Conceptualizing Women's Empowerment in CSR Initiatives within the Bangladesh Garment Industry: A Comparative Case Study Approach

Zartashia Ahmed & Fatma Salma Houerbi

Student thesis: Master thesis


Women’s empowerment (WE) has become a well-worn rhetoric in development circles.
Recently, international fashion brands have also begun to advocate for women’s
empowerment through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices in their global
production networks (GPN). Yet, to date, social scientific knowledge on how such programmes
are achieved through CSR, and which conceptualization of empowerment they embed within
GPNs is underexplored. Through a comparative case study approach, this thesis therefore
aims to investigate how women’s empowerment programmes are conceptualized in the
garment production network of Bangladesh. In theoretical terms, this thesis digs deeper into
the dynamics under which the conceptualization of women’s empowerment CSR programs in
GPNs take place. These relate to the governance of GPNs, power and participation in CSR,
labour agency and empowerment as a theory understood from two definitions - a World Bank
definition, and a definition advocated by feminist scholars. We find that WE CSR programs in
the Bangladesh garment industry have conceptualized women’s empowerment in a manner
which favours the interests of international fashion brands, and leaves limited space for
women workers’ voice and participation in CSR, let alone their space to exercise influence via
collective actions. Women’s empowerment programs conceptualized under these conditions
are then obliged to refer to traditional development goals, such as better health, increased
income and women's enhanced negotiating power vis-a-vis their employers as evidence of
empowerment. These issues however, although framed as win-win, do not alter power
relations, and neither do they challenge the status quo. We argue, from the perspective of the
origins of the very notion of empowerment itself, that empowerment cannot be bestowed by
third parties and is not a destination per se; rather it should make women workers capable of
challenging the status quo and the supporting power structures embodied in the system

EducationsMSc in Business, Language and Culture - Business and Development Studies, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2017
Number of pages139
SupervisorsPeter Lund-Thomsen