Underreporting of Women’s Economic Activities in Bangladesh: An Examination of Official Statistics

In Bangladesh, women perform multifarious economic activities, ranging from homestead-based expenditure-saving to outside paid work. However, women’s economic activities that are non‐market and home-based have always been underreported. Underreporting is particularly glaring in official statistics. The work that women do is often discounted by women themselves. This lack of recognition not only leads to the undervaluation of women’s economic contribution but also perpetuates the lower status of women in society relative to men. The researchers of the study conducted a survey in 2008 of women aged 15 and above in 69 villages across eight districts in Bangladesh and found that the actual female labour force participation rate (LFPR), as defined by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), was more than twice as high as the official statistics in 2005-06. The authors argued that widely-held beliefs regarding women’s work contributed to the underreporting of women’s economic activity in official statistics. In addition, data collection constraints in the field such as inadequate time and work burden of investigators also added to the underreporting.

Researchers: Simeen Mahmud; Sakiba Tasneem

Timeline: 2011

Status: Completed 


The underreporting of women’s work in official statistics has been a longstanding problem in Bangladesh. Sample survey data revealed that a large proportion of women who were engaged in economic activities of various kinds were designated in the official labour force statistics as “housewives,” i.e. persons who do not make economic contributions to family and society. So, it was important to understand the reasons why official statistics failed to capture women’s economic contributions. In Bangladesh, “work” is commonly understood as an activity that produces goods and/or services with market value and by extension, an activity of adult men. A serious implication of this perception is that although women engage in a variety of economic enterprises ranging from home-based expenditure-saving to outside paid work, much of it is not socially valued as “work.” There are strict perceptions about the division of labour by sex: men contribute productive labour while women contribute labour related to reproduction and care. As a result, even women’s unpaid work in the family farm or enterprise tends to remain invisible in official statistics, let alone their unpaid care work, i.e. reproductive and household maintenance activities, even though the official definition of work or economic activity used by BBS, adopted from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is fairly inclusive.


The study intended to explore to what extent official statistics failed to capture the entirety of women’s economic activity in Bangladesh and why.

This study is relevant to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), particularly to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.


The study made alternative estimates of the extent of women’s economic activity in rural areas of Bangladesh using the official labour force definition of work or economic activity and calculated a range of labour force participation rates based on an increasingly broader definition of economic activity. A census was conducted with all women aged 15 and above in 69 villages located in eight districts of Bangladesh—Tangail, Comilla, Faridpur, Chapainawabganj, Moulovibazar, Bagerhat, Kurigram, and Narayanganj. The districts were purposively chosen. The women were asked about their participation in economic activities during the past week preceding the interview date and the past 12 months.

Findings and Recommendations

Using the same definition of LFPR used by BBS, the study found that the LFPR rate in rural areas is more than double compared to the official rate provided in BBS labour force survey (LFS 2005-06), 67 per cent vs 30 per cent. Using the same definition of economic activity but increasing the reference period from seven days to 12 months yielded an even higher rate of 73 per cent, indicating that a shorter reference period excluded many women from the labour force. The researchers hypothesised that the discrepancy was mainly due to the difference between the formal definition of economic activity and how it was actually perceived by the staff in the Labour Force Survey Wing of BBS. The official ILO definition of work was reinterpreted by the BBS staff according to the social perception about the types of work performed by a full-time adult male worker. The BBS interviewers were trained to identify economic activity on the basis of this “adapted” concept of work, giving rise to tremendous enumeration errors. For example, market work inside the home was not seen as an economic activity if this was not pursued on a commercial basis or frequently. Thus, much of women’s economic activities—poultry and livestock rearing, homestead gardening, and similar activities that were for their own consumption and/or sold infrequently—were not considered as economic activity. The authors asserted that the second source of discrepancy arose from the method of conducting the interviews. To avoid complications in the tabulation, enumerators were discouraged to record economic activities performed inside the home that were difficult to neatly categorised into conventional categories within the occupation, employment status, and the type of industry. This study found that the enumerators in the BBS LFS were time-constrained while the enumerators in this study were given enough time.

Besides, the BBS LFS interview respondents were, in most cases, the household head, who was asked to provide information on the economic activities of all household members aged 15 and above. This method of collecting information might have caused serious underreporting of female members’ economic activity since a male head might fall prey to the social perceptions and discount or might not be fully aware of the details of women’s economic activity in the household. In this study, the enumerators directly interviewed the women.

The correct enumeration of women as economic contributors in official statistics is a crucial beginning in the process of establishing women’s economic citizenship in Bangladesh.