Under South Asia's only female prime minister, the country is investing heavily in its women and girls
The World Economic Forum recently ranked Bangladesh first in gender equality among South Asia nations for the second consecutive year. The Forum's "Gender Gap Index of 2017" highlights Bangladesh's success in four key areas: education, economic participation, health, and political empowerment.
While no country has eliminated the gender gap completely, Bangladesh has had a steady climb in the rankings, rising 23 places over the preceding year to No. 49 in the world. Bangladesh consistently outperforms its neighbors India and Pakistan on measures of gender inequality.
The only female Muslim leader among the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member countries, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, serves as a role model for women in the subcontinent. A recipient of the Mother Teresa Award and the UNESCO Peace Tree in recognition of her contributions to women's education, Hasina has long recognized that the future of her nation depends in large measure on the empowerment of women.
"I believe that only the right kind of education can make a girl self-reliant economically, socially, and emotionally," she has said. Actions initiated by the Bangladesh government have echoed the prime minister's emphasis on women's education. In recent years, Bangladesh has invested heavily in education at all levels. Primary education is compulsory and free of charge for everyone.
Overall enrollment in primary school rose from 60.5 percent in 1990 to 98.7 percent in 2016. Girls receive stipends and scholarships for schooling until the 12th grade. Even textbooks are free. Consequently, women are now well represented in the classroom; the female-to-male high school enrollment ratio is now 53 percent to 47 percent, a dramatic increase from 35 percent to 65 percent prior to 2009.
Advancing educational opportunities for women has had a profound effect on the lives of Bangladeshi women. Over the last decade, marriage rates for girls under 15 dropped by more than 35 percent, and Bangladesh plans to eradicate the practice entirely by 2021.
Bangladesh's promotion and empowerment of women does not end in the classroom. As the World Economic Forum notes, Bangladesh has improved gender parity across all parts of society. Banks and non-bank institutions distributed $860 million to 57,722 women entrepreneurs between 2010 and 2013. Female entrepreneurs are also entitled to $361 in Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) loans without having to offer collateral. In 2016, 11,000 women received more than $1.2 million in such micro loans.
Three million Bangladeshi women are employed in the lucrative ready-made garment sector, Bangladesh's largest export. While cynics point out the unforgiving nature of the garment industry, cries of injustice are outdated. Working conditions in the garment sector have significantly improved, thanks to widespread and stringent inspections. Once known as the 'T-shirt maker of the world,' Bangladesh now produces high-end apparel for upscale European stores. With these important changes in the Bangladesh's factories, women have risen through the ranks and become workforce leaders.
In rural Bangladesh, innovations in aquaculture - a fancy word for fish farming - have turned women into the economic heads of households. Forty-three percent of rural women contribute to fisheries-related activities. And women now make up more than 60 percent of the fish farmers in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has also expanded its social safety net for women and markedly improved maternal and fetal health. Women get four to six months of paid maternity leave, far more than their American counterparts. Bangladesh has established allowances for divorced and destitute women as well as women with disabilities. It has also increased the punishments for human trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of violence against women.
According to the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh now ranks seventh in the world in the political empowerment of women. Women hold 50 seats in Bangladesh's National Parliament and 12,000 local political offices. Of course, the prime minister is also a woman and so are the opposition leader, the speaker and the deputy leader.
In large part because it has harnessed the potential of a previously neglected half of its population, Bangladesh's economy is now roaring. Between 2009 and 2017, Bangladesh's annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose from $100 billion to more than $250 billion, a 150 percent increase. Moreover, the Bangladesh economy grew 7.28 percent in the past fiscal year. Bangladesh is now reaping the benefits of empowering women.
For women in Bangladesh, the future looks brighter than ever. Women are better educated, safer, and more economically prosperous than their mothers. Today, women are accepted and valued not only as wives and help-mates, but also as farmers, parliamentarians, and entrepreneurs. The whole nation benefits.
The writer is the information technology adviser to the government of Bangladesh and the son of the prime minister
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