In the last three decades, Bangladesh has elected two prime ministers, both women. Its national and local governments have a growing number of female lawmakers. Its schools and civic programs have been designed to improve women’s roles in society.
The combination has made Bangladesh a model for how developing nations can educate and empower women. Pakistan, Rwanda, and Ghana have tried to replicate its successes. Countries like Afghanistan, where women and girls are oppressed, should do the same.
Bangladesh ranks first among South Asian nations in women’s enrollment in primary and secondary schools, according to the World Economic Forum. The percentage of girls enrolled in primary school increased from 57% in 2008 to 93.7% in 2020. One result: The share of women in the Bangladesh workforce rose to 36.3% in 2017, up from from 15.8% in 1996.
The garment industry, a staple of Bangladesh’s economy, employs more than 2.5 million women. Reliable income from this work has made women more independent and has allowed them to find even better jobs. That, in turn, has helped the economy grow. In fact, Bangladesh has one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Increasing girls' education generates considerable economic and social benefits. Women who have access to education are more likely to lead healthier, more productive, and self-sufficient lives. A country that invests in the education of women and girls can expect to increase national growth rates and lifetime earnings, and to decrease poverty rates.
Bangladesh’s economy is proof that empowering women works. A recent International Labour Organization study shows that Bangladesh has only a 2.2% gender wage gap. For that reason among others, the country soon will graduate from the United Nations’ Least Developed Country status. It is outpacing its larger neighbor, India, in many key economic indicators, including growth rates in gross domestic product and per capita income.
Women still face obstacles in Bangladesh, including in the garment industry and in rural communities. Men are treated better than women in the financial system. Seventy-nine percent of women live on less than $2.50 a day, 64% remain unbanked, and only 5% of women have active mobile-money accounts, compared to 15% of men. There is more work to do.
But other nations can learn from Bangladesh. Afghanistan is a leading example.
A decade or two ago, Afghanistan was making progress. From 2003 to 2017, the number of girls enrolled in primary schools in Afghanistan increased from fewer than 10%, to an estimated 33%. Women and girls' enrollment increased from 6% to 33% in secondary education.
Unfortunately, these advances were rolled back after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban's rise to power last year.
The Taliban said it would not curb women's education and economic inclusion. But that was a lie. The country has reverted to imposing wide-ranging restrictions. Women are barred from attending secondary school and university, must adhere to strict dress codes, and must travel with male family members as chaperones.
Bangladesh's expanding educational opportunities are supported by donors such as the World Bank. In contrast, teachers in Afghanistan often go unpaid, because education was almost entirely financed by foreign donors whose aid has now been cut off. Without foreign aid, the quality of primary education for girls in Afghanistan will likely continue to decline compared to Bangladesh's education, which benefits from foreign investment.
Afghanistan should learn from the progress made in Bangladesh and reinvest in women's education and empowerment. Replicating Bangladesh’s initiatives would significantly boost economic growth, women's health, and social inclusion. Foreign donors should continue to invest in Bangladesh and should try to do the same in Afghanistan.
Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president, director of the project on prosperity and development, and holder of the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own.