Workin’ for a livin’ in Bangladesh: Garment workers and outcomes for women

The garment industry in Bangladesh has received a lot of bad press in the last few years with the collapse of factories and threats of boycotts by workers’ rights groups. The question of whether employment in these industries is beneficial to workers, and particularly female workers, remains open. Economists tend to emphasize the effects on female empowerment (bargaining power, buying power, delayed childbearing, for instance), while rights groups enumerate the safety concerns and potential human rights abuses (long hours, low pay, no overtime pay, etc.).

While by no means offering a definitive answer the question, a new paper by Rachel Health and Mushfiq Mobarak (NBER gated or not gated) attempts to show that the economist are right. The paper shows that exposure to garment sector jobs increases age at marriage and first birth for girls and women in Bangladesh. Child marriage and early childbirth are common in Bangladesh, outcomes which expose women and girls to abuse, early mortality and morbidity, domestic violence, low educational attainment and more. If the garment industry is avoiding or delaying some of these outcomes by providing different opportunities, that’s certainly something to note.

Perhaps more importantly, the paper shows that there are significant returns to education within the garment sector. More educated employees receive higher pay and opportunities for advancement. Subsequently, knowledge of these additional returns to education may actually increase educational attainment in addition to these other desirable outcomes. There’s some concern about endogenous factory placement in the paper and how that might affect their results, but the authors do a nice job addressing it.

What works for girls?

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ratna Sudarshan, an economist here in Delhi who is currently a fellow at the National University Education Planning Administration. We had a long discussion about how to look at female employment in India and then about the cultural dimensions of women’s empowerment and agency. I’ve often said that I really dislike the term empowerment. First, because the word literally means to give someone power and you can’t really give someone your own power, but secondly because it’s a term that’s quite jargon-y and steeped in a Western sense of what it means to be independent, have agency, and make one’s own decisions. 

Ratna asked me what I meant by empowerment and I gave a litany of possible answers, ending with, but it all depends on where you are. And she responded with a story of girls in Rajasthan, an arid, desert-y state in Western India, where age of marriage is very early, but girls tend not to live with their husbands until they’ve finished their formal schooling. So while the outward measure of “empowerment” bodes poorly for women, their age at first birth is actually quite high, so the health risks normally associated with child marriage aren’t really present.

It was with this in mind that I read about a series of World Bank reports summarizing impact evaluations on what works to reduce maternal mortality, delay age of marriage, and generally improve the lot of girls in the developing world. The reports were released this month in anticipation of the coming Millenium Development Goals deadlines. 

So, while I highly recommend you read them, I also urge you to think about context. 

Context, context, context, and how important it is in determining the effectiveness of policy or programmatic interventions.

India-bound!

It’s (almost) official! I think I actually have a ticket and am leaving for India and the Philippines for the rest of the summer on Friday. I’ll post updates here as the mood strikes me, but feel free to follow @ekfletch and @EPoDHarvard on twitter for more frequent (and perhaps less related) content (pictures of all the momos I’m going to eat? Anyone?).

For now, I’ll leave you with the World Bank’s new project to determine the economic cost of child marriage, a well-funded, but really huge undertaking:

What is the economic cost of child marriage? We don’t really know. Studies – including those by the World Bank – suggest a range of negative impacts of child marriage on human development outcomes. For example, Bank staff have estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa child marriage may account in some countries for up to one-fifth of drop-outs among girls at the secondary level, and each additional year of delay in the age of (child) marriage could potentially increase the likelihood of literacy and secondary school completion by several percentage points for the affected girls. Another study published a few years ago in the Journal of Political Economy suggests similar impacts in the case of Bangladesh.

Thinking about defining domestic violence

A colleague from Bates College (with whom I happened to share an advisor in grad school) visited last week to give a seminar at Lafayette and we started talking about writing a paper together. Working off each of our comparative advantages, it’s going to be about domestic violence in India.

As a result, this morning I was thinking about how to code up domestic violence to put into regression analysis and how defining gender-based or domestic violence is part and parcel to the type of question you’re trying to answer.

For example, many surveys include violence by a partner, a husband, a boyfriend, a father, an in-law, and any number of other actors. My quick response to SD this morning was to divide the categories (not mutually exclusive, perhaps) like this.

1. By a romantic partner
2. By a husband (romantic partner with legal implications)
3. By a member of her husband’s family
4. By a member of her own family.
5. By anyone when it’s gender-motivated.

2 and 3 (and possibly 1 depending on societal structures) have implications for bargaining power-type questions and investments in children. 1, 4, and 5 have greater implications for society at large.

Thoughts?

Code ’em all up, I say.

Awesome things at SVRI Forum

After an awesome week in Bangkok, I thought I’d share some of the conversations, research, and events that happened last week because I’m feeling privileged to have been able to spend time with such a diverse, animated group of researchers and people passionate about ending sexualized violence. It was a singular experience, to be sure, and I can’t wait for the next one. Below is a partial list of the awesome things I saw and heard at the SVRI Forum in Bangkok, in no particular order.

