Pick up a newspaper and you are almost sure to find a report or two relating an incident of violence against women (VAW). The number of reported cases is huge, but they constitute only a tiny part of the real figure. Very often the woman who has suffered an act of violence chooses not to report it, especially when it happens within the family. Why? Because she has grown up in settings where unequal treatment on the basis of sex is considered to be normal; and she also fears bringing shame on herself by making public the violence she has endured, as if she were to blame for this. This silence on her part is a role she is expected to play by the society.
Domestic violence is, however, just one aspect of VAW. VAW takes many forms, from eve teasing to acid throwing, sexual harassment at the work place or school, stalking, hurling abusive language or passing suggestive comments. And they happen in all levels, starting from family to community to the wider social arena. Though there is no reliable data, it could be safely surmised that incidence of VAW remains a huge concern and a development challenge facing the country.
VAW, domestic and otherwise, is a manifestation of the gender equality that permeates across the society. The traditional gender norms and customs and misinterpretation of religious edicts place less value on girls and women compared to boys and men. A woman faces gender discrimination at every stage of life from inception through adolescence to adulthood. A girl is more likely to be denied access to education and drop out if poverty forces the father to choose between a boy and a girl. As she grows up her space shrinks, freedom and mobility narrows down while her brother gains freedom and has his opportunities expanded. An adolescent girl is invisible because she is in the background, which is imposed on her often as a protective and control measure. She is considered a burden on the family and not only doesn't she promise any future return to the family, she is, on the contrary, a drain on family resources because she has to be married off with a dowry. So at no stage of life does she have the power to make decisions that affect her, and this relative powerlessness of women makes it possible to subject her to violence. So the society's attitude towards women has to change before we see violence against women reducing.
Changing these deep-rooted attitudes that have survived generations and are held so dearly by a large part of the society is far from easy. At Plan we carry out activities that can be broadly categorised under the heading of short-term and long-term interventions. Short-term interventions are meant to address the more immediate needs, such as protection and livelihood opportunities for the survivors of VAW. We have a number of projects that directly or indirectly address the VAW issue. The Protecting Human Rights project, which focuses on reducing domestic violence, offers a comprehensive package of services including legal and psycho-social counseling, medical support in addition to placement at shelter homes. Our Girl Power Project provides similar services. Plan does not operate any shelter homes on its own, but has established linkages or forged partnership with the NGOs who do. Plan just ensures that the survivors they receive get access to safe shelters.
Both the projects also provide a variety of livelihood opportunities in the field of tailoring, desktop publishing, livestock, poultry, beautification, nursery, nursing etc. Plan also assists the survivors in securing government-provided assistance such as VGD, VGF, as well as entry into food for work programmes and the 100-day programme.
While protection and livelihood opportunities are helpful for the VAW survivors to start life anew, they do not essentially address the root cause behind VAW. What is needed is a changing attitude towards women or bringing equilibrium in the power relation that is currently immensely tilted in favour of men. Plan seeks to bring that transformation through empowering girls, by promoting education and girls' sports like martial art and girls' football. Other interventions such as disseminating messages through street or popular drama, discussion and debate, nurturing a healthy and respectful relationship between boys and girls through cultural activities, engaging the people in position of power such as public representatives and local elites and making girls aware of their rights. These are all long-drawn efforts and will take time to bear fruit. But then, big changes do take time and we must keep working patiently to change attitudes towards women and eliminate violence against women.
The writer is Interim Country Director, Plan International Bangladesh.