Rosa Arnold and Lizzie Bajin-Sharp
At the time of writing, Bangladesh approaches its ninth month of bearing the unprecedented burden of COVID-19. First official cases were reported on March 8th 2020, and Bangladesh has now reached over 414,000 confirmed cases, at a peak of 4,019 new confirmed cases per day reported on July 3rd. So far, there have been over 6,000 confirmed deaths total.
Bangladesh, like most countries, adopted lockdown measures. Initial responses imposed by the governmental health ministry included dividing public hospitals into Covid and non-Covid centres; banning large public gatherings; mandatory mask-wearing; localised lockdowns in Coronavirus-concentrated areas; and the indefinite closure of schools. But the governmental response to the outbreak (both gendered and non-gendered) has been questionable.
Implementation of such measures has not been undertaken or distributed evenly across the country, with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) employees highlighting the stark contrast between rural and urban areas. Rural areas are less aware and knowledgeable about the impacts and spreading of the virus, and a lack of information campaigns from central or local governments in rural areas has led locals to believe COVID is ‘only for rich people in cities’ or a ‘punishment from Allah’. Dr Shahed Rafi Pavel, Chairman of the Bangladesh Doctors Foundation, explains that the pandemic has exposed unhealthy systems through improper implementation of COVID health services. Furthermore, low numbers of testing have been undertaken at questionable levels of quality, rendering the data presented in the first paragraphs potentially incorrect.
As is the case in many countries, there has been little gendered analysis of the outbreak. What seems to transpire so far is that, whilst men have been more affected by the virus than women, potentially due to biological or socially constructed differences, sex-aggregated data is unhelpful to fully comprehend this difference as it does not give us a complete picture of the imbalance in case numbers. Firstly, Gender-based violence (GBV) and child marriage was a strong concern for the government, who responded by raising awareness through press statements and video messages, and providing hotline services for victims and survivors of GBV and policing for perpetrators of GBV. One key response was the government’s claim that key safety-net programs for poor households will be increased. Another response was the rescue packages given to industries such as the female garment industry, as well as interest-free loans. However, in general, these responses were relatively weak. There was an absence of women in pandemic planning, with a lack of female health care workers helping the medical response despite females totalling 70% of the healthcare workforce. This has led to little governmental response on gender issues such as GBV, child marriage, and female workers.
Economic impact on female garment industry workers
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimates that the pandemic had an immediate impact on over 1100 factories and led to over $3 billion worth of cancelled orders. Garment workers are some of the most crucial workers in the country but also some of the most vulnerable. Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing exporter and the garment industry has long been a lifeline for the country’s economy.
By now, we’ve probably all seen the #PayUp campaigns across social media. Brands have cancelled orders, leaving millions of garment workers around the world unpaid yet these are the same brands we see on the high street selling t-shirts with messages like: “This is what a feminist looks like”. In order to truly appreciate the vast scale of injustice international retailers continue to perpetuate, we must ensure we see the individuals behind our labels.
Garment workers are suffering physical and mental stress due to the pressure of working in factories amidst the pandemic. Despite this, many brands are unwilling to guarantee a living wage for the people making their clothes.
The Bangladeshi government has set out guidelines for factories regarding health and safety however reports indicate many have failed to comply. When some 80% of the garment workforce is female, this increasingly more vulnerable societal group bears the brunt of upheaval wreaked by the pandemic. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the garment industry is home to an incredibly gendered workforce. Men occupy the higher-paid, high-ranking positions whilst the majority of women are confined to the sewing machines, ensuring that female workers’ concerns remain unheard by the top level of decision-making. BGMEA estimates that at least 76,000 garment workers have lost their job in the pandemic, and when put into the context of a heavily gendered society like Bangladesh, the pressure exerted on females becomes all the greater.
There is, however, crucial work being done on the ground. The garment workforce heavily relies on a strong partnership between civil society and government to push for reforms in factories. From paid maternity leave to basic fire safety precautions, trade unions in recent years have presented a viable route to change. The National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) is the oldest and largest trade union in Bangladesh, boasting over 90,000 members with at least 50,000 of these females. NGWF has achieved landmark reforms such as maternity leave for women garment workers through demonstrations and lobbying. Though the pandemic has continued to present obstacles to the likes of trade unions (repression at the hands of the government already being one), NGWF is one that has risen to the challenge, providing emergency aid and food supplies to workers. In this sense, COVID19 has shone a light on the determined forces like trade unions who, even in pre-pandemic days, fought for the dignity of garment workers simply because it is the right thing to do.