  • Research on LRA child soldiers and the harsh methods used to control them by Jocelyn Kelly of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.
  • Tweet-ups. Such a fantastic group tweeting the Forum and interacting online. Storified here.
  • An Egyptian woman recounting how she and her daughter went to the Tahrir protests for two weeks in a large group of women, and how her daughter became more autonomous, independent, and opinionated as a result.
  • A Bhutanese woman talking lovingly of her King, who she thinks looks like Elvis Presley, and the modest cottage he inhabits.
  • Limited positive effects of cash transfers on instance of intimate partner violence in Ecuador by Amber Peterman of the school that shall not be named.
  • An American woman recalling the 70s in Berkeley and abortion activists offering to pay her to get arrested to perform an abortion without a license
  • The same American woman recalling her interactions with rural Japanese housewives.
  • Lots of UN and NGO politics.
  • A Kenyan woman surmising that Kenyatta has the potential to be Kenya’s greatest president yet, if (and that’s a big IF) he doesn’t end up being a war criminal.
  • Thai food. So much wonderful, delicious Thai food.
  • Kate Falb of the Yale School of Public Health on multi-faceted interventions addressing gender inequality and economic empowerment in Cote d’Ivoire.

There were so many more. Check out all the presentations online.

Traditional gender roles and marriage quality

This is the second paper I’ve come across recently that attempts to link gender dynamics and understanding of gender roles by heterosexual couples to relationship quality or longevity.

This study examined the implications of gender attitudes and spouses’ divisions of household labor, time with children, and parental knowl- edge for their trajectories of love in a sample of 146 African American couples. Multilevel modeling in the context of an accelerated longitudinal design accommodated 3 annual waves of data. The results revealed that traditionality in husbands’ gender attitudes was linked to lower levels of love. Furthermore, divisions of household labor and parental knowledge moderated changes in love such that couples with more egalitarian divisions exhibited higher and more stable patterns of love, whereas more traditional couples exhibited significant declines in love over time. Finally, greater similarity between spouses’ time with their children was linked to higher levels of marital love. The authors highlight the implications of gender dynamics for marital harmony among African American couples and discuss ways that this work may be applied and extended in practice and future research.

Link is here (gated). Stanik, McHale and Crouter. 2013. Gender Dynamics Predict Changes in Marital Love Among African American Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family 75.

On Iran’s “Erotic Revolution”

Data are always a mischievous thing and even more so when they out of a religious autocracy. In the US, it’s commonly said that women underreport their sexual partners when asked by one to two, so you can only imagine how such a question might go over in Iran.

It hasn’t, but Foreign Policy says that other data that are more readily available point to a sexual revolution in Iran that includes sex before marriage, earlier sexual debut, and increased use of contraceptives.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

The article is long on speculation and short on facts, mostly because they’re not available, but many data points do point to some interesting demographic changes that could signal a cultural shift in the perception of sex outside of marriage, the value of marriage and childbearing, and more.

What’s not entirely clear is why. The article gives suggests that the current generation of young people is reacting to the lack of emergence of a utopian society and that having sex outside of marriage is part of the small rebellions they are engaging against the regime.

It’s a tidy theory, but it likely obscures the story. First, demographic shifts take time to happen. Iranians didn’t wake up in 2013 and decide to stop having children. Even if they did, we wouldn’t see the changes in national averages yet. This evolved over a few decades. Secondly, there is ample evidence that young Iranian women were fairly progressive in their attitudes regarding female independence, sexuality, and empowerment before the Revolution, so it is more likely that the children of those women who underwent their own sexual revolution in the 70s are coming of age and making decisions that reflect the attitudes projected in their own homes, if not in an official or public sense.

I’d also venture to say that it might be possible that some progressive or secular Iranians are choosing not to have children because they don’t want them to grow up under the regime they have experienced. That’s more in line with the explanation offered by FP, but it’s also pure speculation.

Lean In, Dad, if you can

I’m in that period of my life where my friends are starting to have babies. The wedding invitations that filled my mailbox up until last year have been replaced with baby announcements and family photos. It’s hard to believe that I have no weddings to attend this year. Like an actual zero.

I’m not sure if it’s the labor economist in me, but I ask pretty much everyone what their parental leave policy is. How much time are you taking off? How much time is your partner taking off? How much is paid, how much is unpaid? I just learned Gettysburg offers a one-course reduction for “secondary caregivers” (I must say, I do like the gender neutral language, even if it is implied that the dad is the secondary). There are all sorts of restrictions about when you can take it and how often, because I’m sure that parents are going to time their childbearing to maximize the number of classes they can get out of (no, they’re not; that’s ridiculous). Sometimes people just offer the information:

The fact remains that there isn’t a lot of support for two-parent caregiving, at least in this country. I am impressed, though, with how many of my male friends and colleagues have taken time off, even if unpaid, and have taken the time to actually caregive, as opposed to using it for personal or professional gain. 

