Bangladesh Garment Workers Have Taste of Freedom

The hours are long, the wages are low and the conditions hazardous, yet Bangladeshi women are finding their garment industry wages provide them visibility and even authority in a society that once ignored them.

Mashuda Shefali Khatun

DHAKA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)-Every morning the joggers here are joined by a stream of chattering young women. The women are bound neither for school nor college. They are off to work.

The women's presence is a huge achievement in a country where women's visibility is extremely low. The doors that are opening for these women are in Bangladesh's booming garment industry, which is providing them with unprecedented employment opportunities.

Over 1.3 million women may spend their days bent over whirring sewing machines, and their income and independence has triggered a silent revolution among
them. Women say they are no longer content to live a life of anonymity behind their purdahs, or veils.

“Ever since I started working in the garment factory, my life has changed. For the first time, I am not being looked upon as a burden. It has improved my status within the family,” said 19-year-old Chobi Mahmud, a garment worker in Dhaka.

Chobi, who is from the country's northern district of Tangail, is not the only woman who has migrated from her family's village to work in the city. Over the past nine years, there has been a steady flow of rural women to Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Some 74 percent of the women employed in the city's garment factories-all of which are owned by men-are rural migrants. About 85 percent of garment factory workers in 2002 are women compared to just 28 percent in 1990, according to the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, Dhaka.

More significantly, over 60 percent of them are unmarried. In a society where girls are expected to cover their faces with the purdah once they reach puberty and their mobility becomes extremely restricted, working outside the home is a tremendous social and cultural change.

“Fifteen years ago, women were rarely seen, if at all. Now their visibility has increased manifold thanks to the garment industry. It has brought about a socio-economic transformation,” said Khushi Kabir, a social activist who heads Nijera Kori, a prominent self-help organization in Dhaka.

Factory Conditions Are Unsafe, Wages Low

Still, many of the women toil in unsafe working conditions. Garment factory owners, who know the women will accept low wages and long working hours even if it takes a toll on their health, have no incentive to improve conditions.

Nari Uddog Kendra (Centre for Women's Initiatives), a women's organization working with women employed in the garment factories, conducted a study of the health conditions of the women. It found that 66 percent complained that their health had deteriorated since they began work in the factories. One quarter of those reporting respiratory problems had been working in the factories for five years or more, and one fifth of those reporting symptoms of repetitive strain injuries had been working for six years or more. Long hours of work in one particular position, lack of access to clean toilet facilities and inadequate ventilation in factories were major factors in health problems.

Nonetheless, the industry has prompted so significant a change in women's status that the government-backed Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies is studying its ramifications and impact on women's power in relationships and the economy.

“There are rigid cultural norms here,” said Pratima Paul-Majumdar, a researcher at the institute. “Our society is patriarchal. Women have no access to resources or opportunities to improve their situation nor do they have any say in decisions concerning their lives. All household decisions are taken without bothering to involve them.”

“But now all this has changed because she has started to earn,” she said. “In a poverty-stricken country, this income means the difference between life and death. Families of these women are now more than willing to allow them to migrate to the cities and stay alone, if need be, in order to work.”

Female Breadwinners Send Cash to Villages, Live on Their Own in Cities

A majority of these women have become the principal earners of their families. This has not only boosted their self confidence but has also empowered them to make decisions about their own income. Although the women remit about 25 percent of their income regularly to their families living in the villages, they have opened bank accounts and have, for the first time, begun to spend on themselves. Their families don't complain. Why should they? Their sons haven't bothered to send money home. Surveys showed that 73 percent of the male workers in garment factories do not remit their income. But thanks to their daughter's earnings, 43 percent of their families have begun living in brick houses as compared to 22 percent before their employment in the garment factories.

Economic independence has had another positive impact. It has emboldened them not only to venture out alone but to live without their families. Until a few years ago, living alone was completely unthinkable in a socially orthodox society like Bangladesh. But now, women have begun to share rooms with other female workers. Sociologists note that men have traditionally shared accommodations. However, with the emergence of the garment industry in 1993, the same arrangement among women has broken the traditional norm of residing with a male guardian.

It is not the only break from tradition in Bangladesh. Mashuda Shefali Khatun, who heads the Centre for Women's Initiatives said that surveys the center conducted in 2000 showed that approximately 52 percent of women reported that their husbands had begun to share domestic chores, a tangible social change. Nine years ago husbands did nothing at all. Now, in households where women are the principal breadwinners, the husband takes care of all the domestic chores, spending about four hours on them. In households where the husband is the main earner he spends about two hours on domestic chores.

The garment industry has impacted on Bangladesh's population as well. Because of later marriages, the country's fertility rate has declined from 6.3 children in 1972 to 3.3 in 1996, according to Dr. Jahir Uddin Ahmed of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In 1991, the average age of marriage was 16 for girls. But employment has encouraged girls to resist early marriages, and in 2000 the mean age of marriage for women was 20. Paul-Majumdar's study indicated that delayed marriage also led to a delay in childbearing-in 1991, the average age at which women gave birth to their first child was 17, and in 2000 the average age had risen to 22.

“The girls have a choice for the first time in their lives,” Paul-Majumdar said. “Earlier they had no alternative to early marriage and motherhood. The garment industry creates a period of transition from childhood to adulthood.”

Mothers Now Insisting Their Daughters Stay in School

It may also be improving literacy rates, one indicator international development experts typically use to chart a country's social progress.

The literacy rate among the rural female population in Bangladesh is about 35 percent, compared to 57 percent in urban areas where the garment industry is centered, according to Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. Researchers have also found a positive correlation between women's level of education and their wages, with women who have been educated beyond the primary level earning at least 76 percent more than less-educated women.

According to a survey conducted in 1999 and 2000 by the Bangladesh Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, women garment workers whose academic qualifications ranged from seven to ten years of schooling were two times more empowered to make decisions without consulting any family member than their counterparts with no education.

Women's newfound authority in the country's economy has brought about changes in their attitudes. Many women now insist that their daughters study further to improve their future prospects.

“I want my daughter to study as much as she wants. I want her to work in a better job than mine where she will be better paid. I will not force her into marriage like I was,” said Majeda Begum, 38, a garment worker in Dhaka.

Swapna Majumdar is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi who writes on development issues with a gender perspective.

For more information:

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies:

Bangladesh National Garment Workers Federation: