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Bangladesh: A leader in women’s empowerment

Just four decades ago, Bangladesh was a newly formed, struggling democracy ravaged by floods and famine. Since then, Bangladesh has made impressive socio-economic gains. Its gross domestic product has risen steadily, poverty has declined and child mortality rates have fallen. Between 1990 and 2015, life expectancy for Bangladeshi men and women rose from 59 to 70, nearly four years longer than life expectancy in India or Pakistan.

There are many reasons for this remarkable progress. But a major cause has been Bangladesh’s focused investment in women. Since coming to office nearly seven years ago, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tirelessly promoted the health, education and empowerment of women. The strategy works and continues to benefit her entire nation.

{mosads}Hasina is the only female Muslim leader among the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member countries and, as such, is a role model for women in the sub-continent. A recipient of the Mother Teresa Award, as well as the United Nations’ CERES medal in recognition of her fight against hunger, Hasina has long recognized that the future of her nation depended in large measure on the empowerment of women.

Under Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh has made a bold commitment to securing legal protections for women and creating new ways for them to attain more education, financial freedom and political power.

The center of the prime minister’s national action plan is education. “The right kind of education can make a girl self-reliant economically, socially and emotionally,” she has said. Education can also help women to escape child marriage and domestic violence, she added. To that end, Hasina has championed free education for girls to grade 12, stipends for female students from poor families and a 60 percent quota for female teachers in elementary schools.

The prime minister’s efforts have already paid dividends. As many girls as boys now attend elementary and high schools in Bangladesh. This opportunity has had a profound impact on child marriages. Over the past decade, marriage rates for girls under fifteen have dropped by 35 percent. Bangladesh has pledged to eliminate marriages of children below the age of fifteen by 2021 and to abolish all child marriage by 2040.

Meanwhile, Bangladeshi women have entered the workplace in record numbers. According to the International Labor Organization, Bangladesh has witnessed a substantial increase in female employment in labor-intensive export-oriented industries, including the readymade garment sector. In addition, the rapid expansion of micro-finance in rural areas has boosted women’s employment in agriculture. For example, more than 60 percent of fish farmers are women. This has bolstered the economic stability of their households.

A 2013 labor law enacted strengthened women’s rights and safety in the workplace. Other initiatives including the Women & Children Repression Prevention Act of 2000 and the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2010 gave women more legal protections at home. The result: higher family incomes and less violence against women.

Hasina has also committed to improving women’s access to quality health care. Primary care is now delivered through 15,500 community centers across the country. Ten hospitals specialize in caring for women. Women in Bangladesh enjoy six-month maternity leave. The most vulnerable women receive a monthly food ration and training. As a consequence, maternal and fetal mortality rates have steadily declined.

Women have also made great strides in public life in Bangladesh. Women have ruled as prime minister since 1991. Fifty seats are reserved for women in the National Parliament. Currently, 70 women serve in that body while 14,000 others hold seats on local governing boards. Ten percent of all government jobs are reserved for women. Women are now recruited into military service and participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

The prime minister has proven that empowering women works. The innovative initiatives she has launched testify to the fact that political determination can overcome long-standing custom and that women can become the drivers of economic development and the prosperity. Hasina has ushered in a new era for the daughters of her nation.

Ziauddin in Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S.


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