On this International Women's Day, I want to remember Nasima, Dolly, Shyamoli and all those women who did not allow violence and discrimination to break them, but rather gave them strength to stand up and fight back. In the course of our work we come across many such brave women, who, in spite of suffering the most horrific forms of violence such as rape, gang rape, acid attacks, stalking, sexual harassment etc. continue to persevere and turn their lives around. My article today is a tribute to them and all the women in Bangladesh who struggle everyday of their lives to make this world a better place for themselves and their families.
Below is such a story.
Shyamoli from Tangail faced physical and mental torture from her spouse and in-laws just after her marriage in 2001. Torture on her increased after she gave birth to a girl child, till one day she was beaten severely and thrown out of the house. She returned to her father's home penniless and with a child to take care of. At one point, she decided to stand up against violence and torture against women. She gradually became a strong voice on behalf of victims of violence and got involved in preventing child marriage, dowry, domestic violence etc. She also started to participate in local shalish to ensure justice for women and over time began to be considered as a community leader. Shyamoli decided to become economically self sufficient and started a small yarn/thread business and set up a weaving machine. Gradually, her business grew and she now employs ten people, earns Tk. 16,000-18,000 a month with a bank savings of Tk. 120, 000. She sends her little girl to school and looks forward to a better life for her child.
In Bangladesh, the picture of violence and discrimination against women is grim. Women continue to face discrimination and violence in their private and public lives. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics study in 2015 reported that 72 percent women experience some form of violence while 49.6 percent face physical violence by their spouse or close relatives. Fifty-two percent (UNICEF) girls are married before the age of 17 or 18. As per report of Ain O Salish, a total of 671 girls and women were raped and 191 were murdered by their husband or relatives from January 20 till November 2016.
However, this does not tell the entire story about the lives of women in Bangladesh. Today, more than ever before women are moving ahead in careers that was not thought possible even 20 years ago. There are now over 8,000 women in the police force and women are flying fighter jets besides going on Peace Missions alongside their male colleagues. Two women successfully climbed the Himalayan peaks and our girls are making a mark in sports and other forms of athletics. Labour force participation has steadily increased and besides the four million in the garment sector, other opportunities have opened up such as the service industry, agricultural sector etc. These women have not allowed patriarchal norms and beliefs to stifle their ambitions to lead productive and independent lives. There are others who, in spite of suffering violence and abuse, have been able to turn their lives around.
The question is why have discrimination and violence against women not gone down in spite of two powerful women being head of government for the last 25 years? How come the mass population has no problem accepting the leadership of women in public offices, yet, are so reluctant to share power or to accept equal relationship with their female counterparts, be it spouse, colleague or friend? The answer lies in the fact that essentially the mindset and attitude of society has not changed. The sad truth is women continue to be perceived as weak, dependent and unreliable. They are still shackled to customs, traditions and norms that dictate what women can or cannot do. Although educated middle class women have attained a measure of economic and social empowerment, yet many succumb to tradition and custom when choosing a career or life partner.
For women to be truly empowered and achieve equality in private and public life, certain conditions have to be met simultaneously. Most important is of course political commitment. Given the policies and laws enacted during the present regime one can say that there is indeed political commitment at the top level. However, the institutions responsible to push the agenda of equality forward do not function with accountability, transparency and sincerity. Law enforcers succumb to pressure from powerful people and allow perpetrators to go free. The rape and murder of Tonu, a college student in Comilla is one such example. Women continue to face obstacles when seeking justice. From local shalish to all the way up, the system is mired in corruption and not women friendly causing humiliation and misery to women and their families when they go to exercise their fundamental right of seeking justice.
Lack of safety and security in the lives of women creates obstacles to the mobility of women forcing them to stay away from public participation, work and even education after a certain age. It poses a threat to the achievements of the SDG goals which targets achieving full gender parity in all social indicators by the year 2030. Lack of safety is not confined to public places, but also exists at home with prevalence of domestic violence being high, as per the BBS report of 2015.
The most important factor is the attitude of society and families towards women. The perception about women needs to undergo a change, from the present negative to a positive one. Women should be recognised and valued for their contribution, no matter what they do. Society and families have to understand that women make crucial contribution as home-makers through their productive and reproductive work or as workers in the fields, factories and offices. Their contribution should be evaluated, recognised and honoured. Violence and discrimination are symptoms, the real issue is respect, dignity and status. Unless women are accorded equal status, discrimination and violence against them will not be reduced.
Finally, the theme for International Women's Day this year is “economic empowerment of women in the changing world of work: Planet 50-50 by 2030.” Indeed, it is time to recognise that the world of work for women has changed. Planet 50-50 by 2030 will only be possible when the world is willing to recognise and value women's work in all its dimension, both paid and unpaid. The campaign call is “Be bold for Change”, calling to help forge a better working world for women, a more inclusive gender equal world.
The writer is Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation.