Women in Bangladesh have taken a significant step towards greater equality, chalking up a parliamentary milestone: nearly 20 percent of seats are to be filled by women.
Seventeen directly elected female parliamentarians took up their seats on 25 January, and 45 more are set to join them soon, meaning 62 women out of 345 will sit in the unicameral legislature.
“Women ministers will wield power and decide the course of action in important areas like law enforcement, international relations and food security,” said Noorjahan Begum, a leading women's rights activist since the 1960s.
Under the 2008 National Women's Development Policy (NWDP), the number of seats reserved for women were increased from 30 to 45. The NWDP aims to empower women in all political, social, administrative and economic spheres, and hopes to have one third of all seats filled by women by 2020.
Nevertheless, women still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality.
Illiteracy, early and forced marriage, high maternal mortality, social and religious restrictions, coupled with instances of torture, abandonment, and limited job opportunities all contribute to the plight of women, women's rights groups say.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
A mother tends to her baby at a hospital in Bangladesh's northern Siraganj District. Maternal mortality rates in the impoverished nation remain poor and the worst in South Asia According to the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) State of the World's Children Report 2008, Bangladesh has the worst maternal mortality rate (MMR) in South Asia at 570 per 100,000 live births. Just 13 percent of all deliveries in Bangladesh are attended by a skilled birth attendant, with 21,000 dying annually of pregnancy and childbirth-related causes, Bangladesh's 2007 Demographic and Health Survey reported.
But women in this Muslim nation of more than 150 million had also made progress.
Girls' enrolment in secondary school in this male-dominated society jumped to 3.9 million in 2005, from 1.1 million in 1991, including an increasing number of girls from disadvantaged or remote areas.
This had enabled Bangladesh to achieve one of its Millennium Development Goals ahead of time - gender parity in education.
Female enrolment as a percentage of total enrolment increased from 33 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 1997 and about 56 percent in 2005.
Secondary school certificate pass rates for girls in a government approved project covering nearly a quarter of the country (organised by the Bangladesh Female Secondary School Assistance Programme) increased from 39 percent in 2001 to 58 percent in 2006.
Indirect benefits of this include delays in the age of marriage and reduced fertility rates, better nutrition, and more females employed with higher incomes.
The ratio of girls to boys in primary schools rose from 45:55 in 1992 to 53:47 in 2005 and in secondary schools from 34:66 in 1992 to 50:50 in 2005, the report said.
Women's participation in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector rose from 40.7 in 1992 to 58.6 in 2003, according to a government labour force survey of 2003, the last time such a survey was undertaken.
Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Female enrolment as a percentage of total enrolment increased from 33 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 1997 and about 56 percent in 2005 Nearly two million women work in readymade garment (RMG) factories - the country's top export earning sector. RMG exports exceed US$2 billion a year.
Moreover, 60 percent of the more than 35,000 government and registered primary school teachers are now women.
As for what impact the new parliament will have on improving gender equality, women remain hopeful.
“Participation of women in active politics is a proof that they are breaking out of the age-old social and political taboos. This time women have gone to parliament not only to be heard, but also to make things happen their way,” Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Women's Council, told IRIN.
“No one other than women will understand the problems of women. No one other than women will be able to solve those problems from a gender sensitive point of view. More women in parliament is good, but we need more women in all departments of the government, in business, in the legal profession, in higher education and of course in politics,” Khanam said.
According to the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report for 2006, Bangladesh ranks 137 out of 177 countries on its Gender Development Index; and 67 out of 75 on the Gender Empowerment Measure, a measure of gender inequality in economic and political terms.
The Global Gender Gap Index 2007 ranks Bangladesh 100 out of 128 countries in terms of gender equality.
“Women lag far behind men in all spheres of life. Women are victims of abuse, harassment and exclusion. It will take years to overcome all these odds. The good thing is that the process has begun,” Begum said, a sentiment echoed by others.
“The lot of women has not changed much over the years. They get less education, fewer jobs, poorer payment and the scantiest health care,” said Rokhsana Parveen, a senior official in Breaking the Silence, an NGO that works against sexual abuse, said.