What India can learn from Bangladesh about closing its gender gap

Post-1971, Bangladesh embarked on an inclusive development strategy involving various non-government stakeholders, religious bodies and aid donors to promote women-centric development programmes; it is now reaping the rewards

By Dibyendu Chaudhuri , Parijat Ghosh
Published: Wednesday 19 May 2021
Women garment industry workers in Bangladesh. Photo: Fahad Faisal via Wikipedia

India’s eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, has recently garnered worldwide acclaim for its strides in human development. Among the indices that have shown improvement in the country is gender gap. It has reduced quite significantly in the recent past.

This has been reflected in the Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum March 30, 2021. The report focuses on measuring gaps between men and women in accessing resources and opportunities. Bangladesh secured the 65th position in the overall tally of the report.  All other south Asian countries have ranks beyond 100. 

A thorough understanding of the sub-indices and indicators in the gender gap index will be helpful in fully comprehending Bangladesh’s success in reducing its gender gap. This is given in the table below:


Economic participation

Educational attainment

Health and survival

Political empowerment


Labour force participation rate; wage equality for similar work (on a 1–7 scale); estimated earned income; legislators, senior officials and managers; professional and technical workers

Literacy rate; enrollment in primary education; enrollment in secondary education; enrollment in tertiary education.

Sex ratio at birth; healthy life expectancy (years)

Women in Parliament; women in ministerial positions; years with female head of state (in the last 50 years)

A total score of 1 in any sub-index means complete equality between men and women whereas 0 means complete inequality.

In ‘Educational attainment’ and ‘Health and survival’, Bangladesh (0.951 and 0.962 respectively) has done more or less the same as its neighbouring countries. These are sub-indices where most countries have done well.

In ‘Economic participation’, Bangladesh (0.418) has done better than its neighbours India (0.326) and Pakistan (0.316). However, in ‘political empowerment’, Bangladesh (0.546) is way ahead of its neighbours in south Asia such as India (0.276), Pakistan (0.154), Sri Lanka (0.167), Bhutan (0.82) or Nepal (0.241).

India vs Bangladesh

Let us understand what contributed to this difference by comparing its data with India, which is generally perceived to be a more ‘developed’ country as compared to its neighbours in south Asia.

In ‘labour force participation’, Bangladesh has a female-male ratio of 0.46 whereas India has a female-male ratio of 0.28. On a 1-7 scale, the equality of wages between men and women for similar work in India is 3.38, whereas it is 4.09 in Bangladesh.

In ‘estimated earned income per capita’, the female-male ratio is 0.21 for India and 0.40 for Bangladesh. This means that as compared to India, more percentage of women are participating in paid work in Bangladesh. Their wage is closer to the wage of Bangladeshi men for similar work; and the relative contribution of women workers in the Bangladeshi economy is more.

However, India is in a slightly better position in terms of percentage of female workers taking senior positions (‘legislators, senior officials and managers’). The female-male ratio for senior positions is 0.17 in India and 0.12 in Bangladesh. India (0.41) is also better in terms of female-male ratio for ‘professional and technical work’, as compared to Bangladesh (0.32).

In ‘political empowerment’, the female-male ratio for parliamentarians is more in Bangladesh (0.26) than the same in India (0.17). In ‘ministerial positions’, the ratio is 0.08 in Bangladesh and 0.1 in India. Bangladesh had reached equality (1) in terms of head of the state whereas India is at 0.45. 

In health, Bangladesh has got a top rank (#1) in the world for ‘sex ratio at birth’, whereas India is in the 152nd for that same indicator. In education, Bangladesh is much ahead in female-male ratio in ‘literacy rate’, whereas India has done much better in enrolment in ‘tertiary education’.

In this example of comparison with India, Bangladesh may be seen doing better in seven indicators:

  • Sex ratio at birth.
  • Literacy rate.
  • Labour force participation.
  • Wage equality for similar work.
  • Estimated earned income.
  • Women in parliament.
  • Women as head of the state.

On the other hand, India may be seen doing better in four indicators:

  • Senior position jobs.
  • Technical and professional workers.
  • Enrolment in tertiary level education.
  • Women in ministerial positions.

It is interesting to note that some of the seven indicators in which Bangladesh has done better are quite basic in nature. This is in the sense that they will lead to further positive changes in many other aspects. Also, changes in these areas need a much more concerted effort and consensus from different stakeholders.

The positive changes in sex ratio, literacy rate, labour force participation and wage equality have created the potential to lead to more positive changes in the future in many other aspects. Changes in these areas needed consensus of the elite sections, government and non-government actors and religious leaders.  

Why Bangladesh? 

Naomi Hussain, in her essay The SDGs and the Empowerment of Bangladeshi Women, explored how Bangladesh stands out in terms of gender equality. The relatively rapid improvements in the lives of Bangladeshi women have been possible because of a strong elite commitment and increasing state capacity to reach women in the development process.

According to her, after a series of crises post the country’s 1971 liberation war, the elites in Bangladesh reached a consensus to develop better relationships with international donor agencies to take their support in rebuilding the country. The elites accepted the agencies’ conditions and priorities such as women-focused developmental programmes.

From the 1990s, this resulted in a rising number of girls’ enrolment in schools, women receiving health care and other services and women in paid work in export factories or self-employment through micro-credit schemes. 

Hussain also mentions that laws, policies and programmes to protect women and children against violence and to protect the most vulnerable from hunger and poverty were passed and implemented. Women played a growing role in politics through quotas and reservations and they were employed in increasing numbers by the state, including as teachers, health workers, administrators and the police.

M Niaz Asadullah and his co-authors, in their article Paths to development: Is there a Bangladesh Surprise? showed that an inclusive development strategy involving various non-government stakeholders, religious bodies and aid donors has helped Bangladesh in promoting women-centric development programmes.

A strong commitment from the elites, support from donor agencies and involvement of non-government stakeholders in framing the development strategy helped keep women in the forefront of the development process. This is an interesting journey to learn from. 

The authors are members of PRADAN, a civil society organisation

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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