusive development critically include elite commitment
to inclusive policies and state capacity to enable their delivery (Hickey et al.
2015). So what drove elite commitment and state capacity to include women
in the project of national development?
One explanation for Bangladesh’s rapid progress on aspects of gender
equality, despite its unpromising conditions in the early 1970s, was that the
natural disasters, conﬂict, and humanitarian crises of the events surrounding
that country’s birth “marked a watershed in attempts to deal with women’s
issues” (Kabeer 1988, p. 110). The province of East Pakistan (soon to become
Bangladesh) experienced a devastating cyclone in 1970, which triggered the
Liberation War of 1971. It also established a strong political mandate for a
nation state that would protect its citizens against such disasters. The war
itself saw millions of Bangladeshis killed, displaced, or widowed, as well as
the vast destruction of infrastructure and assets. Tens of thousands of women
were raped by the Pakistani army and their collaborators, and they found it
difﬁcult to be re-integrated into a society in which sexual purity remained
critical for gender relations. Not three years after independence, the country
experienced a terrible famine in which 1.5 million people died. Women
started to come out in their thousands looking for work—challenging norms
of purdah (seclusion)—after being forced out by hunger and desperation
These events surrounding the establishment of the new nation came on top
of a longer period of decline in the old patriarchal-agrarian bargain, in which
rising levels of landlessness and debt had impoverished the rural majority over
a generation or more, affecting poor women most directly. In turn, each of
these crises politicised the situation of Bangladeshi women in key respects.
They meant that the rehabilitation of raped women into society was framed
as a matter of national reconstruction and development, creating a prece-
dent for state action and agencies to address women’s concerns (D’Costa
2012; D’Costa and Hossain 2010; see in particular, Mookherjee 2008). The
famine gave rise to new and pioneering programmes to reach the poorest
women, such as Vulnerable Group Development, a food transfer scheme that
has been run by the government and the World Food Programme since
460 N. HOSSAIN
1975. The spectre of famine ﬁrmed up a consensus between aid actors and
domestic elites around the priority of population control; this meant that
ﬁnding ways of reaching poor rural women in order to change their repro-
ductive behaviour was crucial. The politics of the crises demanded that the
Bangladeshi state develop the “biopower” to protect its citizens, rather than
helplessly leaving them to the mercies of the markets or the elements (Hossain
2018). The Bangladesh women’s movement, which had a long history of
struggling with as well as alongside political elites, played a particularly impor-
tant role in undertaking research, mobilising support, and framing women’s
issues as matters of rights and national development (Nazneen 2019; Nazneen
and Sultan 2014).
21.2.4 From Commitment to Capacity
An elite consensus on the need for development to reach poor women made
it possible to build state capacities to work with rural populations and licensed
experimental models of governance and service deliver y. This included creating
space for non-state actors—in a context in which the emerging state lacked
human and ﬁscal resources—as well as the physical outreach and ﬂexibility
of NGOs. The extent of the need meant the government of Bangladesh had
little option but to seek assistance and build partnerships with NGOs. It is
notable that the disasters of the 1970s were also moments when some of
Bangladesh’s NGOs (BRAC) and micro-credit institutions (Grameen Bank)
were founded. Civil society leaders often explain their motivations for their
innovative organisations as being due to having witnessed the hardships of the
people, in particular of rural poor women, and becoming determined to make
changes (Harvard Business School 2014; Yunus and Jolis 1999). Both BRAC
and Grameen Bank have notably made women’s empowerment and tack-
ling poverty central to their work, and they have developed many innovative
models that have been emulated—and criticised—around the world.
After the early 1970s crisis period, Bangladesh experienced a series of brutal
political assassinations and coups, after which it embarked on a 15-year period
of military rule that lasted till 1990. During this time, an elite consensus
was forged on the need to open up to international aid and move towards
economic liberalisation, while also creating space for civil society to operate
and ensuring basic social provisioning (in particular, family planning and food
security). This included a growing recognition of the centrality of women to
development policy as well as the urgent need to reach the mass of female
citizens in order to transform the population into a source of national wealth.
International aid became a major inﬂuence through the introduction of new
ideas and ﬁnancing, often countervailing the push towards more regressive
gender policies from Islamic allies in the Middle East and organised religious
forces within the country (Hossain 2017).
