Comparison on Trickle-Down and Bottom-up Approach: Overview of Women’s Movement in Bangladesh

In South Asia, feminists distinguish political feminism from development feminism by delineating between the respective spaces within which feminist struggle against patriarchy takes place and where feminist activists locate themselves (Devika, 2016). Political feminism is located within the oppositional social movement, whereas development feminism has a more reform-oriented focus, stressing engagement with the state. In Bangladesh, this distinction is hard to maintain. Women’s movement include all the organized activities that question the legitimacy of the basic tenets of social structure that support male domination and female subordination; that protest the values, customs, practices, laws and institutions designed to impose, maintain and perpetuate patriarchal attitudes and existing gender relations in the family, community, workplace, society and the state; and that engage in collective action to change social values and attitudes to realize a gender-just society (Jahan, 1995). So, both the theory and the practice include in the movement which challenge the structural violence against women.

After the birth of women’s movement there has been a great structural change in the lives of most women. Many ideas and issues raised by the activist are accepted by the society and policy makers of the States. Yet, with all this changes and greater equality, women still suffer from utter subordination, discrimination, and oppression. There is also an attempt by the ruling class to convince the society that equality between the sexes has been achieved and there is no need of further movement. But reality is very different. Now-a-days women are being victimized by the social and economic crisis of capitalist economy as well as they are being oppressed by their own gains (DSP,2006). As visible development is increasing day by day, working for assuring the real structural development is being harder to achieve.

There are 3 major actors in Bangladesh which operates this difficult transformation. These are: women’s rights activist groups which raise women’s issues at the national policy level; women’s research and advocacy organizations which raise public awareness and non-governmental organizations which work to raise women’s awareness and mobilize women at the grassroots level (Jahan, 1995). Moreover, the state is trying to improve the condition of half of its population. Clearly, these organizations try different approaches to meet the same goal. To understand the dynamics, we need to overview the changing nature and pattern of Women’s Movement in Bangladesh.

Historical Journey of Women’s Movement in Bangladesh:

The historical roots of women’s movement and the shaping of discourse on women’s rights require an understanding of the influence of colonialism and the nationalist struggle against the British and Pakistanis on women’s rights. Contemporary feminist politics has also been shaped by its interaction with the wider social, economic, and political changes that occurred in Bangladesh within which feminist activism took root and changed over the years. In this paper, I weave in those broader historical changes and discuss the nature of the current political context where relevant. It should be noted that I will only discuss those social/political issues that are significant for the analysis presented here.

Over the years, women’s organizations and feminist organizations have mobilized around various issues including – women’s political participation, economic empowerment, gender mainstreaming in public policies, religious-personal law reforms, violence against women etc. (Kabeer, 1988; Jahan 1995). There is a wide diversity among the women’s groups and feminist organizations in Bangladesh- ranging from small, local-level samities to larger membership-based associations to mass-level national organizations.

I explore the following issues: a) how the women’s rights agenda have evolved over the years, b) the strategies women’s movement actors have used to engage with the state and the international development discourse, and c) how the movement was influenced by the wider national political, economic, and social contexts and negotiated its position vis a vis Western feminist thought.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the government of Bangladesh faced the challenge of rehabilitating the victims of rape (by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators) and the war widows. While the plight of the rape victims had been used to mobilize public opinion nationally and internationally, the state and societal response in terms of rehabilitation and support for the rape survivors were inadequate (Saikia, 2011). The interventions- suspension of law against abortion to permit abortion on an industrial scale, a temporary law to permit international adoption of war babies, and the various integration efforts signaled the transfer of responsibility to ‘protect’ women from the society to the state (Mookerjee, 2007). Many of the urban based women’s organizations and feminist leaders took part in the relief and rehabilitation work. State and society’s inadequate response made them acutely aware about the vulnerable position of women in the society (Shehabuddin, 2008) However, the continued marginalization of women in public and policy space further heightened their awareness against gender discrimination. For example, the First Five Year Plan only identified women’s development need in terms of motherhood and rehabilitation of war victims. This led to the formation of Women for Women (WFW) by feminist academics as a research and advocacy group to produce policy relevant research and gather data on women. The first Bangladeshi publication of a comprehensive report on women’s situation in Bangladesh was by this group in 1975 (Jahan, 1995, Banu, 2015).

