The Ready-Made Garments Industry in Bangladesh: A Means to Reducing Gender-Based Social Exclusion of Women?

Article excerpt

Abstract

Women in Bangladesh have traditionally been excluded from taking part in social, political and economic activities by means of institutions such as the purdah (veil). However, the rise of the ready-made garments industry in Bangladesh since the 1970s has provided women with opportunities to work outside the home for wages. This change coincided with changes such as a decline in the rural sector, increased emphasis on girls' education and campaigns to improve women's health and reduce fertility. As a result of these changes, the social exclusion of women has reduced considerably. This paper analyses existing literature on women's employment in the ready-made garments industry in Bangladesh using a social exclusion framework. It finds that the impact of the industry on women's exclusion is mixed. Women have greater economic independence, respect, social standing and "voice" than before. However, harassment and exploitation persists. Given the important changes that this industry is helping to bring into women's lives, stakeholders should focus attention on making the industry a more humane and sustainable option for women.

Keywords: gender-based social exclusion, Bangladesh, garments industry

Introduction

Muslim women in Bangladesh have traditionally been excluded from taking part in social, political and economic activities on the basis of the institution of purdah which mandates women's seclusion from the society at large. However, many changes have happened in the lives of women in Bangladesh with the advent of the ready-made garments industry, that started in the country in the late 1970s (Kabeer & Mahmud, 2004). The industry employs primarily women workers( about 1.8 million), though supervisors are largely male (Kabeer & Mahmud, 2004). The social changes include greater acceptance of women's employment, increased participation of women in decision-making in the house and in decisions around childbearing and a reduction in fertility, among others. These changes have coincided with other changes such as a decline in the rural sector and high levels of rural poverty (both of which have pushed women to seek employment in urban areas) and an increased emphasis on girls' education and on women's health as a result of advocacy by NGO (non-government organization) and government programmes.

Since the exclusion faced by women in Bangladeshi society is multi-dimensional, the use of a social exclusion framework that investigates the social, political and economic dimension of women's exclusion, is appropriate. The analysis in this paper is based on the existing peer-reviewed as well as "grey" literature in this field.

The paper asserts that the overall impact of the ready-made garments industry on women's lives is mixed. On the positive side, the industry offers women workers advantages not offered by the other limited and rather arduous avenues of employment available to women such as stone crushing, agricultural labour and paid domestic work(Kabeer, 2004). On the negative side, there is gender inequality and sexual exploitation (Siddiqi, 2003) in this industry. It is therefore important to develop a contextualized understanding of Bangladeshi society, economy and the role and position of women in Bangladeshi society in order to fully appreciate the benefits the ready-made garments industry offers to women, despite its exploitative conditions. The analysis also suggests that policies should be directed towards addressing the specific problems women workers face, in order to make the ready-made garments industry a more humane and sustainable option for women, and a vehicle for change.

Structure of the paper

The section below provides a brief overview of the social exclusion framework, followed by a description of women's social exclusion in Bangladesh. This is followed by a brief description of the important features of the ready-made garments industry in Bangladesh and the key literature on this industry. …