Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 34 | August 22, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Food for Thought
  View from the   Bottom
  Straight Talk
  One Off
  A Roman Column
  Book Review
  Star Diary
  Write to Mita

   SWM Home


A Global Voice for Women

Samya Kullab

When the women's rights movement started to gain headway, a surfeit of feminist critique emerged in a variety of areas. Employing discourse analysis as a method to deconstruct prevalent concepts in studies ranging from literature to political science, it became apparent that the female voice had remained largely overlooked and that experience as we knew it was written according to the historical experience of men.

A conference, hosted by the Bangladesh chapter of the Soroptomist International Club, at Spectra Convention Centre in Gulshan to commemorate its silver jubilee, brought together a large number of experts from various critical fields such as education, health and law, areas where women are grossly discriminated against or neglected. Speakers at the conference included experts from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, giving fresh perspectives and revealing new approaches to viewing the issue of gender equality. The conference was also attended by the Federation President of the Club in Great Britain and Ireland (SIGBI), Marguerite Woodstock-Riley and Commerce and Education Advisor Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman.

The challenge facing feminists everywhere was twofold. First, it became necessary to raise awareness that notionally, gender is a social construct and to create new avenues for thinking about femininity and masculinity. Second, this awareness had to be incorporated into practical matters, including nation-building. This can only be accomplished when women's rights discourses are internalised by societies.

But that was thirty years ago and the second part of the feminist challenge that is the internalisation of women's rights norms remains to be realised. Instead, the same problems that plagued activists thirty years ago stand as resolute as ever. Cultural practices that more or less confirm the basic premises of patriarchy have consistently served to hamper the integration of women's rights in South Asian societies.

A panel discussion in the closing session of the conference.

Despite the existence of international legal treaties guaranteeing the rights of women, their implementation has yet to be fulfilled. The United Nations, in addition to promoting gender equality in the Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which came to force on September 3, 1981. CEDAW seeks to put an end to sex-based discrimination requiring states to uphold gender equality through domestic legislation, rescind all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and endorse new provisions to discourage discrimination against women. In addition, tribunals and public institutions are required to be instituted to guarantee women protection from all forms of discrimination.

All South Asian countries have signed and ratified the treaty and its conditions remain legally binding, however the conditions of the treaty have not been put into practice adequately as according to Ambassador Salma Khan of UN CEDAW Committee, “most of these laws and treaties are not considered legally binding” despite their official status which points to the contrary.

Salma Khan enumerated these particular difficulties for South Asia during the Soromptimist Conference. Among the reasons were a lack of political commitment, a lack of legal commitment, reservations concerning the importance of the treaty and lack of national machinery to assess follow-ups. Perhaps it was her last reason, adverse social and cultural practices, which encompasses the crux of the problem.

In Bangladesh and other countries where cultural practices have held patriarchy as a natural order, the most enduring challenge will be to make the private sphere answer to the conditions of the treaty. Feminist literature will continually emphasise that the private is political, and therefore any lasting change must start by targeting the private realm of society first. And according to Khan “In Bangladesh the personal is Sharia, not civil law.”

Pakistan faces acute problems in the subject of women's rights and has had a history of state sanctioned discrimination against women, which has been justified because of cultural expectations regarding the role of women. According to Justice Majida Razvi violence in Pakistan is generally related to honour-killing, “however, it is seen that it is not really 'honour'” she writes, “but different issues pertaining to the male mindset that women are their property and can be treated in any way they like.”

Considering that Pakistan is a signatory of CEDAW and also provides safeguards for women in its constitution the question of how these activities still prevail naturally arises, “In paper the laws are there,” continued Justice Razvi, “but because men are policy makers implementation is difficult.”

A common mistake, of course is to place all the blame on men for proliferating patriarchy and subjecting women to oppressive practices. Women have played a part as well in accepting a worldview that continues to downgrade their status and by not questioning its core assumptions.

Though the internalisation of women's right norms has been found wanting in most of the countries of the subcontinent, Sri Lanka remains the exception. Ranking 15th on the Global Gender Gap Index, it can be considered the state to have most effectively absorbed the discourse of gender equality. It is here that, facilitated by government funding, women outnumber men in universities. An education gap does exist, but at 3.3%, it is miniscule compared to neighbouring countries. Sri Lanka's problems in the health and education sector have not spawned from prevalent cultural norms, but from ongoing insurgency.

“Most Sri Lankans are Buddhists, and in the Buddhist philosophy man and woman are the same,” said Jebarajes Krishnamoorthy President of the Sri Lankan Woman's Association in Bangladesh.

An interesting paper presented by Dr. Dina M. Siddiqi focused on the impact of globalisation and free trade on gender and labour rights. While the garments industry has had huge success garment workers are vulnerable to global recession and policies.

Interventions in the market often cause shifts in employment levels from one country to the other depending on which one benefits. Even activism abroad can affect the conditions of workers in the country. The anti sweatshop activists in the US for example, Dina points out, focus only on the individual rights of the garment worker. Often female garment workers are depicted to a western audience, as poor, helpless girls whose only other alternative employment would be prostitution, which is far from the truth.