Child Marriage and COVID 19 Impact
In some ways, Bangladesh has been quietly suffering another kind of pandemic; this time it’s exclusively women and girls that pay the price. The country has the highest levels of child marriage in South Asia and also ranks among the 10 countries globally in this category. To put this into context, figures from UNICEF indicate that 51% of women aged 20-24 were married while they were still children, some 13 million before their 15th birthday. The COVID-19 pandemic has now threatened to ‘roll back’ the progress made on ending child marriage in Bangladesh. Factors such as school closures, loss of income and familial pressures all play a role in increasing the risk of daughters being married off before they’ve had a chance to finish their education. A UNICEF report goes on to state that even during non-pandemic times, girls out of school are four times more likely to be married than those in education. As Dr Abul Hossain, Deputy Secretary, Project Director, Multi-Sectoral Programme to End Violence Against Women, states: “Education is our greatest tool to transform society and bring equal opportunities for girls”.
In some respects though, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Civil society and government are committed to ending child marriage in the country, even if the current pandemic is slowing progress. The Child Helpline 1098 (supported by UNICEF) is dedicated to helping young girls escape the grips of desperate parents attempting to improve their financial situation by marrying off their daughters. The helpline reported an increased number of pleas from girls and community members as opposed to pre-pandemic days which isn’t entirely surprising given the significant financial pressure placed on families as unemployment becomes increasingly more widespread due to COVID19. Helplines such as 1098 are just one example of the collective efforts made by the government, civil society, and NGOs to both raise awareness and ultimately eradicate child marriage in Bangladesh. As Chowdhury aptly concludes: “The high rate of child marriage continues to cast a negative spell on the educational and physical wellbeing of girl children…inhibiting their potential for future growth”. Ending child marriage, therefore, is fundamental to ensuring women and girls across Bangladesh are given the opportunity to flourish, access education, and above all else, take charge of their own destiny.
Gender-Based Violence Increase
In many cases, child marriage provides space for domestic violence. The ongoing pandemic has tragically affected the cases of gender-based violence in the home. As Saeda Bilkis Bani a reporter who visited rural areas of Bangladesh affected by the pandemic, notes: “lockdowns have left men out of work and at home ‘making demands of one kind or another”. Increasing financial stress only serves to exacerbate domestic strain, which can lead to violence. To put this into context, one human rights group in Bangladesh estimates there were at least 235 women reportedly murdered by their husband or his family in just the first nine months of 2020.
There have been important advances made in the area of domestic violence prosecution however, HRW notes the pandemic highlights that these advances simply don’t go far enough. The rise in violence against women and girls is described as a “bellwether to the Bangladesh government that urgent structural reform is needed”; be it reforms to the prosecution system, attempting to stamp out corruption, or simply investing in safe shelters for the 80 million women living in Bangladesh. What seems overwhelmingly clear from this research, is that women are continually met with social, cultural and logistical barriers when facing appalling violence in their own home. What is also clear though, is that COVID-19 has been successful in shedding light on the real and devastating yet silent pandemics that have been occurring in Bangladesh for years. The government should capitalise on this moment to “implement real reform that could save lives and promote the equal society it envisions”.
Human Trafficking Fears
The COVID-19 pandemic has also reignited fears that more will fall victim to human trafficking. Individuals who have lost jobs and livelihoods as a result of Coronavirus are much more likely to be vulnerable to preying traffickers. Trafficking victims who, upon returning home once secured jobs, are now left unemployed, feeling he/she is a burden to the family and unable to seek support due to the limited freedom of citizens during the lockdown. There is, however, good fortune available for some trafficking survivors. One factory, Denim Expert Limited, makes a point of hiring trafficking survivors, offering rehabilitation to victims which “gives mental peace” as the owner puts it. Initiatives such as these though, are few and far between. With over 70,000 garment workers having lost their job as a result of the virus, it appears like a mere drop in the ocean.
Poverty and standard of living for women
As a result of the pandemic, income for millions has plunged. It is estimated that the ‘new poor’ – those whose income has fallen below the poverty line – now totals one in five Bangladeshis. This is due to mass job losses both in the formal and informal sector, including female dominant occupations such as the aforementioned garment workers, daily labourers, cleaners, and workers in the SMEs. Eighty-three percent of women in the formal sector and forty-nine percent in the informal sector are likely to see job losses or working hours reduced during the pandemic due to lower foreign and domestic demand for goods and services. Furthermore, sex workers have been heavily impacted; around 150,000 women have fallen victim to the lockdown, with no alternative income sources. Thousands of indigenous women with occupations in the informal sector also face unemployment. It is important to note that the government’s response to help the poorest through cash or goods-based aid does not include most slum dwellers or citizens facing lower salaries; these citizens are classified as ‘low income’ meaning many face no help at all from the government.
Subsequently, food security is now an increasing concern. Food expenditure in Bangladesh has decreased by 22% in rural households and 28% in urban slum households. One case study identified how many adolescents do not receive even one substantial meal per day. This is likely to have detrimental effects on health, wellbeing, education and growth. Bangladesh already has one of the highest rates of child stunting in the world and a lack of food security due to the pandemic is likely to exacerbate this further. This will particularly affect women and girls due to social and gender norms as they are often left to eat last and less.