Catherine Rampell has an op-ed in the NYT today on increasing parity among caregivers’ leave policies. She suggests that parental leave, or rather paternal leave, is an important aspect of not only equity in the workplace and ensuring that we continue to chip away at the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, and other forms of discrimination. In addition, she suggests that mere exposure to full-time caregiving in the early stages of a child’s life might lead to more equitable distribution of household and caregiving work as the child ages. It’s actually a big deal!

This might not sound like such a big deal, but social scientists are coming around to the notion that a man spending a few weeks at home with his newborn can help recast expectations and gender roles, at work and home, for a long time. A striking new study by a Cornell graduate student, Ankita Patnaik, based on a new paid paternity-leave quota in Quebec, found that parents’ time use changed significantly. Several years after being exposed to the reform, fathers spent more time in child care and domestic work — particularly “time-inflexible” chores, like cooking, that cut into working hours — than fathers who weren’t exposed to the reform. More important, mothers spent considerably more time at work growing their careers and contributing more to the economy, all without any public mandates or shaming.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the article is that the comments section is filled with screeds against “procreators.” Yes, I get it. The planet has a lot of people on it and you’ve made a personal decision not to procreate. But, two things. One, individuals don’t make the decision to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a child because they’re going to get two weeks off. If you think that, you need to take an economics class. And two, if you want to reduce population growth, donate to programs that work to educate children, improve access to contraception and family planning services, reduce child mortality, and give young women jobs, all of which are actually proven to reduce fertility rates.

Gender norms, roles, unequal pay, and heterogeneous effects

The Economist has a nice summary of a new paper by Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan, which is forthcoming. An excerpt of the Economist article is below.

The paper offers some hints as to why women who could outearn their husbands choose not to work at all, or to work less. For instance, norms affect the division of household chores, but economically in the wrong direction. If a husband earns less than his wife, she might rightfully expect him to take on some additional responsibilities at home. In reality, however, if she earns more, she spends more time taking care of the household and their children than otherwise similar women in comparable families, who earn less than the husband. One wonders whether such women feel compelled to soothe their husbands’ unease at earning less.

I’m in the midst of reading the paper right now, and my first thought was that this is an incredible stretch. In econometrics, a significant problem in estimation is the problem of unobserved heterogeneity. It makes sense to think that on average, married women are different than single women, that women who choose to have children are different than women who choose not to have children, and finally, it should makes sense that men who marry women who earn more than them are likely different than men who marry women who earn less than them.

I can certainly imagine that some women would be inclined to “soothe their husbands’ unease at earning less,” but it seems that the men who were particularly sensitive to such things wouldn’t marry a woman with greater income or greater earning potential. This is, in fact, what they find, that women who work are less likely to marry a man who earns less, and thus partially explains the decline in marriage rates in the US. It also drives much of their results on divorce, which they see as arising out of the unequal division of labor in the household due to this “soothing effect.”

It appears to be a very thorough paper, though I’m skeptical of the instrument–men’s and women’s industry-specific wage distributions–being uncorrelated with unobserved characteristics that lead to more gender-equitable matches.

Based on the industry composition of the state and industry-wide wage growth at the national level, we create sex-specific predicted distributions of local wages that result from aggregate labor demand that is plausably [sic] uncorrelated with characteristics of men and women in a particular marriage market.

This is the instrument used by Aizer (2010) in her paper on the effect of an increase in women’s wages on rates of domestic violence. Though a subtle distinction, I find her use of the instrument much more plausible due to the much lower prevalence of hospitalization-inducing violent events versus marriages where the woman earns more, which the Bertrand paper cites as about one quarter of the marriages in their sample. It seems that these wage distributions actually would be correlated with the characteristics of men and women in a labor/marriage market.

An education story, not an age story

Like much of changing and exciting news in demography, the New York Times’ story about births to women under 30 appears to be largely about education. Kathryn Edin, who wrote a book I’ve lauded several times in this space and use extensively in my own research, responds in an article Harvard Magazine.

“What the article essentially got wrong is that this is aneducation story, not an age story,” explains Edin, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School and a prominent scholar of the American family. She points out that 94 percent of births to college-educated women today occur within marriage (a rate virtually unchanged from a generation ago), whereas the real change has taken place at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. In 1960 it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, college-educated or a high-school dropout—almost all American women waited until they were married to have kids. Now 57 percent of women with high-school degrees or less education are unmarried when they bear their first child.

The statistic put forth by the Times severely undercounts the issue when we don’t take into account education. College-educated women, it seems, are waiting for marriage to have kids, and non-college-educated women are having kids before they’re married. Importantly, it’s still a large group of women that are choosing to have kids without being married, and as I argue in my dissertation, it’s a group that merits more attention. We don’t know much about them.