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 461
At ﬁrst, there was opposition from within the more conservative and
traditionalist sections of society to birth control measures (viewed as un-
Islamic), girls’ schooling, and women attending public meetings. Micro-credit
programmes were believed to be associated with raised levels of domestic
violence, as some husbands resented women’s growing control over household
incomes. Yet, there was never an important constituency within the polit-
ical, economic, or social elite, nor within organised politics or civil society
to oppose such measures as scholarships for girls’ secondary school, stipends
for the mothers of primary schoolchildren, or food or cash transfers for elderly
or destitute women. Political parties—even to some extent including those on
the moderate religious right—broadly took the same view of the desirability of
enabling women to be included in the development process (Nazneen 2009;
Nazneen et al. 2011). Across the society, the appraisal of action to reach
women was broadly pragmatic after the period of crisis, recognising that poor
rural women in particular needed to be able to generate incomes and have the
power to control their fertility in order to prevent extreme poverty for both
themselves and their children. As the export garments industry took off after
the 1980s, business leaders in particular recognised the advantages of policies
promoting women’s employment beyond the home, as they reaped the proﬁts
from an abundant supply of cheap female labour.
The advances in gender equality and women’s empowerment of the MDG
period were achieved during the country’s (mainly) democratic period, in
which the two main parties were routinely kicked out of ofﬁce by the elec-
torate, and in which competition for votes brought a broad range of policies
and development performance into the public’s political decision-making. For
almost 30 years, the country has been ruled by women prime ministers from
either party—a feature of Bangladeshi politics that arguably licensed a rela-
tively strong focus on the “soft” social sectors of health, education, and social
protection by the government. The women’s movement mounted several
effective campaigns, in key respects pushing party politics towards greater
recognition of women voters. It seems unarguable that democratic compe-
tition played an important role in holding the elite consensus together and in
creating space for civil society actors, both the women’s movement and the
service-providing NGOs. Since 2014, however, Bangladeshi politics has been
increasingly dominated by a single party. Will that enable the government to
sharpen its focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality by ignoring
claims from the Islamic right for policies to be in line with religion, and
directing more resources towards building state capacity for gender equality
policies? Or will it mean that the women’s movement and popular feeling are
suppressed by the increasing domination of the ruling party and the closure
of the space for civil and political society? Will NGOs and civil society groups
still be able to inﬂuence policies in positive ways? These are the key questions
for the future achievement of the SDGs.
462 N. HOSSAIN
21.3 Next-Generation Challenges: Inclusion,
Equality, and “Leaving No One Behind”
21.3.1 Intersectionality and Power in the SDGs
To properly understand the fresh challenge posed by the SDGs, it is neces-
sary to understand where and why Bangladeshi women and girls continue to
face signiﬁcant challenges to their inclusion and equal participation, and in
addition, the new challenges they face as a result of their changing social,
economic, and political roles. Although all composite indices have their prob-
lems, the SDGs offer the promise of a better framework for analysing progress
on gender equality and women’s empowerment, for a number of reasons. As
Esquivel and Sweetman (2016) argue, with 14 indicators addressing legal,
political, economic, and social issues, the SDG indicators capture a broader
range of dimensions of power at different stages of life and in multiple
domains. As they also note, gender cuts across more of the other SDGs, and so
it is mainstreamed in a way that was absent from the MDGs. Again, in contrast
to the more minimal MDGs (which were set by donors and technocrats), SDG
5 was developed through extensive consultation with the women’s movement
and civil society activists and feminist scholars. This involvement can be seen in
the more structural and intersectional approach taken to the measurement of
progress towards women’s empowerment in the SDGs, and it entails a recog-
nition of the limitations of a narrow focus on economic empowerment, taking
a human rights-based approach with a strong emphasis on equality (Razavi
2016). Such an approach makes possible:
an intersectional analysis of power in which economic, political and social
marginalisation based on identities clearly leads to the experience of “being left
behind”. If the Leave No-One Behind agenda is realised, it may help solve the
problem of the limitations of simpler, goal-oriented development in the MDGs,
which were able to realise targets because they had less ambitious goals, and
therefore left the more difﬁcult development challenges unaddressed … Leave
No-One Behind highlights the fact that the issues facing women in poverty in
the global South do not arise from gender inequality only; rather, they are at
the intersection of different dimensions of inequality, including race and class.
