In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women and Girls’ Rights Index 2017, Bangladesh is ranked 46th out of 198 countries (where ranks closer to one denote greatest risk). This means that businesses and investors are at ‘high risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise limit or infringe upon the rights of women and girls.
Bangladesh performs reasonably well in the index’s structure indicator, which assess the country’s domestic legal and policy framework and its commitment to relevant international instruments. However, it is ranked among worst countries in the world for outcomes, reflecting a serious gap between the country’s performance on paper and the true situation facing women and girls on the ground.
Bangladesh still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite 18 being the minimum legal age for marriage. The average age of marriage for women and girls is 18.6, but government data indicates that 52% marry below the age of 18, and 18% below the age of 15. Girls who marry at a young age face serious health consequences, particularly as early marriage often results in early pregnancy. As a result, Bangladesh has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region. Although the government has pledged to end child marriage, in February 2017, it passed a law to allow child marriage in ‘special circumstances’. The bill represents a backward step on women’s and girl’s rights.
Violence continues poses a serious threat to women and girls. A UNFPA/Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics study, found that more than 10 million Bangladeshi women experience physical or sexual violence every year. Domestic violence is pervasive, and is fuelled by a broad societal perception that it is acceptable. Indeed, one UN study found that 32.5% of the female population believe that it is justified for husbands to beat their wives.
Women are increasingly involved in the labour force, but they face serious obstacles to employment in many sectors, and, although improving, the gender pay gap remains large. Even in the sectors where women are employed, they are seriously underrepresented in senior positions.
The World Bank estimates that approximately 80% of garment workers are women, and most jobs are in export-orientated factories that operate on a high-volume, low-cost model. This model is based on tight profit margins and, when combined with an inadequate inspection regime, can increase the vulnerability of young women to labour rights abuses and safety violations. Women and girls in the workplace are also highly exposed to sexual harassment and gender violence.
Women and girls are also exposed to serious occupational health and safety hazardous. A series of industrial disasters has prompted programmes to improve safety standards in the garment sector. However, the government lacks the resources to carry out necessary inspections, and has at times been resistant to industry-led efforts.
Bangladesh is currently on the frontline of the Rohingya refugee crisis, having taken in more than 600,000 people fleeing the crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar. International human rights organisations have documented widespread and systematic attacks on Rohingya women and girls fleeing Myanmar, many of whom suffer from serious physical and mental health problems as a result. Female refugees, in particular, remain highly vulnerable to violence, abuse due to the lack of resources, privacy, and adequate health and social care services available in temporary camps in Bangladesh.