The development aspirations of a nation cannot be fulfilled unless women are integrated within the process
Nobonita Chowdhury is the Director of Gender, Justice and Diversity (GJD) and Preventing Violence Against Women Initiative at BRAC. A law graduate from the University of Dhaka, Ms. Chowdhury holds over two decades of outstanding experience in journalism, media and communications in Bangladesh and in the UK. She did her MA in Human Rights Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. On the occasion of International Women's Day 2022, Tahseen Lubaba from Law Desk talks to her on some of the pertinent challenges faced by women in Bangladesh and around the world.
Law Desk (LD): What lessons can we take from the COVID-19 pandemic in order to protect women from facing differentiated impacts of disasters/public health crises?
Nobonita Chowdhury (NC): The pandemic has affected women disproportionately; crises such as war, disaster, or public health emergencies always affect women disproportionately. From the surveys that we conducted through BRAC after the first lockdown in 2020, we got to know that 3 women lost jobs for every 1 man, particularly in the informal economy where women make up more than 90% of the labor force. Women also face hurdles in accessing the stimulus packages offered by governments failing to meet the criterions not fit for women. Moreover, the burden of household and care work has also gone up significantly for women. On the other hand, a large number of women entrepreneurs and workers were affected severely as the business sector, the SME and MSME sectors have suffered the most. Now while we have started recovering from the pandemic, women also started facing higher obstacles in returning to work.
The biggest problem is that we still do not know the exact scale of impact the pandemic has had on women. We do not have the numbers required to understand the vastness of the problem. However, based on what we know, there are two lessons here. Firstly, we must work specifically to reinstate women in their workplaces and in positions where they were before the pandemic. Secondly, we must work to build long-term resilience so that women are better prepared to tackle similar crises in future. The criteria applied in offering stimulus packages or similar benefits will have to be designed through a gendered lens so that women can receive the necessary support during such pandemic. Another long-term change required is that of division of labor within the household – until men and women share household work equally, women will always face inordinate pressure which will keep them from building resilience to face crisis situations.
LD: How has the pandemic affected women and girls, particularly with respect to instances of domestic violence and child marriage?
NC: Domestic violence was extremely high even before the pandemic – so we can imagine how the already worse situation could have exacerbated during a time where there were increasing socio-economic pressure. The surveys also show an increase in child marriage. However, we do not have nationwide data. Such data cannot be obtained without governmental initiative. Unfortunately, district administrations do not keep proper record of rates of child marriage and many a times, non-governmental organisations are discouraged, and their records are refuted by government entities as being too high. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to get data that properly reflect the ground scenario. During the pandemic, all emergency service providers were overburdened and they could not respond sufficiently to victims of domestic violence and the few government shelters which were previously providing support to victims were shut down.
The state and non-state actors must work to bring about behavioral change in order to make the communities more open to allowing women and girls to build resilience and attain financial independence in order to deal with crisis induced vulnerabilities.
LD: What is the present situation of women in climate vulnerable areas in Bangladesh? What is your appraisal of the measures being taken to protect them?
NC: Women are more likely to "stay back" with the most vulnerables in the families like children and older people. They do not have equal opportunities like men of migrating to a different area when climate disasters affect their habitats. Some of these areas are extremely conservative, for example, in Cox's Bazar, where the communities are particularly resistant to allowing their women and girl children to attain education or any skills training or engage in income generating activities. The state and non-state actors must work to bring about behavioral change in order to make the communities more open to allowing women and girls to build resilience and attain financial independence in order to deal with crisis induced vulnerabilities.
LD: How do you evaluate the role of state and non-state actors in protecting women in conflict situations? Do you think women in leadership positions have the potential to reduce conflicts?
NC: Situations of armed conflicts set women back by many years. This is a multidimensional issue – women face multifaceted impacts of conflicts and we cannot fully grasp these impacts. For many years, conflict has gone on in Afghanistan to remove Taliban from power. However, after 20 years when Taliban came back, there is a lack of presence of international community or any political power to resist them from sending women back home and not allowing to go to school or work. The most uncertain situation is being faced by the women and girls in any war or conflict as they do not have any unified political force or they generally do not share the leadership positions in any political force. Leadership is not necessarily limited to role of heads of states or governments; one needs to understand the ratio of women at all levels of decision-making. When seen that way, it is evident that the world is still overwhelmingly patriarchal. While each individual may view conflicts from their own perspective, the global policies are still dominated by males, hence male perspectives control the global political discourse. We are far away from women being in leadership positions from where they can protect and nurture the collective interests of women.
LD: How do you evaluate the role played by women in media in combatting misogyny and violence against women?
NC: A very small percentage of women work in media and even fewer assume leadership positions. It creates a big difference when women are telling the stories of women. Otherwise, all stories are written from very one-sided perspective when those are written, edited and even published by male dominated newsrooms. However, the number of women viewers and readers have increased and this is something that is pushing media outlets to produce contents that speak to these women and contents which represent women as having voice and putting themselves on the map.
LD: Please give your observations on the 2022 women's day theme: Gender Equality for a Sustainable Tomorrow.
NC: As we focus on development as a nation, it should be relayed to every community and every household, like a mantra, that the development aspirations of the nation cannot be fulfilled unless women are integrated within the process. If women are not given the opportunity to join the labor force, have access and control over resources and opportunities, we cannot reach our full potentials. This is a narrative that has not been adequately brought forth in the ongoing discussions on sustainable development.