(Esquivel and Sweetman 2016,p.7)
The SDGs are thus likely to prove to be a harder test of progress on gender
equality and women’s empowerment, and one which takes into account a
broader range of dimensions of power in women’s lives, and their intersec-
tion with each other. This means, among other things, an inherently more
contested model of development cooperation, in which there may be fewer
easy wins and more difﬁcult choices and trade-offs.
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 463
21.3.2 The Problem of Early Marriage: SDGs 3 and 5
To assess the challenges posed by the SDGs, it helps to examine some
of the enduring sources of gender inequality and women’s disadvantage in
Bangladesh, as well as to understand why they are so difﬁcult to eradicate. The
phenomenon of early marriage helps to illustrate the nature of the challenges
It is notable that although Bangladesh scored well on the Global Gender
Gap Index (see Fig. 21.1), the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the UN
Development Programme’s Human Development Report tells a different—
and for Bangladesh, a less promising—story. The GII measures the “loss
in potential human development due to disparity between female and male
achievements in reproductive health, empowerment and economic status”. As
with the Global Gender Gap Index, it aims to capture the effect of gender
inequalities overall in society, but it includes in addition some indicators
relating to other SDGs, such as health and education. Table 21.1 summarises
the rankings of different South Asian countries on the GII. Ranked above
only Pakistan of these major South Asian nations, Bangladesh is at or near
the median score across most of the indicators. The exception is the adoles-
cent birth rate (SDG target 3.7), which, at 83.5 per 1000, is 23 points higher
than Nepal (the country with the next-worst adolescent birth rate), more than
double that of Pakistan and India, and almost six times higher than in Sri
Bangladesh’s relatively poor overall performance within South Asia on the
GII mainly reﬂects this extremely high proportion of adolescent births, which,
in turn, reﬂects the very high rate of early marriage for girls in Bangladesh
(Kamal et al. 2015; Streatﬁeld et al. 2015). Despite its many gains on gender
equality in education and other spheres of life, marriage remains routine for
girls below the age of 18, and Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of early
marriage in the world (UNICEF 2014). Both the adolescent birth rate (SDG
target 3.7) and SDG target 5.3, which includes an indicator of the “Proportion
of women aged 20–24 years who were married or in a union before age 15 and
before age 18”, aim to capture a core dimension of women’s lives—whether
they are able to make choices about when they marry and give birth, which is
a decision with profound implications for their health and well-being, as well
as for their chances of completing further or higher education and of getting
The stubborn problem of early marriage is a prime example of the nature
of the challenge that Bangladesh is likely to face in attempting to attain the
SDGs. It reﬂects, ﬁrst, a relatively widespread social preference for girls to
marry young. In turn, this reﬂects the absolute priority accorded to female
sexual purity in Bengali Muslim culture, and the resulting pressure that parents
perceive themselves to be under to ensure girls are married before they can
develop independent romantic preferences and/or an undesirable social repu-
tation. It also reﬂects the high degree of violence and harassment faced by
464 N. HOSSAIN
Table 21.1 Gender Inequality Index, South Asia
Country Gender Inequality
SDG target 3.1 SDG target 3.7 SDG target 5.5 SDG target 4.6
Adolescent birth rate Share of seats in
Population with at least some
Rank (deaths per
(births per 1000
women ages 15–19)
(% held by
(% ages 25 and older) (% ages 15 and
Female Male Female Male
2017 2015 2015–2020 2017 2010–2017 2010–2017 2017 2017
Sri Lanka 80 30 14.1 5.8 82.6 83.1 35.1 74.1
India 127 174 23.1 11.6 39.0 63.5 27.2 78.8
Bangladesh 134 176 83.5 20.3 44.0 48.2 33.0 79.8
Nepal 118 258 60.5 29.6 27.3 43.1 82.7 85.9
Pakistan 133 178 36.9 20.0 27.0 47.3 24.9 82.7
Source Author, based on United Nations Development Programme (n.d.)
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 465
Bangladeshi adolescents (Alam et al. 2010; Nahar et al. 2013) and the fear that
harassment will cause the girls to be perceived as sexually active. The high rate
of early marriage has also been linked to the prevalence of practices of grooms’
families demanding substantial dowries; adolescents and young teenagers tend
to be valued more highly than brides over the age of 18, and many parents
prefer to marry their daughters off young in order to pay a smaller dowry
(Amin and Huq 2008; Schuler et al. 2006).
