Rani Mondal searches the floor of the riverbed with her fingers, craning her neck above the water. The river is home to a farm of clawing crabs. “It hurts a lot when you are bitten but you apply salt and Savlon and go to the doctor’s if it gets septic,” Mondal said. An award-winning crab farmer living on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, she used to be extremely poor. Her village has been battered repeatedly by cyclones, making the ground too salty for large-scale agriculture.
Four years ago, she and her friends started a crab business with a loan of 10,000 taka ($128). After some training and hard work, Mondal has increased that capital to 200,000 taka.“We don’t have to ask our husbands for money any more,” she said. “I earn more than my husband. He used to have a very loud voice, but not any more.”
In Bangladesh, the world’s fourth most populous Muslim country, women have taken charge. Nowhere else do women dominate so many top political positions. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is accompanied by a female speaker, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury; her long-time rival and former prime minister Khaleda Zia heads the opposition.
Hasina said: “From the grassroots level, we started to create women’s leadership. In our military, air force, navy, army, there are women. In every sphere – even the police – posts started opening up for women.”
A booming garment industry has provided 3.5 million women with employment but the work is dangerous and low-paid. Human Rights Watch found that women “regularly face ill-treatment and poor working conditions inside factories”.
For many other women, such as Mondal, financial independence has opened up opportunities beyond providing for the family’s basic needs. It means she can save in case she faces another natural disaster and even take out life insurance to guarantee her children’s education.
Development experts point to the huge expansion of girls’ education in Bangladesh as fundamental to the sea change for women. Initiatives such as a tuition stipend for girls in rural areas mean that girls outnumber boys in primary education.
More girls in school, as well as improved maternal health services, have helped dramatically reduce the number of women and children dying in childbirth, and Bangladesh is likely to meet or come close to achieving the millennium development goal to reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters. A maternity clinic in Dhaka’s largest slum run by Bangladesh NGO Brac has recorded no deaths in childbirth this year.
Across Bangladesh, almost every village, island or slum is being organised and led by committees of women. Supported by aid agencies such as Care International, development workers have taken advantage of government policies to provide contraceptives, nutrition advice and basic healthcare to women in their homes.
In Borokupt village, Sheheh Parvin is on seven committees that are involved in everything from managing water and sanitation services to disaster response. Parvin and some 4,000 community volunteers monitor government provision of social benefits, influence local budget decisions, and lobby for better services. They have managed to get a road built to connect the village to the nearest market, and have also succeeded in reducing the number of girls getting married before the legal age of 18.
“Because of corruption, we help people negotiate with the local government,” Parvin said. “Women’s recognition and participation have increased and now men respect us.”
Shananara Khatun, who works with Parvin, spoke at a climate change conference in Paris last year. “I still dream about that city,” she said. “I thought all the stars in the sky had come to the Eiffel tower. I went to give a speech at the university and at first I thought, ‘What am I going to tell all these professors?’ But then I realised I stand on the ground and they stand on bricks. I spoke from my own experience.”
This confidence is growing under countless tin shelters in rural Bangladesh, and it makes the women’s movement powerful. Most men in Borokupt village are forced to look for work abroad or in industrial areas elsewhere in the country for six or more months of the year, leaving women to go to work locally and manage community affairs.
“Because of the crisis here, our husbands realised we had to do something in our own community and for our family,” Khatun said. “How else can the family run?”
Nazma Akther Chaiti, 18, belongs to a water and sanitation committee set up by Oxfam. Born in one of Dhaka’s many slums, she has never ventured into the city without her father or brothers because she fears sexual harassment on the streets. But she volunteers in her community, promoting hand-washing, safe drinking water and food preparation – an invaluable experience that feeds her dream of becoming a doctor.
As the daughter of a domestic worker and a rickshaw driver, her goal is just as ambitious as the development targets of her country. She is close to leaving school and has already progressed further than many of her peers. Her parents will not be able to afford the university fees but Chaiti hopes someone will support her if she does well in her exams.
While there have been big gains in health and education, aid agencies and campaign organisations are worried that progress could be reversed if rights are not protected and violence against women reduced.
World Vision’s Shabira Nupur has been pushing for a tougher law on child marriage for years. Even though the legal age of marriage for women is 18, it’s estimated that one-third of girls are married before they reach 15. “There’s a battle between civil society and government on the conditions of the new marriage law,” she said. “The government wants to include an exception – if a girl is pregnant at 16 or over, she can marry with her parents’ consent. The prime minister argues that the legal age of marriage in the UK is 16, but Bangladeshi girls don’t have the facilities and opportunities that UK girls have.”
We Can, a network of more than 1 million men and women campaigning to reduce violence against women, has pushed for a law against domestic violence. The domestic violence prevention and protection act was passed in 2010 but so far no case has resulted in a conviction, despite 87% of women facing domestic violence.
“When it comes to liberation and total freedom, women’s rights are under threat,” said We Can’s chairperson, Sultana Kamal. “For example, there is no equal right in marriage and inheritance. There is no political will or courage to push these forward because of the Islamists.”
“A small number of people are trying to stop women’s empowerment,” said Meher Afroze Chumki, state minister for women and children’s affairs. “They think women do not have a right to education and they cannot go outside to earn money.”
Rabeya, 12, walks through Peyarabagh slum. ‘I have learned to throw rubbish in the dustbin and wash my hands after the latrine,’ she said. Photograph: Anna Ridout
Some women at the bottom of the economic table have not enjoyed the gains of their marginally wealthier counterparts. Millions of women and children who are domestic workers in private homes receive no legal protection.
A study on the working conditions of domestic workers by Oxfam and the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies found that 85% of those surveyed earn less than 5,000 taka per month.
A small number of organisations are working with employers and workers to try to improve conditions. Rafika Khan, a technical adviser with local organisation Nari Maitree, said a pilot project inspects the homes of potential employers and helps women access legal support, healthcare and social protection.
“The mindset of employers is hard to change,” she said. “We ask employers to do a police check for security and open a bank account so the workers can save, but they don’t have to, and there is no law to protect the workers. Almost all of the women we work with are migrants from villages. Most are facing abuse from their husband or family. We organise groups for women to share their feelings and already see change is coming.”
Oxfam has worked with domestic employees to draw up a code of conduct to ensure salaries are paid on time, hours are regulated and breaks are standardised. The code is awaiting approval from the labour ministry. If it is adopted, there will be a battle to enforce the standards.
In Brahmanbaria, around 100km east of Dhaka, Mosammad Rahima Begum goes from house to house making people aware of their legal rights. “The laws are there but implementation is not,” she said. “People need to know the laws.” As a lawyer, she walks from village to village counselling women. Along with the hygiene promoters, the community midwives, and the advocates and activists, women are not just benefiting from the rapid development of the country, they are leading it.