Female Unemployment in Bangladesh: Are We on The Right Track?

LightCastle Analytics Wing
October 31, 2020
Female Unemployment in Bangladesh: Are We on The Right Track?

Bangladesh has enjoyed rapid economic growth in the past few years reaching 8.153% GDP growth in 2019.[1] As the economy has grown at a constant rate over the past few years, the unemployment rates have also remained somewhat constant. As of 2019, the national unemployment stands at 4.2%.[2]

Although the unemployment rates look relatively stable, there is a disparity between male and female employment in Bangladesh as a significant higher portion of females are unemployed. This disparity is worsened by the fact that the labour participation rate for women was only 36.3% in 2019 compared to 81.4% for men in the same year.[3]

Women Employment
Figure: Time Series Comparison of Male and Female Unemployment Rates in Bangladesh/ Source: The Global Economy; World Bank[4][5]

Although at first glance, the female participation rates look very low, Bangladesh has been somewhat ahead of the South Asia average. But the female labor participation rates in Vietnam (48.85%) or Myanmar (46.047%) clearly spell out that there is massive room for improvement for Bangladesh.

Women Employment
Figure: Labour Participation Rates across Regions/ Source: World Bank

This article aims to provide an in-depth look into female unemployment in Bangladesh, understand the different factors, and analyse how the situation can be improved.

Understanding Female Employment Sectors in Bangladesh

The female employment in Bangladesh is still primarily focused on the agricultural sector with a gradual increase in the service sector as the general trend. Although the RMG industry has seen a massive influx of female labour in recent times (almost 60% of 4.1 million RMG workers are female), most females are still yet to move away from the agricultural workforce.

Women Employment
Figure: Women vs Total Workforce Comparison in different sectors/ Source: Bangladesh Economic Review/ World Development Indicators

Yet again, a large disparity exists between the national distribution of labor and that for the female populace indicating the general lack of mobility of female labour in the country. 

Barriers of Female Employment

Lack of Access to Resources

Although the agriculture sector employs the lion’s share of women, access to resources and facilities is very limited for them in that sector as well. For example, although 14 million farmers’ cards have been distributed throughout the country, the women have received a negligible amount of them. This is particularly problematic as around 77% of women work all day long in the fields alongside their male counterparts and have an equal impact on their economic output.[6] This is a general indication of the lack of resources for women across different fields.

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According to UNDP findings, almost 90% of the global population are biased against women.[7] This is almost always reflected in the form of prejudice and plays a key part in the female workforce in Bangladesh as well. Firstly, women are often pressured into getting married at young ages that often leaves their education incomplete and forces them to rely on their counterparts for all their needs. Secondly, there are social expectations in Bangladesh that women are better off staying at home taking care of their families while their counterparts bring in the money. This usually puts pressure on the female population to compromise their career choices to meet social expectations and anyone not willing to do so is tagged as an outcast of sorts in a lot of societies. This eventually leads to lack of financial freedom for women and decreases their mobility. Thirdly, women often face discriminiation in the workplace too from their peers and higher ups. This comes in the form of less promotion opportunities, disrespect for female superiors, exclusion from social events etc. 

Moreover, women are often not given rights over family property despite contributing a large chunk in the development of that property because of social prejudice. 

Lack of Facilities

Needs of women such as maternity leave, childcare facilities etc. are not often present at work places and this creates a barrier of entry for women in the workplace. 

Maternity Benefits

Women Employment
 Figure: Comparison of Maternity Benefits Across Select Countries[8][9]

Bangladesh offers a seemingly good maternity leave according to the comparison with some Asian countries.  The problem for Bangladesh in ensuring a rightful maternity leave is the lack of proper execution. The employers in female-intensive labour industries have time and again been accused of creating situations where women are forced to leave their jobs during their pregnancies. The women are made to do heavy work so that they eventually give up and have to quit and the factory can avoid paying maternity benefits. Even in cases where the women work through the inhuman pressure, the owners are often reluctant to pay money to them afterwards.[10] These situations create more barriers for women to function properly in their workplaces.

Daycare facilities

Daycare facilities are important for women as they need to ensure that their child is properly taken care of when they are at work. According to LightCastle’s research in IFC Tackling childcare,  women spend almost 8 times more time than men spend on childcare in Bangladesh. A key barrier to women’s access to more and better jobs is the lack of access to quality, affordable childcare, as highlighted in the WBG Gender Strategy.

Women Employment
Figure: Status of Childcare Provision/ Source: IFC & LightCastle Primary Research, N=360

The primary research reveals that more than 61% of the companies surveyed are yet to even consider creating childcare solutions for their female employees. As a result, many women are forced to leave the workforce to bear the uneven burden of childcare. 

The Way Forward

There are deep-rooted systematic problems that need to be solved for women to be at equal footing with men in the job sector. Some of these could be:

  1. Application of Existing Laws: On paper, the laws in Bangladesh look very good but as evidence suggests there is lack of oversight. According to an investigative report by the Dhaka Tribune, women are often not given maternity leave although the law clearly mandates the factories to do so.[10] So, more oversight has to be created so that the organizations that are unwilling to meet legal requirements face harsh punishments and penalties. 
  2. Making Women Aware of their Rights: There have been multiple cases where women have won against factories fighting legal battles without any union support.[10] In labor-intensive industries, there are many misconceptions about legal battles. It is important that women are made aware of their rights so that factories cannot take advantage of them and get away with it.
  3. Focus on Creating Women-Friendly Workspaces: As stated before, childcare facilities are an important part of making sure women can participate in their work properly. So, organizations have to step up and create these facilities for accommodating women. Moreover, to address things like sexual harassment and abuse, more strict oversight has to be developed so that victims do not have to worry about losing their jobs when reporting such activities.
  4. Tackling Prejudice at the Roots: Creating consciousness about women’s equal status at a rudimentary level is absolutely important to make people realize that women also have rights to pursue their own career interests and are not bound to be dependent on their counterparts.

Bangladesh has come a long way in ensuring employment for women. The entire RMG industry stands on the blood and sweat of the women who work hours after hours making every stitch perfect. However as the data points out, equality is a long way away and cannot be achieved by any one party alone. So an integrated approach to change is the only way this problem can be properly addressed.

Eqra Mohammad Resalat Ohee,  Trainee Consultant and Farah Hamud Khan, Senior Business Consultant & Project Manager, at LightCastle Partners, have prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]


WRITTEN BY: LightCastle Analytics Wing

At LightCastle, we take a systemic and data-driven approach to create opportunities for growth and impact. We are an international management consulting firm which creates systemic and data-driven opportunities for growth and impact in emerging markets. By collaborating with development partners and leveraging the power of the private sector, we strive to boost economies, inspire businesses, and change lives at scale.

For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

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