Second, the persistence of early marriage against a backdrop of policy shifts
to promote the educational and employment prospects of women and girls
also reﬂects the extent to which the government has generally succeeded in
advancing social agendas when those have been aligned with the popular will.
There was a large unmet demand for reproductive health care and family plan-
ning, rising demands for universal basic education, and a growing push for
access to work opportunities for those women who wanted or needed to earn
(Kabeer 2001;KabeerandHossain2004). By contrast, there remains such a
strong societal preference for girls to be married young (or to be perceived as
younger than 18 at the time of marriage) that many parents appear to prefer to
lie about their daughters’ ages in order to present them as being younger than
they are, even though this means breaking the law (Streatﬁeld et al. 2015). Put
another way, the social pressures in favour of early marriage are stronger than
the legal and civic pressures to ensure that daughters are over the legal age
before they are married. In 2018, under pressure from Islamic clerics, among
others, the government actually reduced the legal age at which girls can be
married, from 18 to 16. Although the average age of marriage has been rising
over time, it has done so very slowly, increasingly less than a year and a half
between 1994 and 2003, a period otherwise known for its rapid progress on
gender equality (and in particular for gains in girls’ educational enrolment)
(Kamal et al. 2015).
Third, the challenge of addressing early marriage has seen government
policy not only run up against a widespread societal preference for girls to
be married young, but also face relatively concerted and organised opposi-
tion from the Islamic right. The surprising volte-face of the government in
reducing the age of marriage is believed to reﬂect the emergence of an inﬂu-
ential and radical new Islamist platform (Hefazat ), which has replaced the
moderate Islamist parties of the past. In part, this group has emerged through
virulent struggles against the adoption of the National Women’s Development
Policy, which had among its aims the equalisation of inheritance laws for men
and women (Nazneen 2018). The government has also made concessions to
this group regarding madrassah education; this, along with the relaxation of
child marriage laws, indicates that, for the ﬁrst time, development and gender
equality policies are likely to face a coherent and organised opposition from
A fourth factor to consider is that whereas the MDG period was char-
acterised by partnerships between the government and aid, civil society,
466 N. HOSSAIN
NGOs, and community-based organisations, these more inclusive and inno-
vative partnerships have been replaced by an increasingly government-driven
agenda. From 1991 to 2014, the country featured highly competitive multi-
party elections, and the media and civil society actors were relatively free to
comment on and scrutinise public policy and the implementation of govern-
ment programmes. In 2014, the present government “won” an uncontested
election, which was boycotted by the opposition, who deemed it illegiti-
mate. It went on to politicise the administration and restrict or co-opt civil
society actors using a mixture of law, criminalisation, administrative measures,
and stigmatisation, as well as outright intimidation and violence (Hassan and
Nazneen 2017; Human Rights Watch 2017). The 2018 election is widely
understood to have been thoroughly rigged to secure the position of the
incumbent party. Civil society actors and the media have been cowed and
threatened, and although they have not been entirely silenced or stopped,
they are now forced to select their struggles carefully, at the risk of being de-
registered or otherwise stopped. Women’s movement actors are among those
who have been silenced or co-opted.
Taken together, these factors signal that the conditions that enabled
earlier—and in some respects, less radical—policy changes are no longer in
place, or at least not for the stubborn problem of child marriage. The overall
policy environment since 2014 has not been one of respect for human rights,
although it has given an even stronger emphasis to service delivery and
economic development than in the past. Yet, as the SDGs themselves indi-
cate, women’s empowerment and gender equality are not individual measures
such as girls’ enrolment in school or participation in non-agricultural wage
The critical question for Bangladesh as it strategises for achieving the SDGs
is whether a strong political elite commitment to deliver services can overcome
these features of the social and political environment that were absent during
the MDG period. With respect to early marriage, these include a misalign-
ment between societal and state goals; a lack of clear elite consensus over its
importance; the presence of an increasingly organised opposition to gender
equality policies, and in particular to stopping adult men from marrying girl
children; and the increasingly state-dominated development process, which
reduces the prospects for innovation through multi-stakeholder partnerships,
accountability for achieving the SDGs, and in particular ensuring that no one
is “left behind by development”.
