Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Female Factor: Success in a Land Known for Disasters

Photo: Munem Wasif for the International Herald Tribune: Nur Jahan cared for a relative at a hospital. Ms. Jahan worked on a road maintenance crew for two years and hopes to one day run for a local government position.

BETTINA WASSENER

SOMESHPUR, Bangladesh — To many outsiders, Bangladesh is best known for its poverty and the natural disasters that hit it with depressing regularity.

When it comes to the position of women, however, this country has made progress that would be unthinkable in many other Muslim societies. Bangladeshi women have served in U.N. peacekeeping missions. There are women ambassadors, doctors, engineers and pilots. Two powerful women — the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her political rival, Khaleda Zia — have been alternating at the country’s helm for years. The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women is 19.7 percent, not much lower than the 22.3 percent in the British House of Commons.

“This is a country where women are active in every field,” Dipu Moni, the minister of foreign affairs, said at her office in Dhaka, the capital. Ms. Moni, the daughter of a prominent politician and a Western-educated lawyer and physician, has campaigned for years for women’s rights and improved health provisions in the country.

Such efforts by successive governments and development organizations have led to major improvements in the lives of women across the country, with expanded access to health care and basic education in rural and urban areas. Decades of microlending and, more recently, the burgeoning garment sector have underpinned the progress by turning millions of women into breadwinners for their families.

Nur Jahan, who lives in Someshpur, a ramshackle village of about 1,000 people four hours from Dhaka, illustrates how tough life remains for many Bangladeshi women, but also how many women’s lives are transforming.

Ms. Jahan’s husband abandoned her, penniless and in rags, on the main square of Someshpur when she was pregnant with her second child about 10 years ago. A compact and vivacious woman who is about 26 years old — no one keeps exact records — Ms. Jahan spent years doing odd jobs for other households to keep herself and her children above water. In a country that ranks as one of the poorest in the world, she was about as low as it is possible to get.

Then, two years ago, luck finally arrived, in the form of a development project that arranged for women who had been widowed or left by their husbands to get jobs maintaining roads in the vicinity.

The project, funded by the European Union and the U.N. Development Program, and implemented with the assistance of local governments, helped about 24,400 women like Ms. Jahan across Bangladesh.

For two years, they cleared shrubs and smoothed surfaces. They were paid 100 taka, or about $1.20, a day. But the savings they accumulated allowed many of them to buy a plot of land or a humble dwelling. In addition, they were taught to start tiny businesses that should allow them to make a living going forward.

Ms. Jahan now makes and sells compost, and trades dried fish. Others in the village sell wood, cookies or stationery for a slim profit. One became the proud owner of a hand loom. Instead of being destitute, these women are now merely poor. They can afford to eat and to send their children to school.

Ms. Jahan hopes to run for a local government position in a few years. Already, people come to her for help, she explained proudly. Recently, the relatives of a sick neighbor asked her to accompany them to the local clinic. Before, they would have hardly looked at her.

“When I think about my past, I want to cry,” she said. “When I think about life now, it is nothing but smiles.”

The roots of much of the development work were laid in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. What started off as efforts to support the tens of thousands of women who were widowed during the fighting was later expanded into much wider efforts to alleviate poverty and facilitate women’s empowerment, said Ferdousi Sultana Begum, senior social development officer at the Asian Development Bank in Dhaka.

“There is still a long way to go, but there has been a lot of gradual progress, especially over the past two decades,” she said. Girls’ education, in particular, has been embraced widely, she added.

Statistics, too, underline the improvement in women’s lives. The number of births by teenage mothers, for example, plummeted to 78.9 per 1,000 in 2010 from 130.5 in 2000. That is still high by Western standards (the figure for the United States is 41.2), but it is below the 86.3 recorded in India.

Fewer babies die in Bangladesh than in India: 52 out of 1,000, compared with 66 in India and 87 in Pakistan.

And population growth has been stemmed. In the late 1980s, women in Bangladesh had on average 5.1 children. By 2009, the rate had been more than halved, to 2.3. India has a rate of 2.7, according to the World Bank.

The progress comes despite the toughest of backdrops. Over all, Bangladesh ranks 146th of 187 countries on an index measuring human development compiled by the U.N. Development Program — ahead of Myanmar and many African countries but behind Iraq. Nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty. Corruption, red tape and poor infrastructure mar everyday life. Access to clean water and electricity is scarce in the villages that dot the flat landscape of the country, whose 160 million inhabitants squeeze into an area smaller than Florida and larger than Greece.

Conservative traditions are deeply enshrined in this country, where about 70 percent of the population lives in the countryside. There are frequent reports of domestic violence, often related to demands for dowry payments. And many women who have achieved top leadership positions owe their prominence in part to powerful male relatives.

But while women in many other Muslim nations are seeing their rights eroded by the rise of conservative Islamism, this is not the case in Bangladesh. Extremism is a fringe phenomenon, and women’s development projects encounter little religious opposition.

The country is predominantly Muslim, but moderate; Buddhist and Hindu traditions are widely respected, and there is a widespread acceptance of the concept that women can work outside the home.

Microlending, which took off in the 1980s, has allowed many women to start tiny businesses over the years.

More recently, millions of people have found work in the garment sector, which accounts for about three-quarters of exports from Bangladesh.

At the Mustafa Garments Industries factory in the southeastern port city of Chittagong, hundreds of women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were recently bent over sewing machines and cutting tables, making shorts for customers in the United States and Europe.

The factory employs about 500 people — 95 percent of them women — who earn between 4,500 and 5,000 taka a month, according to Kallol Majumder, the general manager. That is about $2 a day — but even that gives them breadwinner status. And it underlines the fact that women in Bangladesh are not simply recipients of Western charity, but active economic agents in their own right.

Bangladesh is undergoing a structural change in the economy, from agricultural to manufacturing,” said Stefan Priesner, the U.N. Development Program country director in Dhaka. “Women have played a huge role in this.”

On the education front, men still outnumber women in universities. But the number of women enrolling has risen steadily. In an attempt to help redress the balance, a women-only university was set up in Chittagong in 2008.

Kamal Ahmad, a Bangladeshi who worked for many years in development organizations and as a lawyer in the United States and Britain, spent years raising donations and lobbying the government for land for the university. The goal for the Asian University for Women, he said, is to create women leaders capable of bringing about change across Asia.

The first class is expected to graduate next year, and many of the students already have plans to set up businesses, campaign groups, banks or schools in their 12 respective home countries.

“I have a real responsibility to help social progress,” said Moumita Basak, a bubbly 21-year-old from Chittagong. Her goal: to become a writer, and set up organizations aimed at promoting social causes.

First published in The New York Times, New York, USA, April 9, 2012