Gender and development People
Asia's women in agriculture,
environment and rural production


Bangladesh | Bhutan | Cambodia | China | India | Lao PDR | Nepal | Pakistan | Sri Lanka | Vietnam

Key Facts

Bangladesh's population is 48.6% female and 51.4% male
Women have a nearly 50% lower adult literacy rate than men
Women constitute 45.6% of the farming population
Women have extensive work loads with dual responsibility for farm and household production
The role of women in rice production is already substantial and expanding further
Women are actively involved in forestry, fisheries and livestock production
Women contribute considerably to household income through farm and homestead production and wage labor
Women have a central role in home gardening and homestead food production
Women's contribution to agriculture, which is counted as unpaid family labour, is grossly underestimated

General profile


  Sex ratio by residence
(men/100 women)

Source: ESCAP, 1995
Bangladesh's population is estimated at some 124.3 million in mid-1997. 42.8% of the population are under 15 years of age. The rural population in Bangladesh accounts for 79.1% and the urban 20.1%. The population growth rate is 1.8% and population density is roughly 842 persons per sq. km. Both of these rates are among the highest in the world. The fertility rate is 3.5% (EIU, 1997). Women constitute 48.6% of total population (BBS, 1995). About 92% of the households are male-headed and the remaining 8% female-headed (ESCAP, 1995). Islam is the predominant religion. 88% of the population are Muslims (EIU, 1997).

The sex ratio in Bangladesh is such that there are 106 men per 100 women. In urban areas there is a predominance of the male population, particularly in large towns. This indicates substantially higher male out-migration from the rural areas seeking employment opportunities in urban areas (ESCAP, 1995). Bangladesh also is a country marked by a high level of international male out-migration. Therefore, in the rural areas there is a predominance of female population and the female-headed households.


  Adult literacy rate
by gender, 1991

Source: ESCAP, 1995
In Bangladesh the adult literacy rate for the population of 15 years and above is only 34.6%, among the lowest in the world. The literacy rate is far lower for women (24.2%) than for men (45.5%). Female illiteracy is higher in rural than in urban areas. In urban areas 52.5% of women are literate compared to 20.2% in rural areas (ESCAP, 1995).


In Bangladesh the share of women in the total economically active population is 39%, indicating a relatively lower economic participation by women. Most often, activities such as care of livestock and poultry, vegetable growing, post-harvest processing and preservation, usually done by women in the farm households, are considered uneconomic. Revised enumeration methods documented that about 65% of the employed population has been engaged in agriculture and related industrial activities. In this sector 71.5% of women were employed compared to 60.3% of men. Women, who primarily work as unpaid family workers, accounted for 45.6% of total employment in agriculture. The second largest employment sector - manufacturing - engaged 21.6% of women. Among all people employed, women accounted for 64%. In this sector, women are concentrated in the food, beverage and tobacco industries (BBS, 1995; ESCAP, 1995).

The Human Development Index (HDI) ranking for Bangladesh in 1997 was 123 out of 146 countries, indicating low life expectancy at birth, low educational attainment and low income. This demonstrates the difficult development challenges confronting Bangladesh in human resource development. The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) rank of Bangladesh in the same year was 128 out of 146 countries. This illustrates that the human development gap is further aggravated by substantial gender disparities. The difference between HDI rank and GDI rank is -5, indicating that the country performs relatively worse on gender equality than on average achievements alone (UNDP, 1997).


Gender division of labour in rice production
Activities Male FemaleBoth
Seed testingx  
Seed germinationx  
Sowing x 
Land preparation x 
Transplanting x 
Weeding x 
Irrigating, spraying x 
Harvesting x 
Preparing threshing floorx  
Threshing  x
Seed selection, storagex  
Drying of strawx  
Source: Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1982
A large majority of the households in Bangladesh depend upon agriculture and related activities like livestock rearing, fisheries and forestry. In 1992-93, crops accounted for 77.7% of the total agricultural production, fisheries 7.8%, livestock 7.7% and forestry 6.7%. The agricultural sector accounted for nearly 36% of Gross Domestic Product (BBS, 1995).

Despite their routine domestic work, women are very actively involved in agricultural production in Bangladesh. Women in rural Bangladesh are in general responsible for most of the agricultural work in the homestead. They traditionally undertake home gardening. Farm activities in the homesteads, ranging from selection of seed to harvesting and storing of crops, are predominantly managed by women. Despite women's important role in agriculture, the traditional social norms and customary laws combined with the purdah system deprive Bangladeshi women of equitable economic opportunities and access to resources.