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 467
21.3.3 Women Workers’ Rights: SDGs 1, 8, and 16
The past 30 years have seen dramatic changes in women’s lives in Bangladesh.
Among these is mass women’s employment in export-sector garments produc-
tion, which has, over the decades, brought millions of Bangladeshi women into
formal industrial relations. At present, around 2 to 3 million women work in
the industry, which accounts for 80 per cent of exports.
Incorporation into global value chains has undoubtedly been empow-
ering for Bangladeshi women faced with the options of even lower-paid rural
subsistence occupations or the rigours and uncertainties of family farming or
domestic service (Hossain 2012; Kabeer and Mahmud 2004; Kabeer et al.
2018). Yet, wages have remained low, while living costs have risen, notably
over the past decade. Evidence indicates that, even with two adults working,
a household reliant on garment workers’ wages would live below the poverty
line (Moazzem and Arfanuzzaman 2018).
The new opportunities of ready-made garment employment have also seen
women incorporated into global value chains on adverse terms, exposing them
to new sources of discrimination and structural violence. The disastrous Rana
Plaza factory collapse of 2013—the worst industrial disaster in the history of
the global garments trade—graphically illustrated the effects of the lack of
power of garment workers to resist pressures to turn up for work in unsafe
factories in order to perform tough, but underpaid, labour. Since the calamity
of 2013, which threatened the very existence of this overwhelmingly impor-
tant industry in Bangladesh, garment workers have taken increasingly effective,
if dangerous, collective action to demand safety at work and higher wages
(Ashraf and Prentice 2019; Siddiqi 2015).
So although women have won some degree of economic empowerment
through their precarious factory labour, this has chieﬂy been exercised in
relation to the home and personal relationships. However, women workers
remain deeply disempowered in relation to factory owners, the state, and
the international buyers that source in Bangladesh. It has become increas-
ingly evident that their empowerment and the achievement of decent work
depend on their right to unionise and claim their rights. The Bangladeshi
elite—and in particular the business elite—are not behind unionisation, in
the belief that it would push wages infeasibly high and/or destroy the indus-
try’s competitive advantage. Under pressure from international trade regimes
and international human rights institutions, the government is seeking ways of
improving industrial relations without antagonising their important supporters
Among the SDGs, the targets that are most at risk are SDG target 8.5
(“By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all
women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities,
and equal pay for work of equal value”) and SDG target 8.8 (“Protect labour
rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers,
468 N. HOSSAIN
including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precar-
ious employment”). Again, the SDGs mainstream gender across the set; with
respect to Bangladesh’s garment workers, it is clear that their disempowerment
is by no means purely a result of their gender, but of how their gender inter-
sects with class as well as political and economic power. The achievement of
SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) also speaks to these challenges,
as they highlight the problem of violence and intimidation against trade union
and labour activists, and its connections with the achievement of decent work,
gender equality, and women’s empowerment.
Bangladesh has been a (somewhat reluctant) host to a range of transna-
tional multi-stakeholder initiatives to improve working conditions in garments
factories ever since the Rana Plaza disaster (Donaghey and Reinecke 2018;
Evans 2014; Khan and Wichterich 2015). In key respects, this has created
an environment for experimentation with global governance that resembles
the experimentation of earlier non-state innovations with service delivery and
reaching women. The Bangladeshi labour movement remains weak and frag-
mented, however, and has been historically insufﬁciently attentive to women
workers’ concerns (Rahman and Langford 2012; Siddiqi 2017). Despite
changes to the labour law, in practice, labour activism is dangerous and often
violently suppressed. Women (and men) garment workers in Bangladesh are
increasingly taking collective action nonetheless, and they are at times winning
concessions over the minimum wage or other demands. Their struggles, while
evidence of the growing desire to organise, are also evidence of the very high
costs that many continue to pay to achieve their basic rights.
This chapter has reﬂected on Bangladesh’s surprisingly rapid—if uneven and
incomplete—progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment. It
explored both the scope and nature of that progress and how it came about.
