Hope in the slums: women’s work in Bangladesh

Published on the UK Department for International Development id21, 13 January 2006, by Sarah Salway, e-mail, at the University of Sheffield.

For the slum-dwellers of Bangladesh, there are few opportunities to gain control over their lives. This is especially the case for slum women, who live within restrictive gender structures. Employment could not only bring in vital income, but also help women assert their rights in a male-dominated culture.

There are more than 11 million urban poor in Bangladesh. Vulnerability and insecurity characterise their lives. Most slum-dwellers in the city of Dhaka have no tenure rights, no guaranteed shelter, little access to basic services, few secure opportunities to earn money, and are dependent on loans. Women living in slums are particularly disadvantaged.

In addition, physical and psychological violence against women is common in Bangladesh. Marriage offers the only protection for many women, making them socially – if not economically – dependent on men.

Employment opportunities for women have soared since the early 1980s, particularly in the ready-made garment industry.

But does paid employment increase the bargaining power of women in Bangladesh? Or does it increase their exploitation within a male-dominated culture? Researchers from Proshika Manobik Unnayan Kendra in Bangladesh, the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Bath in the UK have addressed this question, using data from the Urban Livelihoods Study in Dhaka.

Focusing on a woman’s situation in terms of gender issues – mobility, involvement in household money management, protection of independent personal interests (for instance in personal savings accounts), ties with relatives and domestic violence – the researchers find that:

  • Slum women are clearly taking on non-traditional roles: 40 percent of wives interviewed had earned an income in the previous month.
  • In households where women work, they contribute significantly to household income.
  • Slum women commonly participate in household income management, such as handling cash, budgeting and shopping.
  • Women regularly move in traditional ‘male’ space, for example travelling to work, visiting friends and relatives, going to health clinics and so on.
  • Women try to secure their own economic well-being by setting aside money for savings and assets.

Despite these positive signs, the researchers also identified strong traditional gender roles that limit women’s options. Women’s work is given an inferior, secondary and temporary status within the Dhaka slums. Even when women contribute substantially to household finances and management, they are rarely acknowledged. Women are defined as housewives, their work is seen as supplementary to that of men, and so they are paid less than men. The team also found physical insecurity to be a persistent obstacle to women.

The researchers conclude that paid employment is widening the opportunities of women in the Dhaka slums and challenging traditional gender identities, even though this is still limited. They ask for policy intervention to speed this process up and prioritise the following:

- improvement in the terms and conditions of female employment options;

- efforts to increase women’s physical security within the community.

Source(s): ‘Women’s employment in urban Bangladesh: a challenge to gender identity?’, Development and Change, 36:2, by Sarah Salway, Sonia Jesmin and Shahana Rahman, 2005. Funded by the UK Department for International Development id21.

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