BANGLADESH: Women are the foot soldiers of social transformation
Thomas Cromwell

Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir represents a country with a very major image problem, including endemic poverty, regular flooding and corruption. But he is eager to point to some of its achievements that are largely overlooked, especially the prominent role of women in development.

As a Muslim-majority country (88 percent of the population is Muslim; 12 percent Hindu and other faiths), it might seem odd that the two major political parties are led by women, that 95 percent of some 18 million micro-finance loans go to women, and that 80 percent of the 18 million people employed in the clothing and related industries are women.

With a population that last year pushed over the 145 million mark, and allowing for several family members for every working woman, it is clear that Bangladesh is an economy that is being lifted primarily by the sweat of its women.

“Women are the foot soldiers of social transformation in Bangladesh,” the ambassador said.

This fact stands in stark contrast to the public perception of Bangladesh as politically divided and hugely corrupt. The women at work are not political, Ambassador Kabir pointed out. They are simply bent on feeding the mouths of dependents. It is largely their hard work, away from politics and corruption, that is changing Bangladesh.

The ambassador explained why in January 2007, with the support of the military, President Iajuddin Ahmed cancelled national elections, dissolved parliament and appointed a caretaker government, a move allowed by the country’s constitution. Squabbling among the parties and accusations of electoral fraud had grown so rampant that they threatened the political stability of the state.

He noted that the caretaker government has been focused on four fundamental reforms that are deemed necessary to strengthen democracy in Bangladesh:

1. Appointment of a new Election Commission with qualified members capable of resisting political interference;
2. Pursuit of an aggressive anti-corruption crusade that has put both major party leaders and former prime ministers (Sheikh Hasina of the Awami Leage (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in jail and prosecuted some 200 officials;
3. Set up a National Human Rights Commission;
4. Promised to pass a Right to Information Act.

“A lot of progress has already been made,” the ambassador noted, “creating a level playing field” for new elections.

The fresh parliamentary elections are to be held by the end of this year. The ambassador said that the major parties, which are supported by smaller coalition partners, had been chastened by the institution of a caretaker government and the crackdown on corruption, and would enter the parliamentary contest with or without their imprisoned leaders.

For a country going through such major political upheaval one would have expected to hear more voices of concern from the international community. But criticism has been muted. In fact, Ambassador Kabir said, his country has received “a lot of support from our friends,” for its efforts to clean up politics and strengthen democracy.

He mentioned the United States, Britain, India, the United Nations and World Bank as some of the leading supporters for the reform effort, “to strengthen democracy and make it sustainable.”

Referring to a recent Human Rights report issued by the US State Department, which has been sited for noting a decline in protection for human rights in Bangladesh last year, the ambassador said from his reading of the report there was more good than bad in it about his country.

He noted that the caretaker government is “non-political” and that it enjoys broad support from the public, despite earlier demonstrations led by angry students.

Ambassador Kabir admitted that “there have been cases of excesses, but these did not reflect official policy.” He said that cases of abuse of power by members of the military and police in dealing with demonstrators were being aggressively prosecuted by the government, and those responsible are being punished. 

Good for Bangladesh, the political upheaval has not resulted in any major economic problems. The ambassador said his country’s economy grew by 6.7 percent last year, despite two major floods and Cyclone Sidr, which devastated the lives of 8 million. The cyclone packed winds of over 150 mph and created a wall of water 20 feet high that swept across the low-lying Bangladesh coastlands.

Flooding in Bangladesh, a country the size of Iowa, is a yearly phenomenon, typically inundating one third of the land.

USAID is still developing a post-Sidr assistance package that will try to find long-term solutions to the depravations of annual floods and periodic cyclones, including the construction of shelters. 

Ambassador Kabir noted that Bangladesh owes the United States some $700 million in food aid, and hopes that this debt can be converted into funding for the new aid package.

Bangladesh has also been doing better economically because it has steadily moved away from its socialist origins. Its official name is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, but, the ambassador noted, “95 percent of the workforce is employed in the private sector.”

And then there are all those hard-working women! The ambassador referred to a World Bank study that concluded that Bangladesh led its South Asian neighbors in women’s empowerment, and a World Economic Forum survey that ranked Bangladesh best among Muslim nations for social and human capital formation.

The ambassador is a keen observer of his country and how it is perceived by the world. He is authoring a book on the Bangladesh brand. He said most people miss the creativity that is vital to his country’s development, and is no better demonstrated than by Nobel-Prize-winning Muhammed Yunus and his micro-finance Grameen Bank, which is now imitated around the globe.

“Bangladesh is a dynamic and vibrant society,” the ambassador said. “We are a country of economic creativity. We can be a middle income country.”