Women often reach a point in their lives when they are expected to choose either of two mutually exclusive paths – one that leads them to the path of fulfilling family life, or one that takes them to actualising themselves in their careers.
However, for most working women of Bangladesh, the choice lies between mere survival or perpetuating poverty. Women, regardless of their household income and varying socioeconomic backgrounds, are faced with formidable parallel paths in their lives which hardly ever merge. This parallelity in making an either-or decision for women is a byproduct of a society driven by a narrow capitalist agenda.
The result is that the two paths of a woman's life - her paid work versus her unpaid familial work - hardly ever merge or combine to become one single harmonious one. Various alterations and adjustments have to be made for working women, which are at best a compromise to the desired arrangement. This enforced mutual exclusivity can only be termed as limiting for women and it puts half of our society in a situation of compulsion, forcing them to choose.
Women in the rural economy
Since its birth, Bangladesh has been a largely agriculture-based economy with most of the population living in rural land. Women in rural areas had a significant role to play during the peak seasons of agriculture, alongside caring for the farm animals, tending to the elderly, raising children and laboriously cooking for the family all through the year.
With limited use of modern household amenities, these tasks were no walk in the park, rather they were extremely tiresome, leaving little to no room for leisurely or intellectually stimulating activities for women.
The rural-based economy of Bangladesh did not allow women the time and the conducive environment required for them to pursue further education, or seek better employment opportunities. This led women to live in the shadows, while men went out in the world to not only become the key breadwinners of their families, but also to pursue their life's aspirations.
The dawn of a shift
The mid-1990s saw a remarkable shift in women's work in Bangladesh – of the total women aged 15 plus, around 27% participated in the labour force (ILO estimate). The burgeoning ready-made garment industry was the first sign of an industrial revolution in urban Bangladesh. Women were able to reap the benefits of an increasing national income and sought to gain financial independence for themselves and their dependents, or larger families back home.
In a similar fashion, as women gained access to better schooling and education at the tertiary level, their participation in the highly paid workforce in the telecommunications, banking and consumer goods industries also increased, but proportionately less than the former group of women.
The major driving force behind this phenomenon for women of different socioeconomic backgrounds was probably the push versus pull factors. Women who were less fortunate in terms of schooling and education were mainly driven by push factors like low household income, poverty, or rising costs of living, while women who received better education were mostly pulled towards employment opportunities by the attractive salary packages, perks and career fulfillment aspirations. This is notwithstanding the fact that economic independence lent women from all walks of life a sense of empowerment and helped them realise their value in the larger society outside their homes.
Women's previous roles in the rural as well as the urban household were since then being replaced in alternate ways.
A large part of women's division of labour in society had been, what is referred to by anthropologists and development thinkers, as "reproductive labour" or unpaid work surrounding birthing a child and rearing the child from infancy to adulthood. This strenuous task, which is driven by biology and later by society, has long been considered women's work. But if women of the household were becoming breadwinners outside their homes, who were replacing them?
'The motherhood penalty'
Simeen Mahmud, in her famous paper titled "Is Bangladesh Experiencing a Feminization of the Labor Force?" mentions the significance of women's household unpaid work in the growing Bangladesh economy. She noted that underrecognition of women's household contribution to what can only be termed as an irreplaceable public good. It generates production as well as long-term utility or welfare to the economy.
Mahmud posits in her paper that working women were having to rely on "lower quality" childcare – maybe the grandparents, older siblings, paid domestic workers, relatives or neighbours. In her paper published in 2003 by The Bangladesh Development Studies, she raises the concern that while Bangladesh is experiencing a feminization of its labour force, the gender division at the household level continues to remain unchanged, as men of the household do not share the familial duties traditionally reserved for women.
Ultimately, women's unrecognised traditional roles in the household and the subsequent disruption caused by changing division of labour, prevail as a major impediment in working women's lives. As a consequence, children dependent on the women of the household face the realities of changing economic times and are often left back in rural village homes as their mothers must migrate to urban areas in search of work and a better future for themselves and their children.
Living conditions in urban shantytowns are in many ways worse than in rural areas and lack public offerings that rural villages offer to an extent. Thus, millions of women are compelled to leave their dependents - the effect of this can be profound on the child, who may undergo deep attachment wounds that are carried well into adulthood.
While women in high-paying jobs continue their paid work in notable sectors of the economy, the attrition rate remains significantly high in comparison to their male counterparts, and women continue to be underrepresented in managerial positions. With increasing responsibilities accompanying motherhood, many women leave their paid work or seek alternate career paths.
What is termed the "motherhood penalty," women who remain in the workforce in the long term pay a price that remains unrecognised and unquantified. Leisure time for women is often naturally sacrificed, and women have to bear the brunt of a double burden whereby they have to juggle both their highly demanding careers as well as their household familial work. This burden is borne by women regardless of the commodification of childcare in the form of paid domestic nannies and helpers.
It seems, society has acknowledged women's value in the paid work sphere, but has failed to recognise the need for more suitable and fitting options for when women have to take up the irreplaceable role of mother - a role that benefits not only her child but also the long term welfare of the society at large.
The post-labour reality
According to the 2015 Labour Rules, laws surrounding maternity leave in Bangladesh is a mere eight weeks of prenatal leave and eight weeks of postnatal leave - meaning a garment worker who gives birth has to leave her infant at only two months of age, while the minimum time of exclusive breastfeeding is six months, recommended by the World Health Organisation and the UNICEF.
On top of the few months of paid leave offered to mothers, it has been found through various studies that eight weeks of postnatal leave is sparsely implemented in the garments industry. The burden of seeking paid maternity leave often falls on the garment worker herself, childcare facilities often do not meet the minimum quality, lacking proper caregivers and other basic amenities.
Female workers working under the pressure of meeting everyday deadlines, scarcely feel encouraged by their employers to avail child care and breastfeeding facilities, which do not meet their mothering needs. Workers also risk losing their jobs if absent for too long and many mothers return to work soon after childbirth risking both their own and their newborn's health.
Private sector employers, although more sensitive and understanding of maternity issues of their female employees, still are not able to fully grant women the necessary child care and breastfeeding options.
Work-from-home trends since the Covid-19 pandemic have brought about much-needed flexible work options in this regard. However, the biggest factor affecting women is probably the mindset that prevails in the greater working sphere of Bangladesh, a culture that is negligent to maternity rights – devaluing these human rights to a set of privileges for employees who are easily replaceable.
Ultimately, a working woman loses her voice to speak for her needs and is expected to leave her work if she cannot accept the imposed workplace penalties for becoming a mother.
Public sector employees fall under the Bangladesh Service Rules and may avail six months of maternity leave, while women working in the private sector completely depend on the company's maternity policies.
Women's work in the paid and unpaid sphere continues to remain a nuanced topic and development thinkers have long sought to answer whether are not women and their families are better off with their increasing participation in the economy.
Women with their strong character, leadership, management and technical skills, are indispensable to employers and are fundamental to Bangladesh's economy. But not recognising the additional responsibilities that come with motherhood marginalises women and puts the burden almost entirely upon them to figure out their life's choices.
Despite the fact that various research has established women's reproductive work as a public good for the economy, acknowledging the importance of the reproductive roles of women and the benefits of rearing a healthy child with a consistent primary caregiver, is still not taken into account by employers and policymakers. By not recognising this key factor, women will continue to contribute to the economic growth of Bangladesh but will risk being subjugated in another deeper form – one that takes away their freedom to choose both work and family.
Tashfia Rawnak Anika is an aspiring development worker, writer and social research enthusiast.