IDS working papers;389

Women’s empowerment revisited : from individual to collective power among the export sector workers of Bangladesh

Published on 1 January 2012

Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equality
since the 1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains,
yet by most objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within
Bangladeshi society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass
poverty and interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and underdevelopment,
overlain with persistent ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy. Mass employment of
women and girls in the country’s flagship export sector – the readymade garments (RMG)
sector – has been one of the more visible and prominent changes in women’s lives since its
late 1970s’ introduction.
Whether and the extent to which RMG or garments employment has changed the lives of
women workers for the better has been the subject of much debate, and the research and
analysis it has generated offers valuable insights into the processes of economic and social
empowerment for poor women in low income developing countries. Yet as this paper notes,
close observers of social change in Bangladesh have become dissatisfied with the limits of a
focus on individual economic empowerment. Paid work may enable some women to
negotiate the ‘structures of constraint’ that shape their lives and relationships, but what of the
structures of constraint themselves? In the Bangladesh context the experience of mass RMG
employment has given rise to questions about whether women have gained greater
recognition as citizens with rights and roles as carers in the private and political actors within
the public spheres. Revisiting the question of women’s empowerment in this context means
interrogating whether paid employment has contributed to investments in the education and
skills of women and girls, improvements in their public safety and rights to occupy public
space. Given labour militancy in the sector and its partial successes in raising the minimum
wage, what has the experience of labour politics meant for women’s political empowerment?
Drawing mainly on the rich literature available on women’s RMG employment, this paper
explores the wider and less well-documented effects of such employment on public policy
relating to gender equality in these areas. It concludes that the overall direction of change in
the industry points plainly to the need for investments in worker productivity, with a host of
implications for women’s work and gender equality more broadly. Factory owners have to
date shown few signs of recognising their interests in supporting better state health,
education and public safety for women and girls, or changing management practices to retain
and raise productivity of skilled women workers. Yet with downward pressure on wages
increasingly effectively resisted by workers at a time of global economic volatility and rising
living costs, the tide may now be turning for the RMG workers of Bangladesh. Productivity
gains require the state and the industry to treat women workers as full citizens with public
policies that promote their skills and safety and respect, and which guarantee the
representation of their rights and demands. RMG employment continues to be a source of
empowerment for women in Bangladesh, but social and economic change means that that
power now depends less on the individual economic effects of paid work on household
decision-making than it once did. RMG employment is increasingly a source of power for
women because of its more collective effects on women’s citizenship and political agency.
This matters all the more because of how this group is exposed to the volatilities of the global

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published by
Hossain, Naomi


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