The challenge of change
Bangladesh has begun to rate high in official statistics on indicators of women's advancement. Recent MDG appraisals have indicated improvements in life expectancy, maternal mortality, parity in education and rising employment. While these advances can be attributed to positive policies they are only part of the story. They do not make for a comprehensive change in gender relations or promote women's empowerment for several reasons: first, opportunities for education and employment are held back by social and cultural constraints, second, piecemeal reforms and limited participation without equal rights do not bring about real freedom and empowerment and third, women do not form one monolithic group, and simple reforms do not open doors of advancement equally to all women irrespective of their ethnicity religion, caste and class.
National and international investments over the last 40 years have increased women's access to selected services to meet their practical needs partially for education, waged work and credit. The potential of women's low cost labour has also been seized by the market to boost Bangladesh's rating in global trade. While these advances are important in themselves we need to ask if they have freed women from the shackles of forced marriages, dowry demands, domestic subservience and marital violence, or exploitation at the work place and sexual violence in their public lives?
For a wide range of reasons from insecurity to poverty young girls are unable to complete their schooling, resulting in large drop outs. If their numbers were assessed it would suggest a lower realisation of the MDGs. Women's labour is utilised more in the informal sector, where wages are low and conditions poor. The export sector recruits the largest proportion of women, but poor conditions of work, low wages and risk of industrial accidents call for urgent and effective changes.
Yes, women have demanded material progress, equality in resource allocation and development opportunities, but beyond such piecemeal reforms they expected state interventions to restructure institutional changes which would make for a gender just transformation in relations within the family, in community values and in recognition of women as citizens. This is why the demand for legal reform has remained an essential element of the women's movements – as a means towards affecting their public and private lives.
Unequal rights particularly in marital relations and in inheritance make for oppressive situations often bordering on violence. Thus notwithstanding women's increased opportunities for education, the customary preference for early marriage has limited women's autonomy; social insecurity, fear of sexual harassment and sexual violence are other reasons for young girls to be forced into unwanted marital relationships. Yet the demand for equal rights in marriage and divorce has not progressed beyond the Family Laws Ordinance 1961. After a sustained campaign by women's groups the government finally adopted a National Policy for the Advancement in consultation with many women's groups but it has yet to be operationalised. The legacy of traditional religious norms stand in the way of change in personal laws, and underline the need for reform.
Society's tolerance of unjust traditional norms is a contributory cause of gendered violence. Since 2000 several laws have been enacted, including the more recent Domestic Violence Act 2010, which aim to provide protection for the survivor and deterrent penalties to the perpetrator. But patriarchal norms prevent women from seeking justice and the legal system often acts as an impediment. In many cases of rape and sexual violence defective prosecution and investigation procedures have obstructed justice and increased women's vulnerability. In the case of rape and death of Shima Choudhury in jail custody, the accused police officers were acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence, even though there could have been no other conclusion.
Women have challenged the social tolerance of violence instigated by fatwa or sexual violence and rape in public institutions by taking up these issues in the higher courts. Nineteen years after the incident of a fatwa against Nurjehan which led to her suicide, a directive from the Supreme Court has declared illegal any penalty imposed by a fatwa. It now calls for a monitoring of any violations of this order whether by local representatives, officials or social elders. The High Court has also intervened to penalise sexual harassment in educational and other institutions. These interventions await strong enforcement measures by the government and active interventions by women.
The women's movements have campaigned for legal and policy reform and for participation, in the expectation that this would provide women the right to freedom in decision-making on the basis of an informed choice. Certainly the recent amendment to the Citizenship Act has given equal rights to women and their participation has increased in the parliament and in the local government. But why are the representatives, who have entered this space, while being vociferous in partisan party debates but remain silent on concerns that are central to women's security such as violence on the campus or the use of militant student cadres?
The divide amongst women on account of their class, religion, ethnicity or caste suggests that the women's movements need to look beyond standard, internationally developed indicators for equality to understand how different identities subject women to different forms of exploitation, and how the state and society reinforce these inequalities. Should not the exploitation of garment export workers or young domestic workers not be taken up by women employers as a woman's issue or should be rejected by them as a class issue; when a young Chakma or Marma girl is raped in Khagrachari or Bandarban, in some cases by law enforcement personnel, should we not be equally concerned as we are with the rape of a girl in Tangail?
Women's movements for equality, for non-discrimination for peace and security cannot be merely a means to earn privileges for a few or extract concessions from an unjust economic and political order. Rather the struggle is to overcome traditional norms of oppression set by a patriarchal society, to curtail the power of political hierarchies and to challenge the exploitation of unregulated market regimes. Our struggles should thus envision a recognition of diversity in women's life experiences, and work towards transformative social and economic justice and a meaningful representation in state structures. In challenging the present structures of power the struggle cannot be deflected with marginal changes without justice.
The writer is an eminent human rights activist.