Political instability, a series of military coups, famine, and economic crisis during the early and mid-1970s led to increased insecurity and erosion of traditional kinship support networks. It also led to a growing awareness among the women’s movement actors about the difficult conditions faced by rural women. This awareness also deepened through women’s engagement in the nongovernmental sector as workers and in implementing international development projects. It was during this time, that we see the beginnings of women headed development NGOs, such as Banchte Shekha (Learning to Live) outside of Dhaka (ibid, 1995). Increased incidence of violence against women led to the formation of legal aid organizations for women, such as Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA) to provide support to the victims. By 1980s, the authoritarian ruler was entrenched in power (General Ershad) and civil and political rights were further eroded. General Ershad attempted to legitimize his rule by Islamizing the state. It was in this context that autonomous feminist organizations such as Naripokhkho (For Women) were formed who were willing to forward feminist critiques of the state outside the development paradigm (Azim, 2016). T

Ideologically, the women’s groups that were formed between 1970s and 1990s had many different positions. Marxist thinking and analysis had inspired Bangladesh Mohila Parishad (BMP), Karmojibi Nari (Working Women) and others and they had links with the left political parties (Banu, 2015). Women for Women and other organizations working on development policy research and implementing development projects were influenced by liberal feminist analysis and the women in development (WID) discourse. Groups such as Naripokkho were perceived as radical by other women’s rights groups as they stressed women’s autonomy and were willing to publicly raise concerns related to women’s sexuality and bodily integrity (Azim, 2016). All these groups laid claims to the feminist analysis by Rokeya and other writers to stress that the ideas about women’s rights had its historical roots in Bangladeshi society (Nazneen et al. 2011b). They were also inspired by the ideals of the liberation war. Over the years the ideological distinction between the different groups has blurred.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s women’s movement actors, particularly Women for Women, organized various national conventions on specific themes that brought different women’s rights groups, policy actors, state officials and political leaders together. These national conventions provided recommendations to the state for making changes and were effective platforms for exchanging ideas with a wide range of actors, including the state officials and political leaders. While in the 1980s, the women’s movement had taken an oppositional position in relation to the state after the democratic transition in 1990, the relationship with the state had evolved to be a more co-operative one (Azim, 2016). The Beijing preparation process also opened spaces for engagement with the state, and the state was willing to engage on women’s rights issues (Banu, 2015). The state has always maintained a contradictory position when it comes to women’s rights. On the one hand, it has enacted and implemented progressive laws and policies for promoting women’s rights. The availability of donor funding for women in development projects and the international development discourse around women’s rights (i.e., the UN Decade for Women) influenced the state to focus on women’s education, fertility control and economic participation for building women’s ability to contribute to the national development process (Jahan, 1995). The state was also motivated to focus on these issues to gain international legitimacy. On the other hand, the state has many times acted to sustain male privilege as seen in its reluctance to reform religious personal laws (Jahan, 1995).

The feminist organizations and their actions in Bangladesh have also been influenced by the following factors: a) the role of the international agencies and the gender and development discourse which created scope for funding various gender projects and programs; and b) the expansion of the NGO sector in the 1980s and 1990s (Banu, 2015). These contextual factors have worked as double-edged swords. The availability of donor funding for gender and development created space for feminists to enter and participate in various policy spaces. The UN Decade for Women (1975-1985) and the Beijing conference preparation process unfolded policy spaces for women.

The expansion of the NGO sector in the 1990s created scope for feminists to increase the number of allies and expanded their outreach. Bangladeshi NGOs have actively promoted women’s rights and gender equity, with many of them targeting women as clients of services and creating access to microcredit for income/ employment generation. The NGO sector also employs a significant number of women and many women’s rights activists have also established or worked for development or rights-based NGOs. However, the expansion of the ‘NGO-model’ of implementing women’s empowerment projects/ programs has depoliticized the women’s rights agenda to some extent. This is because the NGO-model of work led to a focus where the women’s empowerment agenda had shifted towards individual empowerment and women’s development work, and less emphasis is placed on collective mobilization for structural change (Halim-Chowdhury, 2009; Nazneen and Sultan, 2009, Sabur, 2013)

The Approaches:

Now as we have seen the evolvement, we could identify that there are two basic categories in which they function their motives. These two approaches are: Bottom-up Approach and Trickle-down approach. For example, if we go through the history of women’s movement in Bengal, bottom-up approach played the vital role to bring the change in point of view of the Government as well as the society. But now when the circumstances are quite different, it is a debatable issue which approach would bring a better momentum for women’s movement. Personally, I think both Bottom-up approach and Trickle-down approach is necessary to give a better momentum to women’s movement. But Bottom-up approach in the current context of our country has the better possibility.

