7: Negotiating social and familial norms: women’s labour market participation in rural Bangladesh and North India


This chapter argues that traditional representations of women’s labour in rural regions of Bangladesh and India have largely been homogenised. Taking a new perspective, informed by both survey and interview data from the same sample, this chapter briefly demonstrates how survey methodologies are limited in their capacity to truly capture the labour of women by contrasting data from semi-structured interviews and a wider survey. Following this, it describes how many women negotiate their traditional role as a housewife, mother and caregiver with income generating labour in various ways. The chapter shows how this is often experienced through caring intra-households relations that are encouraging both men and women to stretch social norms to fit personal circumstances and needs. Overall it is argued that the issue of women’s participation in the labour market is far more dynamic and diverse than wider statistical analyses have been able to capture.

Within both India and Bangladesh, women have the right to work. Both the Indian and Bangladeshi government legally guarantee women equality through their respective constitutions. However, over the past 30 years, both Bangladesh and India have experienced interesting labour market participation patterns, particularly regarding rural women. In 1995 the total number of Bangladeshi women in the labour market was 5.4 million, yet by 2005–2006, this had more than doubled to 12.1 million (Mahmud and Tasneem, 2011; BBS, 2010). Within India a different pattern has occurred, unlike other countries, during India’s period of steady and persistent economic growth that began in 2002, women’s participation in the labour market declined (Lahoti and Swaminathan, 2015).

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