Bangladesh has ranked 65th (out of 156 countries) in the latest Global Gender Gap Index 2021 published by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Despite slipping 15 places from last year, Bangladesh has retained its position as the best performing South Asian country for seven consecutive years now.
This ranking signifies, to a great extent, Bangladesh's progress in reducing the gender gap in many aspects. For example, Bangladesh's success in educating girls and improving female health care has become a case study for many underdeveloped and developing countries. So, is Bangladesh truly a shining example of gender equality that other South Asian countries can look up to?
The truth is, despite all this progress, the WEF report also underscores some glaring areas of improvement that can question this narrative. Instead of basking in the glory of this ranking, we must critically analyse the real story behind this success. As we do so, we will realise that there is still a lot to be done in the gender equality sphere.
A closer inspection of Bangladesh's performance in the four sub-indexes of WEF's gender gap analysis reveals that the secret behind Bangladesh's ranking is its overperformance in one sub-index, political empowerment. More specifically, Bangladesh is the only country where women have held the head-of-state position (27 years) longer than men in the past 50 years. This fact alone has helped Bangladesh rank 7th in the political empowerment sub-index.
It is necessary to understand this because globally, political empowerment is the sub-index with the highest persisting gender gap. Whereas globally, only 22% of the gender gap in political empowerment has been closed, Bangladesh has been able to close 55% of the gender gap. For comparison, Nepal, the closest performing South Asian country (ranked 61st in political empowerment), has only reduced 24% of the gender gap in political empowerment.
While our success in empowering our women in politics is laudable, we lag considerably in the other three sub-indexes: economic participation & opportunity, educational attainment, and health & survival. In these three dimensions, Bangladesh ranked 147th, 121st, and 134th, respectively. To put this into perspective, in 2006 (the year WEF introduced the index), Bangladesh ranked 107th, 95th, and 113th in these three sub-indexes. So, what exactly has gone wrong?
Bangladesh is one of the worst-performing countries in providing women equal economic opportunities. The primary reasons behind Bangladesh's poor performance in this dimension are the lack of women in leadership roles, lack of women in professional and technical jobs, and low labour force participation rate.
Three out of 5 working-age women in Bangladesh do not participate in the labour force. The unemployment rate for women (6.8%) is double than that of men (3.5%). Furthermore, 97% of the employed women in Bangladesh are employed in the informal sector, signifying underemployment issues.
Women are virtually non-existent in leadership roles. For example, among the South Asian countries, only Pakistan (150) and Afghanistan (152) have a lower proportion of women as legislators, senior officials, and managers than Bangladesh (145). The situation is even worse for women in technical and professional jobs, as Afghanistan (150) is the only South Asian country ranked below Bangladesh (142).
In education, Bangladesh has done a commendable job in enrolling girls in primary and secondary schools. We have more girls in primary and secondary schools than we have boys. However, the high female enrolment in primary and secondary education does not translate into high enrolment in tertiary education. 17% of women in Bangladesh enrol in tertiary education. Only Afghanistan (150) among the South Asian peers is ranked lower than Bangladesh (128) in this aspect.
In health and survival, Bangladesh has made progress as it has almost halved the maternal mortality rate since 2005. But more needs to be done to ensure safety, as 53.3% of Bangladeshi women are victims of gender-based violence. Another critical area to focus on would be to end child marriage, as Bangladesh has the highest prevalence of child marriage in South Asia. Ranked 134th in health and survival, Bangladesh is behind Sri Lanka (30), Nepal (113), and Bhutan (134), among South Asian countries.
So, other than political empowerment, Bangladesh is yet to claim superiority in many facets of gender equality. A closer inspection of the political empowerment sub-index reveals gaps in women's political empowerment as well. Despite having women as the head of state for decades now, women are under-represented in parliament and ministerial positions. Only 21% of the parliament members are women in Bangladesh. Also, less than 8% of the ministerial positions are being held by women. Only Sri Lanka (3.7%) and Afghanistan (6.5%) have a lower proportion of women in ministerial positions in South Asia.
2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence. In these 50 years, women in Bangladesh have surely come a long way in every sphere of society. Studies have shown that a 10% increase in the women workforce will increase Bangladesh's GDP by 1%. Hence, it is imperative to address the gender gap in economic participation to ensure inclusive economic growth and become a developed country by 2041.
Additionally, Bangladesh must replicate the success in female primary and secondary education enrolment in tertiary education, and ensure more women have opportunities to build their capacities in technical and STEM fields.
As women become empowered, the existing social structure can make it difficult for women to lead a healthy and safe life. Hence, in addition to advancing women's economic empowerment, Bangladesh must also look to foster an enabling environment that supports women to flourish in society.
Comparisons with neighbours and other countries can help us appreciate the progress we have made so far. However, we must look beyond rankings and understand our gaps to build a truly equal country.
Mohammad Sakib Khaled is a development professional and currently works for Swisscontact in Bangladesh.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.