Democracy in Bangladesh

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The cost of good intentions: “solidarity” in Bangladesh

The cost of good intentions: “solidarity” in Bangladesh
Naila Kabeer 24 June 2004

How can the lives and conditions of women garment workers in Bangladesh be improved? Naila Kabeer questions whether the workers themselves benefit from the campaigning approach of Anita Roddick and the National Labor Committee. Anita Roddick writes on openDemocracy with passionate anger about the conditions of women workers in the export garment sector based on testimonies of workers she met on her visit to Bangladesh. Her account is supported by the United States-based National Labor Committee (NLC) which has been active in the country on this issue. Farida Khan, citing the World Bank country director in Bangladesh, offers a different perspective on the garment industry’s importance in the national economy and to Bangladeshi workers, one that partly counters Anita Roddick’s and the NLC’s views. I have been engaged in research on different aspects of gender equality in Bangladesh, including the economic, for many years now; I have been particularly interested in how women themselves view their choices and life options. In contributing to this discussion, I will emphasise the issues that seem to me to be especially important in assessing the experience of women garment workers in Bangladesh, and where the best possibilities for improvement in their conditions might lie. Bangladesh in transformation Bangladesh, like much of south Asia, has always been a strongly patriarchal country. There are strict restrictions on women’s ability to participate in the public domain – whether to earn an income, attend school, or take part in politics. It remains one of the world’s poorer countries, classified by the United Nations as among its forty -eight least-developed economies. However, Bangladesh is also undergoing major social transformation. Poverty has been declining slowly but consistently over the past decade. The country moved, after several years of military dic tatorship, to a fragile democracy in 1990. There have also been important positive changes in the area of gender equality, something which would not have been possible if Islamic fundamentalists had the kind of presence that Farida Khan suggests. In this period, successive governments have played an active role in improving girls’ educational prospects. The gender gap in educ ation has been eliminated at


The cost of good intentions: “solidarity” in Bangladesh

primary level and reduced at secondary level. A very active NGO sector, working largely with women from poorer households, has promoted self-employment opportunities for women in the countryside through the provision of microcredit, as well as greater awareness of their rights. There has been a high voter turnout by women at recent national and local elections – between 75% and 85% – and increasing numbers of women are standing as candidates in local elections. Poverty remains a major problem in Bangladesh and many people still go hungry. No amount of effort by NGOs can solve the problem of unemployment in a country where, despite declining rates of population growth, there are a million new entrants to the labour force each year.

instigation, and roped together by their legs like cattle. Whether these are routine or exceptional incidents in the industry – and my own view is that they are not typical – they are indeed shocking and should be acted upon. The courts in Bangladesh work slowly and imperfectly, but they can and should be made to work in the interests of justice. But in making this point, we should also remember that these women are not “slaves” – however terrible their situation may appear to Anita Roddick. They are a group of workers who are exploited by their employers because of their social vulnerability and their limited choices, but they have exercised considerable strength of will and independent agency in making...
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