Making Room at the Table: Addressing the Limitations of Women’s Economic Participation

The lively and vibrant Gender and Social Transformation (GST) cluster at BIGD today owes much of its success to the iron-willed woman Simeen Mahmud. A pioneering researcher in her own right, she was the co-founder and coordinator of the cluster. Her death has left a hole in the hearts of many of our colleagues who spent years working together with her. To commemorate the memory of Simeen Mahmud, the GST cluster of BIGD began the year 2020 by organising an international conference titled “Knowledge, Power and Social Change.”

It was a multi-session conference. The second session titled “Gender and Labour Markets: Negotiating Structures of Constraint” explored the role of women within the labour market of Bangladesh. With the support of scholars such as Dr Martha Chen, Dr Nazneen Ahmed, Prof Sayema Haque Bidisha, and Prof Naila Kabeer who collaborated with Simeen Mahmud, it unpacked the reasons as to why women’s participation in Bangladesh’s labour market is still considerably low.

The first presentation of this session was titled “Women and Men in Informal Employment: Bangladesh in Comparative Perspective” in which Dr Martha Chen addressed the limitations to women’s empowerment. These included inaccessibility to factors of production, troublesome relationships, and dominating power dynamics. She argued that these factors restrict the progress of women’s work, empowerment, and agency.

The second presentation was on “Why do Ready-made Garments Workers Leave Their Job Early: Aspirations of Current Workers and Experience of Former Workers.” In this presentation, Dr Nazneen Ahmed explored the reasons why women leave the ready-made garments (RMG) industry. The reasons she identified included forced retirement, violence/harassment, workplace injuries, work-related stress, and family-related problems. Alarming was the prevalence of the negative connotation associated with women working in a garment factory.

Adding to the narrative, in her presentation titled “Structural Transformation and Female Empowerment in Bangladesh,” Prof Sayema Haque Bidisha encouraged women to enter industries that are less agricultural in nature. However, she acknowledged that the pace of such transformation is slow and questionable. Lack of education and training, marriage, and children restrict women from entering the labour market. She also added that gender discrimination is so ingrained into the nation that it requires mass-energy to dismantle long-established structures of patriarchy and systemic oppression.

The last presentation was made by Prof Naila Kabeer on “Gender and Labour Market Segmentation in Bangladesh: A Mixed-method Approach.” She discussed why women in Bangladesh are still dominantly in home-based self-employment. According to her, this is due to limited choice, dominance of marriage as a social norm, landlessness, and illiteracy. Women’s subscription to traditional norms, i.e. wearing a burqa or hijab, reflects on their ability to work outside the home. Autonomy and recognition of women participation, she argued, has been under constant scrutiny and require major improvements.

The conference not only honoured the cherished memories of Simeen Mahmud but it, particularly the second session, also provided an insight into her work. During her lifetime, Simeen Mahmud performed extensive fieldwork to observe and record the daily life and work of men and women using various methods. She explored the norms and standards that give shape to the choices and constraints of women and their ability to participate in the labour market. These lines of inquiry, however, had been cut short after she passed away.

The conference was an inspiration for us—we who aspire to produce quality academic knowledge that will improve people’s lives—to continuously develop the areas of work Simeen Mahmud devoted her life to.

Samia Kalim Syed is an intern in the Gender and Social Transformation cluster at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University.