Bottom-Up Approach:

Bottom-up approach is a collective process whereby a local community take charge of the future of its own area. It is an approach that allows local community and local players to express their expectation and engage in the development plan with their own views. It encourages local participation in every aspect of development policy. It is aimed at the whole community, promoters of ideas and projects, the civil and voluntary sector, economic and social interest groups and representative of public and private institutions (LEADER,2015).

Trickle-Down Approach:

Derived from economics, it is such an approach where the top policy makers of Government identify the problems of a society and take essential initiative to solve them. (Amadeo, 2015) When the government allocate annual budget with the hope that this money will trickle from the top to the bottom, they adopt the trickle-down approach.

How Bottom-up Process Work in Women’s Movement:

Bottom-up approach involve local community. So, women from grassroots level gain confidence about their demand and propose their actual need which run the development process in the right direction. (LEADER,2015) Women could be more vocal about the problem they face in the public sphere as well as private.

Bottom-up approach increase level of acceptance and openness to new ideas which generate initiatives from the local workers. (LEADER,2015) Only a rural woman would understand which the most essential thing particularly in her village is. As micro-credit is quite popular in our country, it is the first thing that is given for financial development. But most of the time women cannot get involve with any service because of the double burden she faces in the family. So, that woman might in need of free from that burden first to involve with any business. So, openness to new ideas to get a better momentum to give a better life to women.

It helps to build a general agreement for women all walks of life. If participatory decision-making works in the same level of women, it will ensure broad and fair representation of women. (LEADER,2015) So not only the women activist but also the women who are at a bad condition and position in life work together to overcome any challenge.

It increases decision making power. (LEADER,2015) In our patriarchal society, women have very little saying in the matter of her own house let alone in the public. So, over time women somehow lost the power to raise her voice in making decision. Each decision of her own life is generally taker by her husband, brother, or father. But in a women’s organization when she is asked to give her view and opinion about their issues, it enables her mind to think for own and eventually it gives her the capacity to think for her own good.

It reduces social imbalances. (LEADER,2015) Surely the existing gender imbalance and the maltreatment happening because of it towards women is a social imbalance. So, when mass local women protest it to raise public awareness, it will reduce. The incident of sexual assault in the Bengali New Year celebration is the result of the existing social imbalance. So, women along with some conscious men are protesting the ill mentality of the male chauvinist and the weak showcase of law enforcement bodies. These protesters from all walks of life, working in the grassroots level to seek the attention of the government bodies to bring a safe environment for women.

It surely could include more disadvantages women to the movement. As women’s’ mobility and access are very limited in our society, the disadvantage women can only connect to this movement through bottom-up approach. (LEADER,2015)

Clearly, bottom-up approach brings a richer, more complex, and coherent dimension in the framework of the movement. It will be richer because of the diverse viewpoint of the different community of women and it will get away from the cliched way of running the movement.
It will be complex because it reveals the barricades different women’s organization face to include their issues in the mainstream movement. It will be more coherent because the expression of different point of view among women’s groups, though annoying at first due to the latent conflict which is essential for the creation of new identity. (LEADER,2015)

How Trickle-down Approach works in Women’s Movement:

The efforts appear to have been prompted by the Government to reduce the gender gap falls into this approach.

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh guarantees the equal right and facilities for women. Government can take action if anybody goes against it. This initiative will be applied from the top to the bottom. (Jahan, 1995)

The Ministry of Women and Children Affair is created by the State to bring equity in our society. Therefore, the policies they take to improve the condition of women and the effects contributes to trickle-down theory. Examples can be the prohibition of Dowry Act (1980), The ordinance providing deterrent punishment for gender Violence (1983) and Establishment of family court (1985). (Jahan, 1995)

To increase the scope and access of education for girls, Government has taken many successful initiatives such as free education till higher secondary girls which is especially for the rural girls, Scholarships, Food for education programs etc. (Jahan, 1995) These steps inspire mass people to send his/her girl to schools.