Crop production

Paddy is the major crop in Bangladesh and grown in nearly 80% of the cultivated land (ESCAP, 1995). Wheat, sugarcane, tobacco, oilseeds, pulses, potatoes are the other principal crops grown in the country. Tea and jute are the main cash crops. Tropical fruits, spices, vegetables are included in the production system. In Bangladesh, a common social perception exists according to which women in the farm households do not perform field and market work and men do not undertake most of the productive activities carried out in the proximity of the homestead. Source: Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1982

But in reality among poor households, such clearly demarcated gender divisions of labour do not apply. The traditional gender relations with women's involvement in post-harvest work and men's in fieldwork have not remained static over time. Presently, due to extreme poverty and a food crisis, social norms and traditions are changing and women are appearing in the field as well (Shirin, 1995). About 60-70% of women from landless and near-landless households work as agricultural wage labourers, whereas women from larger farms do not participate in field activities (Jahan, 1990). In the Grameen Krishi Foundation working areas in North-West Bangladesh, women equally share all tasks in rice production, even the presumably male task of irrigation (Jordans and Zwatreveen, 1997).


Forests are limited to 14% of the total land area in Bangladesh. In 1992-93, the country had a forest cover of only 1.89 million ha. Since early 1974, due to the conversion of forests into agricultural land and rapid urbanization, forests have declined markedly. Mangroves account for nearly half of the total forest cover. Timber, firewood, Golpata, bamboo, sungrass, honey, wax, cane are derived from the forest (BBS, 1995). Women use the forest products for food, fuel as well as for handicrafts. Women in rural Bangladesh are responsible for obtaining the household fuel supply. They collect firewood from the forests. A traditional role of Bangladeshi women is collecting dung for fuel from the forests where cattle grazes. Cow dung is the largest source (6.6 million ton or 26% in 1992-93) of traditional fuels in the unorganized sector (BBS, 1995). Women also have a major role in homestead forestry.


Fishing is predominantly artisanal although there is an industrialized processing sector geared to export. Rice and fish constitute principal elements in an average person's daily diet. Innumerable rivers, canals, tanks and paddy fields and other low-lying and depressed areas are the sources of fish of hundreds of varieties. Bangladesh has an extensive marine fisheries potential mainly in the Bay of Bengal South of the country.

Women in Bangladesh have diversified roles in fisheries, with substantial participation in small-scale fisheries. In Barisal and Rajashahi districts, women catch fish. They, to a large extent, carry out the drying, curing, and marketing of fish as hawkers, stall keepers in permanent market places and weekly bazaars. The majority of the employees in shrimp processing plants in Chittagong and Khulna are women. Women are also predominantly involved in net-making, the main income generating occupation in many families, and freshwater fish farming (FAO, 1980). Women have traditionally participated primarily as family labour in preparing fish nets and, in some areas, in fish processing. In some NGO and government programmes, women from landless households cultivate fish individually or jointly in leased ponds, either within or near the homestead (Jahan, 1990)


Livestock is an important component of the farming systems in Bangladesh, and cattle, goat and poultry are the most commonly reared animals. Cattle are raised mostly for draft power. Goats and poultry are raised primarily as a source of cash income. In Bangladesh, women are in general responsible for livestock and poultry rearing. Poultry rearing is a traditional activity performed by women for income generation. Feeding livestock, cleaning sheds, securing them properly for the night, and health care are the activities performed by women. Men are involved in the heavy work with the animals such as taking them out of the compound. Owing to their crucial role in livestock care, women are generally consulted while buying and selling the livestock (Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1982). Women take care of the farmyard manure collection thus reducing recycling, which has important consequences for soil fertility.


A number of environmental hazards in Bangladesh have an impact on rural livelihoods in general and on women's lives in particular. Serious flooding is a constant threat, destroying crops, livestock and human life. Rapid forest degradation has forced women and girls to go further afield to collect fuel wood, which along with the other tasks has reduced girls' opportunities to attend school (United Nations, n.d.). Destruction of mangroves for shrimp cultivation has made women, who usually collect firewood to earn their livelihood, jobless. Though some of them obtained employment in pre-processing factories near shrimp farms, the pay is low. Women's traditional role of collecting dung for fuel has become increasingly impossible as the number of cattle decreased due to the decline in fodder availability (Caritas, 1991, in Uddin, 1996). Moreover, mangrove destruction has resulted in the saline inundation of the fields surrounding the homesteads along the coastline, impeding women's contribution through kitchen gardening, livestock and poultry rearing. (Lily and Bhuiyan, 1989, in Uddin, 1996).

