‘Women's right to make decisions is paramount'
Harry Verweij, the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Bangladesh, talks to The Daily Star's Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan about Bangladesh's progress on women's empowerment and the Netherlands' role in this regard.
Cooperation between Bangladesh and the Netherlands in different sectors goes back over half a century. This year, the Netherlands will celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage while Bangladesh will celebrate its 50 years of independence in a few years. Against this backdrop, how do you see women's empowerment in your country and in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh and the Netherlands can learn a lot from each other. Men and women are close to equal in almost all parts of the Netherlands. However, in terms of women in important positions, we still have some progress to make. In this regard, Bangladesh's female prime ministers are exemplary cases of women's empowerment.
The women of the Netherlands played a significant role in the industrialisation of our country. During the Second World War, our economy was devastated. After that we completely redeveloped our economy. With landmass one fifth of Bangladesh and with only 17 million people, we are now the second largest agricultural exporter in the world after the United States. We are the 17th largest economy in the world. This wouldn't have been possible without innovation, quality education for all, and an open, inclusive economy. We have given the same quality of education to all and we have given all citizens, men and women, equal opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills.
I really applaud Bangladesh for its achievements in gender equality in the past 20 years. It has achieved incredible progress in female education. There are institutions in Bangladesh which have been focusing on developing women entrepreneurs. Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs are doing an amazing job which I saw first-hand during my six months in the country. They are creative and forceful, cutting through the red tape and doing a lot of good things. Bangladesh has really progressed a lot in terms of creating more opportunities for women.
What are the key initiatives undertaken by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (EKN) to empower women in Bangladesh? How has the government of Bangladesh been facilitating this?
We have always considered the government of Bangladesh to be a partner. We work within the policy framework of the government to ensure sustainability of our programmes. We have been working with the government on several gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programmes. We found the government to be extremely cooperative in this regard. In fact, it is quite courageous of the Bangladesh government to work extensively on several delicate issues such as SRHR, equal rights of women in their families, prevention of AIDS in conservative rural areas, etc.
With government support, we have also been engaging the private sector with our programmes. A project like Working with Women by SNV introduces inclusive business solutions to ensure health and SRHR of garment workers. In our projects like IMAGE, SHOKHI, we do not only work with girls or women, we also work with their in-laws, male members of the families and young unmarried people to ensure that women can have a safe environment. We are working hard to prevent child marriage. Many women have become financially empowered; many of them attended our education and health programmes. But our most significant achievement is helping to create a general sense of awareness among family members, among the women themselves. And these women have become the ambassadors of women's rights in their own communities.
Bangladesh has been acclaimed internationally for its progress on several gender indicators. How would you evaluate these achievements? What are the major challenges for Bangladesh to achieving its goals?
Since its independence, Bangladesh has gone through a lot of significant changes. However, the nature of this change is different in lower income groups compared to the upper- and middle-income segments of society. If I start with the latter, there have been lots of positive improvements such as the increase in women's participation in education, rise of women entrepreneurship, women's participation in politics, in the job market, etc. On the other hand, in the lower-income segment, there have been both positive and negative developments. The positive development is that many women from the lower-income families have become the backbone of Bangladesh's economy as many of them work in the RMG sector. They have become slightly more independent than before. They have a job. They can look after their families, their children, and can ensure their education. These are signs of positive developments.
If you characterise these changes, however, you'll see that these are more individual developments, not completely policy-supported. At the same time, there are certain social cohesion issues in Bangladesh which still have not been adequately dealt with. Although these employed women are providing for their families, they are not always fully free in making their own choices. One of the major challenges is to ensure that these women are independent, that they can live as an equal partner in the society and can decide their own future. I often say that when a country's economy is at the tipping point, as Bangladesh's economy currently is, it can tip over to the positive side or the negative side. To push the economy towards the positive side, women need to be given equal space and their right to make decisions is paramount. And, the society needs to make sure that it is ready to accept this development.
How do you see Bangladesh's progress towards eliminating gender-based violence?
Increasing instances of violence against women is an extremely serious issue for Bangladesh. I know a statistic that more than 80 percent of married women encountered violence by their intimate partners at least once in their lives (ICDDR,B). Actually, there are different forms of violence against women. Rape, being the most horrific form, should be radically prosecuted. Otherwise it will provide safe space for the perpetrators. Again, other forms of violence such as psychological violence, financial violence and violence against children should also be addressed simultaneously. Domestic violence should be addressed rigorously. In this regard, men should also be included in the programmes developed to address these malpractices. Still men are the decision-makers in most of the families in Bangladesh. This is why it is critical to change men's attitude to women's rights and role in the families.
The ready-made garment (RMG) industry is Bangladesh's largest export sector and the Netherlands is one of its biggest buyers. The vast majority of RMG workers in Bangladesh are women. How is the Netherlands supporting this large group of women?
I think we have been one of the most important and active partners of Bangladesh when it comes to the country's RMG sector. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, we have been working closely with the Bangladesh government, not to criticise them, not to impose our policies on them, but really to help find rational and feasible solutions. The Accord, which is the agreement between the unions, brands and the producers, has worked tremendously to improve workplace safety in the RMG sector. And many Bangladeshi factories have reached European standards in terms of workplace safety.
However, still we are far from reaching our ultimate goal where all the RMG factories in the country will be able to guarantee complete safety to its workers. This is an ongoing discussion and we are at the forefront on this matter. We should also focus on other aspects of workers' rights such as wage gaps, sustainable sourcing and pricing of the RMG products and workers' right to express themselves freely.