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Smarter Mothers, Valued Daughters

The transformation of Bangladeshi society that came to be noticeable in the new millennium can be judged against the change in the discourse: from worries about the quantity of the population and its rapid growth, development and donor discourse shifted attention to matters of quality—health and education indicators, signs that people were getting better off. Kabeer wrote of the 'quantity-quality' shift regarding children that accompanies demographic transition, showing how people's view of family relations and the value of children changes with the transition from high fertility-high mortality to fewer, more planned, highly valued children (Kabeer 2000). In Bangladesh this shift characterizes not only how families and relations changed, but also how the state started to view the population: as not just a burden to be controlled, but a potential resource meriting investment and support.

Bangladeshis are now far better able to care for themselves, investing in their smaller, healthier families, educating them in the hope of a good job and brighter future (see Table 7.1). Reproductive strategies that emphasize quality over quantity fit the way Bangladeshi society is changing. The population is sharply more urban than was the case at independence, from just over 8 per cent in the mid-1970s to almost one-quarter (24 per cent) of the population now in urban areas and almost half (46 per cent) in Dhaka (BBS 2015; 2011).

Table 7.1. Changing life chances



Life expectancy at birth, total (years)

47 (1971)

71 (2013)

Contraceptive prevalence (% of women ages 15-49)

8 (1976)

62 (2013)

Births attended by skilled health staff (% of total)

10 (1994)

34 (2013)

Immunization, measles (% of children ages 12-23 months)

1 (1982)

89 (2014)

Improved water source (% of population with access)

68 (1990)

87 (2015)

Improved sanitation facilities (% of population with access)

34 (1990)

61 (2015)

Source: World Development Indicators, accessed 2 January 2016.

More than seventeen million women were economically active in 2010—an official labour force participation rate of 36 per cent—although more gender- sensitive measures yield a female participation rate almost double that, at 67 per cent (Mahmud and Tasneem 2011). Paycheck or no, domestic work still needs to be done, and Bangladeshi girls and women aged 15 and over clock up an average 4.8 hours of unpaid domestic labour per day, more if they do not work outside the home and considerably more than men (Huq 2015). This unpaid reproductive and productive labour by women and girls is of a large magnitude, comprising almost one-third of national income by some meas- ures.[1] Women may have to combine more paid with unpaid work, but the drudgery of domestic labour may be somewhat reduced by the availability of water, sanitation, and health services that help prevent the illnesses of childhood and maternity (Table 7.1). In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, public services make a vast difference to the life chances of women.

The social transformation is far from complete, however. Half of all Bangladeshi women are said to be married before the legal age, in a widespread resistance to the law that shows what happens when the logic of the state runs up against the logic of society. Girls marry (or are married off) young, probably because of the dowry premium on female youth, the risk to sexual purity/reputation from modern life (and the continued importance of women's sexual purity), and the domestic labour of young wives. These factors combine in pressure on both givers and takers of brides to complete the transaction early in their lives.[2] Although the risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, as newborns, or as infants is far less now (and among the lowest in the region), the chronic problem of 'hidden hunger' in infancy and pregnancy relates to the early marriage phenomenon. Many young couples have children soon after marriage, so that many Bangladeshi babies are born to undernourished adolescents who married early, had limited schooling, and lack the means or knowhow to nourish themselves or their infants beyond basic calorie sufficiency (Hussain, Talukder, and Ahmed 2015). The new nutrition agenda seeks healthier, more mature mothers to give birth to bigger, stronger babies and then feed them the desired diversity of diet in sanitary surroundings. But the underlying fact of young women's disadvantage and lack of power remains, even among the wealthiest, so that, unlike the old problem of hunger, the problem of malnutrition is stubbornly persistent, and cuts across classes.

Women's rising economic participation is changing this, and will continue to do so. This is why other areas of gender relations have become more equitable in the smart new Bangladeshi family. Unlike in India or China, smaller-sized families have not meant stronger son preference or a more masculine sex ratio in Bangladesh. Girls may still need to be married off young, but society's views on the value of children have changed. The 'quantity-quality trade-off' at a time of more schooling for girls and paid work for women has been a growing validation of girls as earners. As one mother in her twenties reflected to Kabeer and colleagues,

No, I don't want any more children. With the little income that my husband earns, if I cannot bring up my one daughter properly, then there is no point in having more children. It's not simply a question of deciding to have more children, it is also a question of bringing them up. (Kabeer et al. 2013, 16-17)

It is also a question of marrying them off. But in the smaller-sized family, daughters are valued as parental carers. Sons may leave home or daughters-in- law may not care, but the public norm has become a more visible recognition that daughters do much of the caring for older parents. This is in part the legacy of decades of public information campaigning around the desirability of smaller families, often featuring positive images of daughters (see Sultana 2015). The Bangladeshi family has become a smarter social unit—more prosperous, better oriented to the needs of the world and of its own reproduction. The changing perception of mothers and of daughters reflects and partly drives this change.

  • [1] A recent time-use pilot study by the BBS signalled an interest in addressing the burden of care,but it is not yet clear if this will become part of regular statistical collection (BBS 2013b; Huq 2015).
  • [2] Although recent evidence suggests the extent of early marriage might be an artefact of lyingabout age for dowry market purposes, and that most women may in fact be married at the legal age(Streatfield etal. 2015). If so, we have the peculiar situation in which the society pretends to bebreaking the law en masse when it is in fact not, in order to get a better rate on dowry.
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