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    Volume 9 Issue 12| March 19, 2010|

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Food for Thought

Bad Attitudes and Worse Behaviour
(Part I)

Farah Ghuznavi

In recent decades, Bangladesh has distinguished herself in the global arena through the quality and variety of the development initiatives that Bangalis have created to address problems of poverty and inequality. Widely viewed as cutting-edge innovators, some individuals notably the founders of BRAC and Grameen Bank - have been internationally awarded and celebrated for these achievements.

Other organisations like CARE Bangladesh, although less high-profile, have been successfully piloting some unusual initiatives. For example, as the result of a pro-active and creative approach to recruitment and training, no less than 20 of the drivers in CARE's current transport pool are women, as are 4 of the mechanics. By doing so, the organisation provides an excellent example of splintering the glass ceiling, in terms of providing non-traditional employment opportunities. Now others need to follow suit.

Despite examples of innovation, population size and the scale of poverty in Bangladesh sometimes prevents us from viewing the benefits more tangibly on a national scale. Nevertheless, it is beyond debate that significant gains have been achieved in terms of human development. Yet notwithstanding such creativity, and the work already undertaken, inequalities between women and men in Bangladesh still remain stubbornly entrenched. And indicators such as the unacceptably high maternal mortality rate and heavily skewed income and employment data show that much remains to be achieved.

One possible reason for the situation is a view widely held, and frequently advanced in Bangladesh, that poverty “is a more serious problem” than any inequality between the sexes. Poverty, along with governance problems, is undoubtedly among the key challenges facing Bangladesh today.

But this approach does not recognise that poverty and gender discrimination are not only related, they feed directly into each other. It's no accident that poor women are at the very bottom of the social totem pole! And they are kept there by their dearth of financial assets, inheritance rights or lack thereof, limited access to education and health facilities etc.

The issue is not only about whether action is being taken to address these socio-economic realities, but also very much a question of whether enough is being done. Because despite some welcome signs of progress on greater gender equality - hard-won through the efforts of a cross-section of actors, including individuals, the government, private and civil society organisations - considerable work still remains to be done.

A quick perusal of the newspaper headlines each day, for example, tells a depressing story about the actual situation and status of women; and these ground realities are most effectively illustrated by the widespread prevalence of violence against women. For each case that hit the headlines - from the rape and murder of teenage Yasmin travelling back to her home in North Bengal, to the case of Shima, a student at Dhaka University driven to suicide by her harassers, to all the others before and since - ordinary citizens have been left appalled, and repeatedly called for action against those guilty. Yet most of the time these protests are rendered impotent, and the demands for justice remain unaddressed.

There is little doubt that the ineffective response of the law-enforcement authorities in such cases has compounded the situation. But the truth is, until we can change some of the most damaging underlying structural factors that contribute to and sustain the unequal dynamics between women and men in our society, we are doomed to continue reading such terrible stories in the media; just as we hear them anecdotally from people that we know household staff members who tell stories about the situation of women in their village or in urban slums, family friends who face impossible dowry demands, relatives who regularly experience verbal or physical abuse in their marital home and so on and on and on. We may wish to pretend otherwise, because the truth is ugly, but this is the reality for too many people in Bangladesh today.

Changing the current situation will require considerably more than simply directing additional resources to women's empowerment. For one thing it is much easier to design policies to promote greater equality between women and men, than it is to actually change attitudes that are deeply ingrained. And such negative attitudes are often reflected in people's behaviour.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the domestic sphere. The place that is supposed to be our refuge from the demands and unpredictability of the outside world, all too often bears witness to the worst side of human nature. This is facilitated by cultural attitudes which state that what happens inside the home is nobody else's business. And human rights laws, often essentially designed to protect the individual from state structures, have for too long protected abusers by default, by seeking to protect the privacy of the home from “interference” by the state. This is gradually changing, and rightly so, but we still have a long way to go in protecting those most vulnerable inside their homes children, the elderly and women.

There are many, many people whose sense of decency and humanity are outraged by such events; but it is equally true that there are many others who take advantage of poverty, backward social attitudes and inadequate state protection to carry out such abuses. Sadly enough, these abusive and misogynistic attitudes are one thing that people In different parts of our country country may have in common regardless of their differences in religion, education, class background and degree of wealth.

Some time ago, I was visiting the field operations of BRAC, where I ran into a very interesting character. The encounter took place at a group discussion with inhabitants of the village concerned. A young man in his early thirties coolly informed me that he used to be an alcoholic. To say that I was surprised to hear such a candid confession being made at such a public forum is an understatement. For a start, admitting to alcohol consumption is shameful enough within a Muslim community. But the story that followed was unusual on a number of levels.

In front of a mixed group of people - women and men, young and old - the man continued his story. “I had been a heavy drinker for many years, and I hated my life. I felt that my wife and children made no effort to make things any easier for me. They always seemed to be crying, or nagging me about something. So sometimes I would beat them, just to make them leave me alone. And I spent as much time as possible away from the house and away from them.”

“Then my wife and I were asked to participate in a training session organised by BRAC. I was initially reluctant to go, but that training changed my life. I think it was on the third day that I started to realise that my problems lay with my drinking rather than with my family. Even when I did some work, I would invariably spend the money on alcohol. I began to understand that the reason why my wife and children were crying and “nagged” me was because they were so often hungry. And ultimately, I realised that if my life was ever going to improve, I would have to stop drinking. So that's what I did.”

(...to be continued)



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