Water security is another emerging area of concern. Ninety percent of households rely on women and girls to collect water. However, whilst conducting this chore, it is impossible to comply with or maintain social distancing, increasing their exposure to the virus and to violence. In rural and coastal areas, the risk is even higher. The quantity of water collected will also increase due to adolescent and male family members out of education or work.
In order to inhibit the transmission of the virus, schools in Bangladesh have been closed since March, and are likely to stay that way until next September. The closure of schools has seen 19.5 million students (50.7% female) out of education. Whilst some telecasting classes have been made available by the government, this is out of reach for thousands of students due to technological inequalities and gendered inequalities; female-dominant engagement in household chores prevents domestic learning. Domestic experiences may also be detrimental for female adolescents, including exposure to sexual exploitation, abuse, and child labour, further preventing learning from home. The effects of the loss of school-time can be long-lasting and reduce future social mobility for current students.
The closure of schools has effects beyond the inhibition of learning. A lack of income in households may mean that girls, in particular, are forced to drop out and take on more household responsibilities, either domestically or through obtaining a job. As mentioned previously, child marriages have also increased in order for families to receive a profit, and female adolescents are more at risk of GBV when they are not attending school. Even before the pandemic, girls that were marginalized or lived in poor communities were most at risk of dropping out of education and increased responsibilities elsewhere. With the pandemic virtually forcing drop-outs, their mental wellbeing and the pursuit of their aspirations is severely impacted.
The economic implications are also detrimental in the short term. Students working as private tutors will have lost any income, with many private schools shut down. This will also create job losses for teachers. Moreover, the closure of schools combined with the lockdown has led to an unprecedented rise in depression and anxiety, crime, and addiction in urban areas. Sixty-two percent of women have reportedly been mentally and emotionally affected by the virus.
However, one of the biggest detriments on the closure of educational institutions is the impact on homemakers and women unpaid care and work. Due to gender and social norms, the number of hours a week spent on household activities averages at 24 hours for women compared to 7 hours for men. The lockdown has increased this burden extensively. This includes increased care of children, cleaning and cooking. Whilst men have reportedly helped out women in the household more, almost two-thirds of men reported an increase in help from women as well. Increased household burden combined with a lack of income could poorly affect citizens.
Family planning, health, and sexual and reproductive health rights
Firstly, whilst women are less likely to die from COVID-19 than men, female workers make up 70% of the healthcare workforce, meaning female health workers are disproportionately exposed to the virus, especially due to low supplies of PPE. Women also have comparatively less power in COVID-19 medical responses than men. This has led to a largely incoherent response in relation to female issues, where many reproductive and sexual health resources have been diverted elsewhere.
In Dhaka, studies have found that prevention measures such as masks and soap are available and affordable to most, meaning compliance with COVID-19 guidelines is plausible. However, those facing income insecurity may have to ‘de-prioritize’ hygiene materials, with one report showing that 42% do not have access to prevention measures. This is especially the case in many urban slums and in Rajshahi, Sylhet, Khulna, and Chittagong.
The Bangladeshi health system exacerbates gender inequalities. Sixty-one percent of women reportedly cannot access medical care when needed, with only 1% having health insurance. This includes poor sexual health and family planning services. Combined with the fact that women have a lack of autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives, this results in high female health risks. These issues have only been exacerbated by the virus. One study reports that in 114 low and middle-income countries including Bangladesh, 43% of healthcare workers have a higher risk in maternal deaths during lockdown and an estimated 50% reduction in access to ‘skilled birth attendants’ and ‘delivery in facilities’ in 2020. In addition, 47 million women in such countries are unable to use modern contraceptives. In Bangladesh, this is the result of an inadequate healthcare system occupied with COVID-19 patients which cannot provide other services at the same time. Many health facilities have also closed during lockdown, and women are told not to visit health facilities for fear of spreading the virus. In rural areas, it is already difficult to access health care facilities and this has only been exacerbated as many health and sexual health workers have been restricted from providing information and supplies door-to-door. Moreover, supply-chain disruptions due to the lockdown have also caused many sexual reproductive supplies to be delayed.
Long-term, the closure of schools could have a crucial effect on the sexual reproductive health information given to females. Many girls may not be taught subjects of menstruation, contraception, and sexual health, which could exacerbate problems of childbirth rates, child marriages, and STD prevalence.
Bangladesh has not yet escaped the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic and is instead having to face the staggering gender inequalities that the crisis has revealed. These inequalities have only been intensified by the lockdown, leaving women and girls more vulnerable than ever. A number of policies are crucial in order to reduce any issues mentioned. The Bangladeshi government should consider, as well as other policies, structural and institutional reforms, a better healthcare and benefits system for those living on low income, and better support for garment industry workers and victims and survivors of GBV, Human trafficking, and Child marriage. We acknowledge this will be no small feat. The work carried out by members of Bangladeshi society, the government and NGOs, however, is crucial to breaking down and ultimately eradicating the social, cultural and historical barriers women continue to confront every day.