The development of a burgeoning textile industry in Bangladesh is responsible for significant improvements in the status and health of many women, researchers at Southampton University have discovered.
Though working conditions for manual staff are poor by Western standards, the chance for regular work provides an escape for young women from the traditional life of marriage in their early to mid-teens, followed by a series of often closely-spaced pregnancies.
Ian Diamond, who is heading a project in the university's department of social statistics, funded by the United States Government Aid Organisation, to examine the impact of the textile industry on the lives of Bangladeshi women, said the new opportunities had led to greater social and geographical mobility in the country.
Families which would have pushed their daughters into marriage are now more inclined to send them to work in the garment factories.
"Although the conditions there are far from ideal, they have an economic role which considerably delays their entry into the marriage market and all its consequences," Professor Diamond explained.
"This could be having a significant effect on health, especially with regard to infant and maternal mortality, in the region. In addition, the entry of these young women into the labour market should improve women's status by providing other young women with role models. This is already having an effect, at least in the urban areas, by enabling women (including those not in the industry) to move around more freely."
The three-year project will involve interviews with thousands of garment factory workers and their families to discover how opportunities for young women are changing perceptions in Bangaldesh of the role of women and the need to educate them.