Violence in Agriculture as a key development challenge in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s agricultural sector, and rural economy more broadly, has been a key driver of the country’s poverty reduction.

Nearly two-thirds of all workers are either directly employed by or rely on agriculture for their income.

Across the developing world, and especially in Bangladesh where more than 50% of the agricultural labor force is female, women play a crucial role in agriculture in farming.

So, while investment in Bangladesh’s agricultural sector is critical for development, so too are investments in female farmers.

In Bangladesh, more than half of women have experienced some form of violence in their lives.

Survey data from the Bangladesh Integrated Household Surveys suggests that about five percent of women experience physical violence in a given year; and about one-third of women have experienced verbal or psychological abuse.

Nationally, about 25% of Bengali women experience some form of violence regularly.

For years, development programs have sought to reduce the gender gap in labor market opportunities. After all, past results have shown how new job opportunities can increase women’s incomes (for example, see Chakravarty et al. 2016Honorati 2015 and Buehren 2017).

The benefits also convey to better health, education and nutritional outcomes, and to improved socioeconomic outcomes. However, recent data is offering some new insights into some of the less expected effects of women’s employment. 

In the case of Bangladesh, prevailing social norms suggest that women are mobility constrained because of the social norm of “purdah”, (“female seclusion”).

Purdah influences how, and to what extent, women will venture outside the home. Violating purdah norms can disrupt intra-household bargaining power and threaten household social balances.

In this sense, wage labor and time spent outside the home may lead to spousal backlash in the form of violence. 

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Thanks in large part to the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), we now have exceptionally rich data about women’s empowerment in the sector.

In Bangladesh, Feed the Future (FTF) and its partners integrated the WEAI into the Bangladesh Integrated Household Surveys (BIHS).

The questions allow us to track, with rich detail, the effects associated with questions within the surveys, so we can carefully track gender-based changes in empowerment, economic outcomes and agricultural productivity.

There were three rounds of surveys conducted from 2011-2019 by the International Food Policy Institute   as part of the BIHS.

The data collected sheds new light on the intersections of women’s empowerment, food security and the growth of the agricultural sector.

The project-level WEAI survey helps us understand the protective and risk factors of violence.

Poverty remains the greatest risk factor for violence and violence continues to be more prevalent in lower income households.

And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, women’s employment may be associated with an increase of violence.

Of course, income is not the only driver of violence. The BIHS data also offers real insight into the importance of women’s decision-making power as a protective factor.

Women who have control over more productive assets within the household, for example, face a lower probability of violence.

In this sense, empowerment activities that increase women’s bargaining power, including control over assets, input on decision making and control over savings, have a protective effect against violence.

In contrast, empowerment activities that challenge purdah, such as employment, time spent outside the home and public group participation, may result in a backlash effect that increases violence.

Moreover, we see that in the latter cases, emotional and verbal abuse is more probable than physical abuse.

Abuse may be used to publicly regain bargaining power and denounce violations of purdah.

These findings suggest that interventions must similarly target women’s empowerment opportunities that positively engage both men and women, equalize household decision-making power and improve social norms toward women’s work.

While there is growing policy interest in providing jobs to women to promote gender equality and development more broadly, policy makers should also seek to recognize the implications of new employment on household dynamics and on intra-household violence.

Interventions focused on female employment, for example, should recognize the need to couple employment and income opportunities with other measures to equalize household decision-making power and to improve social norms toward women’s work.

At USAID, our teams are working to create interventions and policies that have a holistic approach to empowerment.

Feed the Future initiatives seek to improve capacity building, economic development and improved women’s inclusion both within the agricultural sector and in their private lives.

With robust gender data collection like the WEAI, we are able to identify the scope and sources of disempowerment, ultimately improving our development approaches.

Featuring Photo: Rice Processing, Bangladesh. Credit: Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman.

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