The slum-dwellers of Dhaka will often paint their babies' faces with heavy black crayon, exaggerating their eyes and eyebrows and colouring a large dot on their foreheads.

It gives these Bangladeshi infants a strange, unearthly look of wisdom and power beyond their years. The purpose, I was told, is to offer protection from bad spirits, from envy, from the hardships of life.

Growing up in the mud-filled misery of a Dhaka shantytown, many of these young people will need all the help they can get. Officially, some 43 per cent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line and the country ranks 146 out of 186 on the UN's development index.

That's why the country's garment trade, despite all its endemic problems, is so important.

It may be a swamp of exploitation, but it is still one of the few routes up and off the lowest rung of poverty here. It's also played a hugely significant role in the empowerment of Bangladeshi women.

"You know when a girl came out of the village to join the garment industry there was a lot of human cry, there was a lot of noise and discouragement," says Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, the first woman to be elected speaker of Bangladesh's Parliament.

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A woman and her infant, the face painted for luck and good fortune,in the Dhaka slum of Korail, where many garment workers live. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

"But you know when she went back with some income and she spent it on the family, she helped her poor parents or she helped her sister go to school, things changed."

Chowdhury is one of several high-profile women in Bangladeshi politics, a group that includes the country's prime minister and the leader of the opposition, and who were all born into more privileged lives than most women here.

She was also the one responsible for drafting the country's development program for women, which, among other things, calls for an allowance for lactating mothers working in the garment trade.

'We have rights'

Women now make up an estimated 80 per cent of Bangladesh's four million textile workers.

When they turn up for their work shifts at factories in Dhaka's northern industrial suburbs, it is like a sea of colour coursing through the busy streets, the individuality of their bright, traditional saris a far cry from the uniform jeans and T-shirts they make for the Gap or Joe Fresh.

It's an important group given that the industry itself is in turn responsible for about 80 per cent of the country's exports. In addition, many of these women are supporting extended families back home, and so they are starting to feel their strength.

One woman I met at a workers' rights headquarters in a shady Dhaka neighbourhood, had come there to ask advice. She said that she and other women were being bullied by their employer when they complained about working conditions.

"I'm not afraid of anything," she told me. "I came here to get my proper rights. I know I'm a good worker, I have confidence. That's why I came here. I want to do something for everyone and me, too."

This woman is 21 and has been working in the industry for only six months, earning a monthly wage, which includes overtime, of about $80. She sends most of it home to her family.

"I could get household work [as a cleaner]", she says. "But I get more money from garments. And in a household, if I break some plates the owner [can] beat me and anytime say 'get out of my house.'

"But in garments we have rights, we have power."

Micro-credit

One of the reasons working women may feel more empowered these days is because of their access to credit, or more specifically what's called micro-credit, which Bangladesh economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize for championing on behalf of those too poor to gain access to traditional credit institutions.

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Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, Bangladesh's first elected female speaker of parliament, is responsible for the country's development program for women, a set of polices and guidelines promulgated two years ago. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

Shameron Abed runs the micro-financing department at BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), an international development agency based in Dhaka, and he credits micro-financing with helping Bangladeshi women get out the door in the first place.

"I would suggest that the fact that so many women in Bangladesh now come out of their homes and work in the ready-made garments industry is also partly because of the early work done through micro-finance, and other initiatives to get them …used to working whether in factories or farms and fields."

Ninety per cent of BRAC's loans go to women. "Women, I think, are more credit-worthy, more responsible, more disciplined," Abed says. When it comes to money, "they spend it better, manage it better and pay it back better."

Still, the life of the vast majority of these Bangladeshi women is no fairy tale, and Abed is quick to point out that domestic violence and rape are still big problems.

"Only recently have women been allowed to pass on citizenship to their children in this country, traditionally it was only men," he says. "Only in the past couple of years has the government increased maternity leave up to six months.

"So we're starting to catch up, but there are things that still need to be done. There's still a lot of difference in pay between men and women who do the same job."

Islamist pushback

Another, perhaps more worrying concern is the calls by hard-line Islamists, who are finding a louder voice in Bangladeshi society, to roll back some of these recent gains and, in particular, to scrap the women's development program fashioned by Chowdhury.

Bangladesh is almost 90 per cent Muslim, but human rights workers say the hardliners are taking advantage of tensions between the ruling and opposition parties to further their own agenda.

"The irony should not be lost on anyone that where a certain segment of militant Islamists talk about rolling back women's rights, you know, removing women from the public sphere etc., is devoid of a basic understanding of what runs the economy of the country," says Faustina Pereira, head of human rights and legal aid services at BRAC.

"What would have happened if women had not taken up professions that men are leaving, for example, like the agricultural sector?"

Chowdhury agrees that the role women are playing in society now is simply too important for them to be forced back into their homes now.

What's more, she says, Bangladeshi woman fought in the country's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. "So it is very difficult to roll back the women development and the women empowerment, the way we stand today. It can only go forward and that is how I look at it."