Trickle down policies can develop the lifestyle of women in general without any discrimination. Women from any cast, age, religion can get equal access to and control over the rights they are promised by the Government.

The Comparison:

While the Bottom-up approach and the Trickle-down approach has exactly the opposite working process, they both have positive and negative sides which give or reduce momentum to women’s movement.

Bottom-up approach can easily decide in which way the movement would go. But it faces many difficulties to the follow-up application. (LEADER, 2015) On the other hand, In trickle down taking a policy is very difficult. As the government has to balance the recommendation from all sorts of social and political interest groups, it become very difficult to have a standpoint.

In bottom-up approaches activist generally have one agenda which they can work on. But in trickle down diverse goals need to be achieved through one single policy which makes it harder to accomplish.

Financial crisis plays a great drawback for bottom-up approach. Most of the time activist lose their hope in need of necessary money or donor agencies help them but they might turn the movement in other direction. But in trickle down necessary amount of money is quite easy to get but the proper allocation is quite hard. The Ministry of Women and Children Affair though working for more than half of its population, gets only 0.3% of the total budget. Moreover, the annual budget of our country is not at all gender sensitive. (Jahan, 1995)

As in trickle down, Government looks at the bigger picture, they often avoid the minority people. The pledge of ethnic women or third gender hardly become their area of concern. Thus, the only way these minority can raise their voice is through bottom-up movement.

Approach which is more useful for Women’s Movement:

Bangladesh is an over-populated, dependent, capitalist country with her limited resource and the society is highly divided by religion, class, ethnicity, gender. “The constitution guarantees all citizen’s equal right, which is reflected in national policies and plan documents. However, statistics show glaring disparities between men and women, rich and poor, urban and rural dwellers in access to the development process both as agents and beneficiaries.’ (Jahan, 1995, p89)

Understandably, the women’s movement has always been a heterogeneous movement containing many different political viewpoints and theories about the nature and origin of women’s oppression. The diversity of opinion within the movement reflects the variety of interest and experience and the different realities women face based on intersection between class, age, religion, ethnicity, political viewpoint etc. (DSP, 2015)

After the liberation war of Bangladesh, government’s inadequate response to victims of mass war rape was highly criticized by many women’s group and organization. But most of them feared to challenge the patriarchal point of view of the government. Organization like Mahila Parishad which aims to reconstruct the society also felt reluctant about challenging the government. But Women for Women was able to analyze the marginalized position of women and published its first report ‘Situation of Women’ in 1975. It was a first success for any women’s organization in Bangladesh. Women for women is a policy-based research organization which helps to make gender-aware policies. So, clearly back then trickle-down approach was more useful in Bangladesh. (Jahan, 1995)

With free access to education, reserve political seats, UN conferences on Women, moreover the attempt by the government to present the country as women-friendly in the global area inspire women to re-enforce commonality and fight against women’s subordination and violence.

Over time, the notion of autonomy became increasingly interpreted as an absolute. With each women group asserting its own need and identity, it set up heterogeneous bottom-up approach. Today we can see that different organization and NGOs are participating to include women to embrace a holistic concept of development. Bangladesh Rural Reconstruction Association (BARRA, 1984) to build up networking among women groups. It initiates different training programs, seminars, workshops to increase women’s participation. Similarly, it increases decision making authority in grassroots level. Bangladesh Development Society (BDS, 1978) is another association that started its journey as an NGO but with time it developed as an association. Because of ideology it included gender issues in the mainstream development. It tries to level up the backward rural women to the mainstream.

Alternative Development Association (1987) is a private voluntary association that started its journey for the development of the poor. Later, it included women cause women as a gender category oppressed by the dual force: Class oppression and patriarchy leaving them as ‘poorest of the poor’. Among the 329, they have 250 women’s groups. They especially work on the domestic sphere like failing divorce, reducing polygamy, early marriage etc. BRAC (1972) started its journey as relief-giving group became one of the most popular women aid association. Its micro-credit loan work tremendously for rural women’s financial support. (NGONEWS, 2015))

Clearly these NGO and development organization along with women activists are making women aware about their own rights and underpinned gendered assumption of the state. Different kinds of bottom-up movement is generating to move beyond the technical legal remedies, towards a trans formative struggle for peace and tolerance of difference. (Hossain, 2015)