Dr. Sumaiya Khair brought up the issue of girl children working as domestic workers who are grossly exploited by their employers and often are victims of violence and abuse. She pointed out that the problem with domestic workers' rights is that they are not recognised as part of the formal labour force. For this reason the existing labour laws cannot be applied to domestic work. Thus, the inclusion of this kind of work under the Labour Laws is necessary to protect the rights of domestic workers.

Erum Marium, Director, Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University, presented her research findings on how poor children from single-parent households cope in a hostile environment. Apart from their ultra-poor status, these children also face gender discrimination perpetuated by cultural norms. Marium gave an example of a girl from a Muslim family and a boy from a Mandi family, both of them sharing similar problems of deprivation and hostility spawning from patriarchy and matriarchy respectively.

Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui of Dhaka University, in her research found global remittance flows as bringing upwards of $315 billion US to Bangladesh from the developed world. In South Asia, policies often work against female labour migration and as a result women find ways to leave the country through irregular channels. Although Asia is the largest migrant-producing continent, only five percent of registered migrants are women. Those seeking irregular channels to migrate do so in an attempt to gain control over their own lives and earn money for their families.

Social practices make it more complicated for women to leave the country to work and many of them are quickly married before departure. Nearly 70-80 percent of women migrate for domestic work, refuting the common misconception that they end up as sex workers. With Sri Lanka being the exception, most of these women are illiterate with very little schooling.

Legal frameworks for the protection of migrants are gender neutral, partly because when they were drafted, all migrant workers were men. And at this point, there is no gender-segregated information collected about remittance inflows.

Dr. Halida Hanum Khandaker, Executive Director of Confidential Approach to Aids Prevention (CAAP) found that no specific data is available on women's health in general. Men get 60 percent more healthcare services than women in Bangladesh.

Jebarajes Krishnamoorthy from Sri Lanka speaks about women' s health education and migration in her country

AIDS is a difficult subject to discuss especially in the rural parts. In general women are not able to talk about sexual health freely as modesty and virginity are dominant values. As a result there is a misperception about contraception. However, nearly 25-50 percent of maternal deaths are due to illegal abortion.

In Bangladesh there is no available data confirming how many women suffer from AIDS. Though AIDS is commonly ascribed to sex workers, of the women in Bangladesh who are HIV positive, most of them were infected after marriage where they cannot practice safe sex.

According to Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar of the Hunger Project, women are the carriers of the malnutrition cycle. Girl children are often deprived of schooling in rural parts where they also suffer higher rates of malnutrition. These girls soon become mothers before they are mentally and physically prepared and give birth to children who grow up malnourished, resulting in physically stunted populations.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmed of BRAC University Institute of Educational Development raised the issue of drop out rates among the poor, which according to him have not improved. He blames the educational system for forwarding discriminatory and anti-poor policies. To eradicate the problem he stresses that the educational system itself must be reformed.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect about discourses is that they make themselves invisible, to the point that the very fact of their existence is taken as a given and not questioned, nor does the idea to question them occur. One does not question for example why it is aesthetically pleasing for women to keep their hair long but frowned upon if men were to do the same. This institution is considered natural and has fomented expectations of how one ought to behave. For South Asia, and much of the world behavioural expectations have for centuries, worked within the framework of patriarchy.

“It is difficult to change a mindset that's been confirmed for generations,” said Dr. Ranjana Banerjee from Loreto College- Calcutta University “but education is a tool which can bring about social change.”

Banerjee insists that empowerment and gender equality can only come about through education. In her native India, where much of her research is conducted, 50 percent of girls in rural and urban settings are not attending school. Reasons for which are mainly socio-cultural and financial.

For one, the idea that a woman's place is at home compounded with the fear that an educated woman may not find a suitable husband later on in life works against educational schemes. Moreover, as many children in India (as in most of South Asia) live below the poverty line there simply aren't financial means for families to keep children in schools. Any venture to promote education in this case is inept without government involvement.

Dr. Dina M. Siddiqui speaking about gender and labour in a globalised world.

Despite persistent barriers, it would be unfair to say that things have not changed since the 1970s. Few but significant examples have sprouted all over South Asia, especially in Pakistan. Mukhtaran Mai can be evoked to provide an example of how change can take place. When Mai brought her assailants to court and found retribution through law, she did so because she was aware of her rights.

A noteworthy change in Pakistan to date for women's rights activists came when the Hudood Laws were revised and replaced with the Women's Protection Bill in 2006 after incessant campaigning and international pressure. Hudood, which governed the punishment of rape and adultery became law in 1979 as a part of General Zia-ul-Huq's Islamisation process, made it nearly impossible for a woman to prove that she had been raped and often resulted in her incarceration as an adulterer.

During the inaugural meeting of the Soroptimist Conference, Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman made an interesting remark when he pointed out that in the past few decades, it was the personality of women which had changed. “Women's psychology is more proactive now,” he said, adding, “they have become more assertive and tenacious, which is the most important transformation.”

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008