The substantial benefits of bringing electricity to unserved areas are well known: business development; safety; educational opportunities, and more.

But in Bangladesh, where electric cooperatives—with the help of NRECA International—began to deliver power to rural areas in the early 1980s, there was an additional perk: As part of its founding charter, the Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB) mandated that all its member co-ops would be required to hire women as billing clerks.

It was a daring social experiment in a very conservative culture that generally prohibited women from leaving the home to earn a paycheck. The move, spurred by Sabihuddin Ahmed, the progressive first BREB chairman, helped set a path for women to play a more productive and equal role in rural Bangladeshi communities.

"These co-ops were the first real employers of women outside the home," says Dan Waddle, senior vice president for NRECA International. "What started as an energy project became a catalyst for real social change in Bangladesh."

The mandate set the stage for additional gains toward gender equality. Female employees now make up 35 percent of the total workforce in Bangladesh, the second highest in South Asia. At electric cooperatives, women have moved beyond billing operations, and it's not uncommon to see them working in member services departments. Significantly, the BREB requires that at least three women serve on co-op boards of directors.

"Women were used to staying at home with the children, and they didn't think they could contribute to the social economic condition of their village," says retired General Moin Uddin, BREB's chairman. "With electricity, now they're educated, they can see the whole world, and they're working side by side with the gentlemen."

Since NRECA International's first involvement in Bangladesh more than 40 years ago, the average annual income for Bangladeshi homes with electricity has increased by 250 percent. In 1980, about 13,000 people living in the country's rural areas had access to electricity. Modeled after American electric co-ops, 80 Bangladeshi electric cooperatives today are serving more than 100 million people. The government says it's on track to connect all 165 million Bangladeshis by 2021.

NRECA International Slideshow: Bangladeshi Women

Photos by Mahmud Hossain Opu

For more, please visit NRECA International

More: Along Those Lines Podcast, The Rise of Female Lineworkers