Many years ago, in 1992, after Amartya Sen had just moved to Cambridge, USA, to take up his residence at Harvard University, I met him at the Harvard Faculty Club for an informal lunch. I was very impressed by his work on “missing women” in India and China published a year ago. I asked him why these two countries, which were much more affluent than Bangladesh, had a higher male to female birth ratio than Bangladesh. His reply then still resonates with me. He said look at the skewed “opportunity set” and the discrimination that women face outside the household.

Amartya Sen’s intuition more than two decades ago goes a long way to explain the greater gender equality rating for Bangladesh as compared with its bigger neighbours, according to the Global Gender Gap Report, 2015 undertaken by World Economic Forum (WEF). According to this latest report, out of the 145 countries surveyed, Bangladesh ranked 64th, while India, Pakistan and China ranked 114, 144, and 87, respectively, in terms of Gender Equality Index. Pakistan could have ended up as the last, and was saved only by Yemen. “The least equal country in the world for women, ranking 145th, was Yemen. In that Middle Eastern nation, only 55 per cent of women can read and only 6 per cent attend college. There are no women in the Yemeni equivalent of Congress,” the report finds.

The most equal country in the world for women was Iceland, according to the report. It has been in the top slot for seven years in a row. The next four countries are also Nordic – Norway, Finland, Sweden and Ireland. There are many indices, for example World Bank’s Global Gender Gap Index, which gives a slightly different ranking, but the Nordic countries still are at the top.

What do we learn from these studies? Why did Bangladesh rank above India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka? The answer is not very difficult to delineate. The criteria used to construct the Gender Gap Index appear to shed Bangladesh’s experience and its socio-economic transformation in a new light. The WEF report looks at whether men and women have the same rights and opportunities in each country in four areas: health, education, economic participation, and political empowerment. Bangladesh has provided better opportunity for women in all four areas, particularly labour force participation, in women’s role as “legislators, senior officials, and managers”, and the health and survival category.

How did Nordic countries top the list? "They have the best policies in the world for families," says the report’s lead author, Saadia Zahidi. "Their childcare systems are the best and they have the best laws on paternity, maternity and family leave.” Women are much more likely than men to experience major career interruptions related to family caregiving. And working mothers are much more likely than working fathers to say that being a working parent has made it harder for them to get ahead in their job or career, said Parker of the Pew Research Center. WHO studies also found that maternal deaths and pregnancy-related conditions cannot be eliminated without the empowerment of women.

What’s more interesting is that Bangladesh&’s progression to this position has been steady. Bangladesh ranked 91 in 2006, and has moved up since then. The WEF data shows that Bangladesh’s quantitative score in the categories of economic opportunities, education, health and politics improved between 2006 and 2015.

Now how can Bangladesh do better in closing the gender gap in the coming years? Again, if we turn to Amartya Sen’s findings on male-female ratio at birth, we find plenty of clues. Scientists have determined that at child birth, more boys are born than girls. The normal rate is 105 males to each female. Why, one might ask? The simple answer is the higher ratio of male is nature’s way of accommodating their fragility. However, South Korea faced a situation where in 1990, there were 116.5 male births for 100 female births, the highest in the world. Boys were preferred to girls for many reasons: to inherit property, worship ancestors, care for parents, and continue the family lineage. The South Korean society collectively took notice and addressed the situation head-on, to bring it down to the current rate which is 107.5. How did it bring about such a dramatic change? It took actions to allow families to use either the mother or father’s family name and civil society shied away from the practice of fathers being considered the legal head of family. The courts also ruled that families don’t have to take the father’s name. And, finally, South Korea’s Parliament strengthened a medical law banning the sex detection of a fetus: first, by taking away the medical license and then adding a jail term.

The Daily Star/ANN