Rural production

In families engaged in weaving, pottery or production of oil or syrup, women have fixed responsibilities in relation to the finished product. In weaving, women undertake all the activities prior to loom work. In pottery, women perform the lower portion of the work in pitching pots and handle the drying. Women in some areas are also involved in processing jute for the market (Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 1982). Women also earn cash income as agricultural wage labourers. In sericulture, women contribute nearly half the total work hours. Silkworm rearing and cocoon reeling are the two critical activities dominated by women. They are also involved in mulberry planting (Jahan, 1990). Women have the main responsibility in post-harvest processing of rice and other agriculture commodities that provide a source of income. Men generate income especially as migrant non-agricultural wage laborers in transportation, construction, service works. In Bangladesh, a very active NGO community serves rural women's credit needs and assist them in micro-enterprise development. Special government programmes are also in place to address the needs of vulnerable rural women.

Food security

Despite a noticeable improvement in recent years, yields, particularly of food crops, still fall short of attainable levels. The seasonal variations in food availability and uneven access also creates household food insecurity. Combined with population growth which places greater pressure on the land, there has been an increase in indebtedness, landlessness and destitution. In Bangladesh, fully half the country's population cannot afford an adequate diet (Working Group on Targeted Food Intervention, 1993). Over 95% of women headed households, which account for about 8% of rural households, fall below the poverty line. Of these, 30% are amongst the hard core poor with cash incomes 40% below those of poor male-headed households. Women share only 23.1% in total earned income in the country (UNDP, 1997). The question of intra-household allocation of food is also very important, especially for its gender dimension. Food insecurity is a critical concern with widespread child and maternal malnutrition. Shortage of dairy products for baby food is also acute (Philip, 1995). The factors responsible for this are reduced crop diversification and low productivity of high nutrition crops, substantial food losses at all stages in the food chain, seasonal inefficiency in water use, and market price distortion (UNDP, 1998).

Recently, women in the poor households have been identified as the 'victims' as well as 'managers' of household food security. Women as producers of food and livestock as well as primary meal makers have important responsibilities to ensure household food security. As primary managers of livestock, women ensure a supply of high-quality protein to the country. Women dominate home garden production thus improving the variety and quality of the family diet. Women adopt diverse and intense household resource-use strategies to cope with food deficit situations, such as during the lean season and natural disasters. Women intensify their efforts in homestead production and seek non-farm production options.

Policy and planning focus

In order to support effective and equitable agricultural and rural development, policy makers and planners in Bangladesh need to:

Programme focus

Agricultural and rural development programmes in Bangladesh need to include the following areas of intervention in order to address both rural women's and men's priorities:


Abdullah, T. A. and Zeidenstein, S. A. 1982. Village Women of Bangladesh: Prospects for Change, Pergamon Press, Oxford.
EIU, 1997. Bangladesh: Country Profile, The Economist Intelligence Unit, London.
ESCAP, 1995. Women of Bangladesh: A country Profile, United Nations, New York.
FAO. 1980. Role of Women in Small-Scale Fisheries of the Bay of Bengal, FAO, Madras.
Jahan, I. 1990. 'Country Paper-Bangladesh' in Gender Issues in Agriculture: Papers and Proceedings of the Regional Conference on Gender Issues in Agriculture (Manila, 5-6 December) ADB and UNIFEM, pp. 189-200.
Jordans, E. and Zwarteveen, M. 1997. A Well of One's Own: Gender Analysis of Irrigation Program in Bangladesh, International Irrigation Management Institute, Colombo.
Shirin, M. 1995. 'Achievements of Women in Mixed Farming' in Ahmed, U. and Miah, M. A. H. (eds.). Success Stories of Women in Agriculture: Proceedings of a National Workshop on Case Studies, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, Dhaka, pp. 25-33.
UNDP, 1997. Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York.

For more information, contact:

Regional Rural Sociologist/Women in Development Officer
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Telephone: (662) 281-7844; Facsimile: (662) 280-0445; E-mail:

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