I saw a post on Facebook this week by a woman about how, while walking on the streets, she was subjected to repeated comments made about her physique by a man. It did not surprise me, and it would not surprise anyone, especially women who live in this country. This brave woman decided to confront the man, calling him out, and in no time a crowd gathered around her. While one man came forward to speak up in her defence, the rest gawked, some even going so far as to say that she should just forgive the man, “bhul hoye gese onar” (it's a mistake, let him go). What surprised me about this incident were the comments made on the post. That she was just an “attention seeker”; that the man who came to her aid would not have done so if the victim in question was a man (implying women are given undue privileges, and it is actually the men who suffer more); and the usual pontificating about the women's attire, even though what she was wearing on the occasion was mentioned nowhere. Social media, with its degree of separation and relative anonymity seems to encourage all sorts of remarks that we harbour. That a great many of us indeed think that women get undue privileges, that feminism is a bad thing, or that women who are subject to sexual harassment 'bring it upon themselves' through their behaviour or attire may go unnoticed in every day conversation, but the extent of this diseased mentality is evident to anyone who spends two minutes on social media. Violence against women is endemic, and per its definition, it includes both physical violence and sexual harassment.
As a signatory of the UN's Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Bangladesh has made a promise to combat violence against woman as well as enact policy that favour women for that purpose. The brief explanatory text on the three principles that are the basis of the CEDAW states that for true gender-equality to be achieved, it is important for us “to closely look at seeming differences between men and women. More important is to see the underlying assumptions about those differences, which range from cultural norms to prejudices, mistaken beliefs and political structures.” The convention also places the responsibility for change on the state. It recommends that States Parties “take special measures to proactively address the persistent discrimination against women and thus allow women to exercise their rights, as guaranteed by national laws and policies, on an equal footing with men.” It not only upholds the principle of gender equality, it calls for affirmative action to dismantle socio-political structures that perpetuate gender discrimination.
The CEDAW, instituted on September 3, 1981, is widely regarded as the women's bill of rights. It has been ratified by 189 countries. Bangladesh, one of the early signatories of the convention, ratified it in 1984. Simply put, Bangladesh is “legally bound to put its (CEDAW) provisions into practice.”
It is expansive in its mandate, covering legal and social terrain to bring about effective change regarding gender discrimination. These range from those related to employment (maternity issues, workplace safety etc.) to those about cultural and social norms. And although the 1979 text of the CEDAW did not explicitly mention violence against women (VAW), through its recommendations, the convention has long since identified it as a major issue.
The World Conference on Human Rights recognised violence against women as a human rights violation, and its implications in the road to gender-equality are obvious. Since then VAW has been incorporated as a part of CEDAW and the general recommendations put forward by the convention covers this in detail. And the number of instances of violence against women in recent times, and our culture of justifying this behaviour (in effect blaming the women for crimes committed against them), goes to show just how far we are from dealing with the issue.
General recommendation 19 of CEDAW states: “Traditional attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion, such as family violence and abuse, forced marriage, dowry deaths, acid attacks and female circumcision. Such prejudices and practices may justify gender-based violence as a form of protection or control of women. The effect of such violence on the physical and mental integrity of women is to deprive them the equal enjoyment, exercise and knowledge of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While this comment addresses mainly actual or threatened violence the underlying consequences of these forms of gender-based violence help to maintain women in subordinate roles and contribute to the low level of political participation and to their lower level of education, skills and work opportunities.” It is clear that the state needs to take a stand not only in implementing laws that guarantee the equality of women and men (as does our constitution), but also take action in combating the patriarchal and sexist attitudes towards women that justify cases of violence against them.
According to Ain o Salish Kendra, from January to July this year, there have been 381 incidents of rape, and 94 of the victims were aged between 7-12 years. Between January to June, 101 women have been murdered by their husbands and 148 women have been harassed, 4 of whom committed suicide. And while there have been positive steps taken by the government such as the Domestic Violence Act in 2010, as pointed out by an article in The Daily Star on this day in 2012, we have a long way to go. Marital rape is not included in our definition of rape, educational institutions have not followed through with the 2009 HC order to set up complaint committees or complaint boxes for cases of sexual harassment, and our law enforcement and medical facilities remain completely gender insensitive. Case in point, the sheer psychological strain that a woman is put through in the process of filing a rape case, the clinical examination, and the court environment where her 'character' is frequently called into question in investigating the veracity of the rape claim.
Violence against women, be it physical or psychological, has been normalised in our society. What else would explain our victim blaming every time a woman is raped or sexually harassed on the streets? What explains the impunity by society to those who think it completely normal to touch a woman without her permission in broad day light? Why is the first question asked when a woman is raped, what she was wearing? How else can we explain our Shipping Minister's comment at the University of Dhaka, at an International Women's Day event, that the sexual harassment of women last year during Pohela Boishakh celebrations by men ganging up on them was an “inconsequential incident”? Or a Union Parishad member in Rangpur last month issued a fatwa on a woman to be caned, when the laws state that fatwas cannot be used to hand out punishments, physical or otherwise.
NGOs, educational institutions and the media doubtless have a major role to play to end discrimination against women. But as a signatory of CEDAW, 32 years into ratifying the convention, the state of Bangladesh must ask itself has it done enough? Because laws are as useful as their practice. This must start from the administration and its members' commitment at all levels if any dent is to be made on the hideousness of our collective mentality towards women.
The writer is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.