But at the same time, participation of different interest group, making it a heterogeneous movement bringing new challenges to this movement. Different trade unions, garments workers, donor agencies, local leaders altogether making this process harder to continue with one strategy and agenda. (Sabur, 2015) Also, level of participation should not be limited to the initiate phrase but should extend throughout the implementation process. (ELARD, 2015)

Present Crisis:

With the increase of educational opportunity and technological support the wave of women’s movement is changing. In recent times the key issue that has been heatedly contested within the movement and by feminist academics is the middle-class prejudices present within the women’s movement. As we have seen, most of the women’s rights organizations and feminist organizations in Bangladesh were initially composed of urban-based professional, elite, and middle-class women. They were able to volunteer their time. Being able to volunteer time for an organization and movement building in Bangladesh is distinctly linked to class (Roy, 2011). Socioeconomic conditions limit working-class women’s ability to volunteer for movement activities. It was only in the 1990s, that the availability of donor funding for associations composed of working-class women, led to the establishment of independent working-class women’s associations. These include, for example, Bangladesh Ovibahsi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), migrant women’s association or Awaj Foundation, an organization set up by a garment worker. Establishment of these associations opened routes for their participation in women’s movement building activities. Previously, working class women were unable to volunteer their time and needed to work. This socio-economic class dimension of voluntarism, have raised question within women’s movement, particularly among the young feminists, about the normative ideal that voluntarism occupies within the Bangladeshi feminist movement (Nazneen and Sultan, 2012)

Inevitably, NGO-ization has contributed to professionalization of feminist activism for the urban
middle- class women and has widened the generational divide within the movement. Recruiting and retaining younger members are harder. The disconnect between the urban young professionals and the feminist movement also results from the movement leaders failing to engage effectively with the issues that are important to these groups and use new modes and spaces for mobilization. As the socioeconomic class composition of the movement changes, with women from peripheral urban areas joining in and new types of organizations created by working-class women increase in numbers, the possibilities for expansion and strengthening of the movement may emerge.

Apart from gaining new members, the sustainability of the movement also hinges on the success of exploring alternative resources (partnerships, constituency building etc.) by the established women’s rights/ feminist organizations and means for mobilizing (e.g. social media etc.). In fact, the women’s rights organizations and feminist activists could benefit from accessing and using these new modes and spaces that the younger generation uses and inhabits. Whether the younger generation is interested in collaborating with/ or joining the women’s rights group or feminist groups is difficult to comment on. While there have been episodes of successful collaborations between the generations, they have yet to turn into long term co-operative endeavors. It is also difficult to comment on what the younger generation of activists may do and what possible impact they may have. There are gaps in our knowledge about the extent of effectiveness of online activism, both activism on feminist issues and anti-women’s rights campaign.


Undeniably, the women’s movement actors in Bangladesh have gained significant advantages in attaining gender justice by challenging gender discrimination in political, social, and economic spheres. The demands for change have led to significant shift in state policies. The state had been able to meet several of the MDG goals. The state has significantly reduced maternal mortality and poverty and gained gender parity in primary and secondary education and made significant strides in ensuring women’s representation through gender quotas in the national and local government.

While national state shares many characteristics in their treatment of women, their policies frequently hurt or marginalize women. They attempt to control women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity. These effects of states and their nature vary locally, and these local differences make enormous difference to the lives of women within them (Ray,2000) So only the state cannot have enough authority to bring a gender-neutral society. Every woman needs to stand on her own feet to think of ways which would allow her to have control over her own life. To break the hierarchy between the policy makers and administrators, informal and collective women’s group need to come forward.

Difference between the group members in terms of their personalities, class, political experience etc. play an important part in level of their participation. To have equal and active participation of these women activist, not only a common background of skills, political experience and time is prerequisite but also respect and values for each other’s view is truly needed. (Gandhi and Shah,1992)

Therefore, to reinvent women’s movement we need to patronage and institutionalize bottom-up approaches. (Sabur, 2015) At the same time, a democratic and accountable government is must take the women’s movement to the next level. (Jahan, 1995) If both the bottom-up approach and trickle-down approach flourish in their own direction, I think Women’s Movement can get a better momentum.

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