It also draws attention to the reasons why elites came to be committed to
public action on some aspects of gender equality and women’s empower-
ment (notably, social protection and income generation for poverty reduction,
fertility control, and mass education), and therefore to building state—and
indeed non-state—capacity to do so. Under conditions of multi-party compe-
tition and a ﬂourishing civil society sector, Bangladesh made good progress
on some of the MDGs—better than could have been expected because of
its poverty, traditional patriarchal norms and institutions, and the predomi-
nantly Islamic faith of the population. The chapter notes the importance of
ruptures in the old patterns and assumptions about gender relations around
the country’s tumultuous independent period. In particular, it notes recog-
nition by elites that societal institutions such as marriage, the family, and
the community were failing to protect Bangladeshi women against disasters,
conﬂicts, and the grinding problems of poverty that so many millions faced.
In a country without substantial natural resources, in which the main wealth
21 THE SDGS AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF BANGLADESHI WOMEN 469
was its people, addressing women’s concerns became a matter of addressing
the country’s national development agenda and building a more produc-
tive—healthier, better nourished, better educated, and socialised—workforce.
Governments developed inclusive partnerships with aid actors, civil society
groups, and NGOs, and the women’s movement played a critical role both
in advancing an understanding of the instrumental importance of women’s
empowerment for national development as a whole and in sharing norms
about women’s rights and strategies for realising them.
What does Bangladesh’s positive performance on the MDGs tell us about
the prospects for the SDGs? The SDGs are more demanding, embedding an
understanding of women’s disadvantage not only concerning their gender, but
also of how gender intersects with class, ethnicity and religion, and geography,
among other factors. The SDGs draw attention to a broader range of factors
affecting power in women’s lives than the MDGs—and with greater attention
being given to women and girls across their entire lives. The chapter anal-
yses two enduring challenges facing women in Bangladesh in the light of the
SDG emphasis on inclusion, equality, and “leaving no one behind” by develop-
ment: early marriage and women workers’ rights in global value chains. Each
of these challenges is analysed in the light of what we have learnt about how
Bangladesh succeeded (to the extent it did) in the MDGs. Several points stand
First, the “ﬁrst generation” gains of girls’ education and family plan-
ning services aligned closely with societal interests and concerns. By contrast,
early marriage persists because of a broad societal preference (within highly
constrained and gender-unequal conditions) for girls to be married young.
The garments sector as a whole has been built on the low wages and presumed
docility of women workers, and the interests in keeping it so are widespread
The second point, which is related to the ﬁrst, is that there is no elite
consensus on these enduring and new challenges. Religious elites hold fast to
their privileges, including having sex with girl children, even while the polit-
ical and social elite decry the closely associated practices of dowry and child
marriage, which are both fundamental to the violence faced by women and
girls. State, political, civil society, and business elites are divided on the issue
of unionisation in the industry, and so more powerful voices prevail. Issues
of minimum wages and working conditions are proving to be topics of great
contestation, in which cooperation or collaboration has to date proved elusive.
Third, whereas neither fertility control nor education or even micro-credit
schemes have elicited much organised resistance from politically powerful
groups, the rise of a new and more militant Islamic platform has successfully
foisted a more Islamist agenda on the erstwhile secular ruling government. It
is within this context that the law has been changed to reduce the legal age at
which girls can marry. With respect to garments, women (and men) workers
are prevented from realising their rights to form trade unions by a powerful
470 N. HOSSAIN
business elite with strong and multiple connections to political power at both
the local and national levels.
Fourth, political and civic spaces have been sharply curtailed just as the
SDGs are being launched. The development process is increasingly being
dominated by the state-party system of government under a party that has
ruled (as of 2019) for a full decade. In theory, a more powerful government
could build stronger capacity to implement important gender equality policies
against the will of powerful religious or business actors. Yet, it may equally
push out and silence the voices of the women’s movement, NGOs, and civil
society groups with knowledge, capacity, or access. The country’s successes
with development cooperation and effective aid during the MDG period may
not easily be replicated amid the more widespread and polarised contention
surrounding issues such as girl child marriage and minimum wages. Ofﬁcial
development assistance is, overall, considerably less important to the policies
Bangladesh is now designing and implementing. These are critical considera-
tions for Bangladesh as it graduates from LDC status and takes its position as
a middle-income country in its 50 year. The SDGs will provide a critical test
for the “Bangladeshi model” of development.
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