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     Volume 5 Issue 106 | August 4, 2006 |

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Human Rights

Bangladesh gains representation in the committee

Kavita Charanji

Ferdous Ara Begum

A Bangladeshi has made it to a key international post for the promotion and protection of women's human rights. The lady in question--Ferdous Ara Begum, has a long list of credentials. She is working as director general of state-owned Bangladesh Television, a former bureaucrat, additional secretary Ministry of Establishment, joint secretary, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, as well as commissioner of taxes, National Board of Revenue). She is currently member of the board of directors, Grameen Bank and honorary advisor on trafficking, International Organisation for Migration. Recently Ferdous won a landslide victory to make it to the position of member of the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) committee.

Ferdous' election is a landmark for Bangladesh having bagged the highest vote of 140 to the prestigious body. Despite skepticism regarding her lack of hands-on experience in women's organisations, to her political connections and her extensive lobbying, the fact is that she has devoted a large part of her career to the cause of women. As she points out, in the Ministry of Women and Children one of her major responsibilities was to oversee 34 gender-specific projects designed to provide social and legal protection for women and children. Likewise, she undertook initiatives for Government and NGO collaborations. At the grassroot level she took on the challenge of introducing the concept of CEDAW, the Beijing Plan of Action and the Millennium Development Goals. Behind the scenes, she took the lead for the preparation of the 5th periodic report of Bangladesh to the CEDAW committee and in the review of implementation status of the report at the CEDAW committee meeting during the 31st session.

Asked to comment on the significance of CEDAW, Ferdous points out, “The Convention is an International Bill of Rights for women. It provides the basis for realising equality between men and women through ensuring women's equal access to and equal opportunities in personal, political and public life. At a very basic level it stands to ensure that all women have equal access to education, health services, employment and other empowering instruments.”

That's all very well at one level. Women activists point out that Ferdous' election is a mandate for Bangladesh's considerable progress in achieving millennium development targets for reducing maternal and child mortality rates, ensuring universal primary education, decreasing gender discrimination, empowering women and establishing women's rights.

Salma Khan

On the other hand, NGO circles point out the government's reservations on Article 2 and Article 16-1 (c) of the Convention on the ostensible grounds that they conflict with Sharia law, go against the very spirit of the Convention. According to Salma Khan, currently ambassador to Indonesia and former chairperson (1997 and 1998) and committee member (expert) (1993-2006) of the UN committee on CEDAW, Article 2, for instance, “obligates governments to reform all discriminatory laws and adopt new laws to promote women's equal rights. It is not just a question of repealing all discriminatory laws but ensuring that new laws give women better access to their rights. Likewise, Article 16, which deals with women's rights in marriage and family relationships, is a very important area for women's empowerment.”

Indeed the government's reservations seem flimsy. In a summary of the shadow or alternative report (2004 for the 31st session) prepared by well known NGOs Ain o Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad and Steps Towards Development, to supplement the 5th periodic report of the government of Bangladesh, the writers assert, “Of the 26 Muslim countries that have ratified CEDAW, only seven countries have explicitly stated reservations with regard to Article 2. The following Muslim-majority countries have ratified CEDAW without any reservation to Article 2: Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon.” As Ayesha Khanam, general secretary, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, maintains, “ The government's point of view is not strong. We have to judge the issue rationally without any preconceived notions.

Also the UN CEDAW committee supported the NGO point of view over the government argument."

Other challenges for women are discrimination in areas of their private life such as food intake, education at secondary level, employment, reproductive rights, freedom of movement and inheritance rights. A report, titled CEDAW and Bangladesh, Constitution,

Ayesha Khanam

Law and National Initiatives, prepared by Steps Towards Development asserts, “Various statistics show that women lag substantially behind men in indicators of economic participation and political participation. There are uncertainties about the 'reserved' seat provisions to the 'token' representation of women in Parliament which may be discontinued in the new (8th) Parliament. Political participation of women is low because of illiteracy and social conventions that discourage their involvement in public life and politics.”

On the sunny side is a strong mechanism to monitor the progress of the member states in the implementation of CEDAW. For one, unlike many other conventions, CEDAW has a separate committee to keep track of the progress. Likewise there are periodic reports (every five years) by respective governments along with the alternative or shadow reports of NGOs. Such measures create pressure on governments to ensure transparency and accountability. As Shaheen Rahman, director of the Gender and Development Communication Centre of Steps Towards Development, says, “The government is under pressure from NGOs, civil society to withdraw the reservations from Articles 2 and 16.”

Among the NGOs that are working to promote CEDAW in Bangladesh are Ain o Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Steps Towards Development, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) and Nari Pokkho. Many have training and awareness raising programmes for policy makers, media and grassroots women's organisations . “First of all the people have to know the how, why and what of CEDAW,” says Kohinoor Begum, assistant programme manager of the advocacy cell of BNWLA. “By and large, the masses are unaware of this Convention,” she adds.

Currently CEDAW has been ratified by 183 countries. Bangladesh ratified the Convention in 1984 and is believed to be the first country in South Asia to do so.

Clearly it is still a long way before women the world over get their rightful due. The immediate challenge for women's organisations in Bangladesh is to lobby for the removal of the governments reservations on CEDAW.

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