Bangladesh Blog

"Ladies First" is not a universal rule...but it should be

June 8, 2012 - Forgive me, but I’m going to get on my soapbox for a moment.  The issue I am going to discuss within this blog post is one I hold very close to my heart:  Female inequalities.  Throughout the developing world, women are disproportionately affected by the hardships of poverty.  In general, women tend to suffer from higher rates of malnutrition and illness, have less access to education and employment, and are essentially viewed as being less valuable than their male counterparts.  In addition, women are often prohibited or discouraged from becoming involved in decision-making ranging from the national to the familial level; thus increasing their inability to effect change within their own lives, as well as further perpetuating the oppression they face on a daily basis.  Need an example?  One woman dies every minute in childbirth because she does not have access to—or her husband is unwilling to pay for—adequate medical attention during labor.  In fact, childbirth is the leading cause of death in the developing world, and it is almost completely preventable.

As a result, development agencies have begun to focus on women as their target recipients.  If women are amongst the poorest and most oppressed citizens within the developing world, then this should be viewed as a useful approach, right?  Correct.  However, there are several other factors that come into play when women—instead of men—are targeted in developmental pursuits.  For one, women are much more likely than their male counterparts to use the aid received to improve the livelihoods of their entire families.  This is done by investing in the nutrition, health, and education of the children.  It should also be noted that not all aid needs to be monetary or tangible to have an impact.  Programs that focus on the education and empowerment of women can have equally successful results.  In recent years, in fact, program assessments and research have shown strong support for the effectiveness of many forms of female-oriented aid. 

Surprisingly, not one PEP worker has cited gender-inequalities as being an obstacle to development within their regions, despite the apparent indicators suggesting otherwise.  In fact, Ryan and I have had the opportunity to experience these inequalities first-hand throughout our stay in Bangladesh, and our time in Netrakona has not been an exception.  During our meeting with 11 impoverished women on Wednesday, many aspects of the women’s lives reflected the issues I have discussed above.  Within all 11 households, the men controlled 100% of the family’s income.  Each of the women had been married between the ages of 10 and 14, even though it is “illegal” for a Bangladeshi citizen to be married before the age of 18.  Despite their young ages, each woman had also had their first child within 1 to 2 years of being married.  Cumulatively, the women had 37 children.  Of the 37 childbirths involved (not including possible miscarriages or stillborns), only 1 of the deliveries had taken place with any medical assistance, and none of the pregnancies had been aided with any form of pre-natal care.  To this day, two of the women still suffer from severe abdominal pain resulting from childbirths that had occurred months before.  When asked why they did not seek medical help, many of them responded that their husbands were unwilling or unable to pay for the expenses. 

While I have done my best to explain the situation in Bangladesh in my own words, I believe it is best summarized in the following editorial I read in one of the country’s national newspapers:

It is a matter of great regret that still many girls in our country, both in the rural and urban areas, encounter discrimination and deprivation in the very family they live.  Things are worse especially in rural areas where women’s talents are not valued, nor recognized.  Their merits and creativities dry up in their early life due to poverty, eve-teasing, child marriage, dowry, domestic violence, and so on… [W]omen in our country are capable of doing everything that men can do.  Now what we have to do is to ensure a level playing field for them so that they can prove their competence in every sphere of life.”  (The Daily Star, June 8 2012) 

It is my hope that this post will be viewed as an informative overview of the issues pertaining to gender-inequalities, as opposed to a rant of a raging feminist.  Prior to attending the development courses offered at The College of Idaho, I had personally been unaware of the many implications surrounding female discrimination.  Since that time, however, I have developed a passion for pursuing female empowerment as a career.  My time spent here in Bangladesh has only served to fuel that fire.  

- Kendra Knighten

(To learn more about women in the developing world, I highly recommend the book Half the Sky.  This book was a required reading for my Politics of Developing Countries course taught by Dr. Robert Dayley at The College of Idaho.)