This is not a new development or specific event but rather a feeling that has been with me for a while.

I have come to the conclusion that I will never have the strength it takes to be a woman in Bangladesh. It is entirely unfathomable to me how people can endure under certain circumstances. If there exists a glass ceiling for the women of the West, in its place, the women of Bangladesh have one made of brick, devoid of light and almost impossible to ever break through. The society here is so patriarchal that it’s almost easy to overlook it. But then you start to notice that there are few, if any, women on the streets at any given point. You start to notice that all important local people you talk to, at least for my project, are male and that you’re hard-pressed to find a woman with a leading role in almost any major organization.

It is shocking to observe this discrepancy in a country whose two sole political figures are women. Recently Sheikh Hassina has pledged to expand the number of seats held by women in Parliament but these are superficial reforms. The real root of discimination and oppression lies much, much deeper.

There are so few ways for women to get ahead in this country that most are confined to their homes, tending to their children and kitchens. This is where the garment industry serves as a ray of hope through the bricks. Of the 3 million people who work in the garment industry, 80% are female. Thus, those 2.4 million women serve to support not only themselves but another vast amount of people, wuickly ballooning the number of people the garment industry directly supports to more than 10 million. The reason so many women (girls, often) work in the garment sector is because, and I have heard this directly from the boss of factory, women are more skilled with their fingers, more dexterous and more determined to work. However, sadly implied in that conversation was also the fact that women are more submissive and will demand less. Nevertheless, the garment industry provides women with the fantastic opportunity to earn women by themselves and therefore reclaim, if only a fraction of their livelihood.

The women I talked to in the slums last week said they would never work in another industry because the garment sector gave them independence, an ideal that cannot be attained through any other measures but work.

On the side of the factory-owners however, it is spectacular to see the unscrupulous business-methods employed. In the West, our affluent lifestyle has led us to take the saying “knowledge is power” for granted. It’s used a lot and has become a clichee, worthy only of a slight raising of the eyebrows. Here, however, the full effect and meaning of this phrase is clearly visible. The workers, and especially women, here are kept dumb and uneducated in order to get them to work longer hours under worse conditions for less money. The vast majority of the women working in the industry have come from the rural countryside where inefficient practices have made the land less fertile and less capable of supporting a population. Young and impressionable, with little idea of what they’re in for, they set out for Dhaka in the hopes of finding work in order to support their large families at home. They always find work but are of course horrible disadvantaged, paid less than the minimum wage of one dollar a day and work long into the night. Too often, no effort is being made on the part of the employer to help the women gain an understanding of their rights or their opportunities. Their policy of “a dumb employee is a good employee” traps these women in sub-par working conditions, without much hope of advancement.

This is where the NGOs come in. In the slums I was in last week, the story was the same everywhere; just one training session talking about the Bangladeshi labor law opened their eyes to the injustices they are facing and led them to re-evaluate their condition. Now they are eager for more training and will maybe even organize to demand better working conditions. The reason I have become such a feminist for the women of Bangladesh is because I have met so many inspiring women here who make me hopeful that this country does have a future. If Bangladesh is to have a bright future, it will be thanks to the women, not to the men, whose tunnel-vision administration has deadlocked Bangladesh in a cycle of instability and inequality. One of the women leading the reforms is the labor union leader Nazma Akhter, who I’ve had the privilege of meeting on several occasions. Last Sunday for women’s day, she, with others, organized massive marches of garment workers through the streets of Dhaka, celebrating women and demanding better treatment for them. Her life story is also fascinating in its own right and I encourage you to find out more:


It is good to see GTZ employing as many women as men, most of them Bangladeshis. Giving the educated women of Bangladesh an arena in which to excel is certainly among the responsibilities of any company setting up shop in Bangladesh.

There is much hope for Bangladesh in terms of gender equity but the movement is unfortunately only in its nascent stages.


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Patty Wise said,


    I just got back to your blog after a month away. Your adventures and observations are inspiring. It is just so hard to imagine what every day is like for the people there. Makes me want to quit complaining.

    On a lighter note, I really enjoyed the haircut story and read it to Phil. I can’t say that I have ever had a divine haircut. I am envious haha

    Take care and good luck with getting some excursions in outside of work.

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