Shefali Begun goes to bed many nights hungry because there is nothing left to eat after feeding her four children and husband.

But the frail mother, one of millions of poor Bangladeshi women who toil from dawn to dusk, is not complaining.

"We are a poor family. I am used to it," said the 40-year-old wife of a farm laborer who earns about $1.50 a day in a village 120 miles east of the capital, Dhaka.

There are other women even less fortunate.

Thousands have been abandoned by their husbands because they were unable to provide an adequate wedding dowry, while many others are tortured or smuggled abroad by traffickers. Many of these women are lured with the promise of jobs but end up as prostitutes.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina are women who between them have ruled the impoverished South Asian country for the past 15 years.

Despite promises to ensure equal rights, education and jobs, very little has changed for women here, particularly in villages, where 80 percent of the Muslim-majority country's 140 million people live.

"I am born to live in poverty," said Shefali's neighbor Masuma. They live in Shahabazpur village, which is threatened by floods almost yearly from the Meghna river, which flows close by.

"As a child, I had dreams. Before marriage, I had hopes. But as a wife and mother, I see both my dreams and hopes have evaporated," she said.

Most of Shahabazpur's 1,000 families live on farming, though many have no land of their own. They work in others' fields and their homes are crumbling tin-roofed structures.

Women, experts say, bear the brunt of the poverty.

"They are deprived of equal rights within and outside families. They suffer atrocities and injustice at all levels," said Shirin Akhtar, president of Karmajibi Nari, a group representing working women.

Each year, at least 5,000 women are divorced because their husbands want to take another wife, rights groups say, adding that there are many more cases that go unreported.

An additional 300 suffer acid attacks from jilted lovers or because of family feuds, women's rights groups say.

And an estimated 10,000 women are smuggled out by agents promising them jobs in India, but they instead end up in the red-light districts of Bombay and Calcutta. Others are shipped to Pakistan.

Female activists say that a promised empowerment of women in Bangladesh has largely remained elusive, and even in politics their presence is marginal despite the rise of Khaleda and Hasina.

The country's 300-member Parliament has only seven elected female legislators -- including Khaleda and Hasina. The government has decided to reserve 45 seats for women, but activists say that won't help much because the positions will be filled by appointment, instead of an election.

They said these handpicked women would just be a "showpiece" without any real powers, beholden to their political mentors.

Mahmuda Khatun, a schoolteacher, said that there were women in rural government councils but that they were sidelined. "They are forced to keep quiet by their male colleagues. Women are as powerless as before."

But a government minister said women may not yet be ready for the hurly-burly of an election, especially those who live in the villages.

"We are not against election of women, but we think a gradual integration of women in politics is better in our context," Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed said.

Despite generations of backwardness, Bangladeshi women have made some progress in various fields in the past decade, including education and business.

Though still few, women have joined police and the army, previously thought to be the preserve of men, and have joined the ranks of company executives, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs and other professionals.

But Salma Ali, head of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, is still gloomy.

"Despite promises of empowerment, equality and all-round welfare, women in Bangladesh are still the worst sufferers in their families and the society."

A woman carries bricks in Dhaka, the capital. In the country's villages, where 80 percent of the population lives, women often work from dawn until dusk. A woman works in a garment factory in Dhaka. Despite leaders' promises to ensure equal rights, education and jobs, little has changed for women in Bangladesh.