The Asia Foundation in association with The Daily Star organised a roundtable titled “End violence against women and girls: Sharing ideas about workplace violence prevention” under the Women’s Economic Empowerment through Strengthening Market Systems (WEESMS) project which is being implemented in partnership with iDE and funding assistance from the Embassy of Sweden, on December 9, 2019. The speakers highlighted the role of development organisations in ending violence against women at workplace particularly in the informal sectors. Here we publish a summary of the discussion.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), Associate Editor, The Daily Star
In Bangladesh, the proliferation of informal work has opened the doors for many women to find work. However, this has its negative sides. We have plenty of laws but they are not being followed and implemented. The media is a tool of empowerment, hence its importance in the topic. Unless all the stakeholders are informed, the problems will not be solved.
Sadia Tasneem, Technical Advisor-Advocacy & Gender, WEESMS, The Asia Foundation
WEESMS works with the micro and cottage level women SMEs and male SMEs where a significant number of women are employed. It trained 60 women-oriented SMEs and 1,600 women employees from Rangpur and Khulna Divisions on the issues of labour rights, health safety and security, gender and family dynamics following the module for improving decent work conditions. WEESMS convince owners that ensuring the well-being of their employees will lead to greater business profits. The enterprise owners are also encouraged to follow the directives issued by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh for preventing sexual harassment at workplaces, educational institutions and in public places. But due to the informal nature of the sector, place of work, lack of awareness, inadequate incentivisation, it becomes difficult to ensure protection of women at work.
Many employers have expressed their eagerness to comply with national and international regulations and looking forward to enhance their capability to implement the directives. Gender norms and relationship impact women employees largely. The project is running edutainment sessions for male and female family members of SMEs and employees for creating positive attitudes towards women at work, making them realise women’s income and leadership can benefit the well-being of the family too, encouraging them to avail GO-NGO services for responding to violence against women in need.
Dr Hameeda Hossain, Convener, Sramik Nirapotta Forum (SNF)
In relation to women workers, there is corporate sector violence and informal sector violence, among other segments. The home is a workplace as well and should be so for men too. Legal instructions issued from the High Court Division about setting up sexual harassment prevention committees at workplaces have not been applied yet. We can monitor whether committees have actually been established and are unbiased.
Nobonita Chowdhury, Director, Preventing Violence Against Women Initiative, BRAC
Steps must be taken in order to help the increasing number of women who are joining the informal sector. A forum can be arranged for informal sector workers. All related organisations need to prioritise the involvement of more men in achieving such aims. The informal sector needs to be formalised in order to account for women’s labour.
Dr Mohammad Harunur Rashid Bhuyan, Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS)
The government had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1984 but retained reservation in few articles, namely Article 2 and 16.1 (c) We can raise our voices in different kinds of fora to remind the government to fill these gaps.
BIDS conducted a study on 520 samples of which 120 were taken from Dhaka, and the rest from rural areas. The study revealed that 90 percent were victimised by family members. Of this, sexual harassment cases were more than 64 percent.
Farzana Khan, General Manager, SME Foundation
Economic empowerment of Bangladeshi women alone cannot reduce violence against women, but is still important.
Jatiya Nari Unnayan Niti states that women must receive proper recognition for their work, and SME Foundation works toward this. Proper implementation of the gender budget is required. Transport facilities and daycare services must be part of all organisations for women workers.
Md Borkot Ali, Deputy Director, BLAST
The High Court Guideline allows us to address the issues of harassment at informal workplaces. Apart from the guideline, we have many laws to fight against violence and harassment such as: Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2003, Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, Labour Act 2006 and the latest Civil Service Act 2018. However, the main issue is the lack of awareness among people about rights.
Shima Moslem, Joint General Secretary, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad
Women’s rights are violated in mainly two areas: discrimination in wages and working hours and gender-based violence. The laws in place are implemented only in the formal sector, and so it is important to address how women working in the informal sector can also benefit from these laws. Dissemination of the laws is needed. Violence against women is considered a women’s issue instead of a human rights issue, which is unacceptable. Bangladeshi women do not seek legal justice in these matters as they fear the consequences.
Taslima Yasmin, Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka
In the 2009 guideline, sexual harassment was not properly defined. Our existing criminal laws need to include sexual harassment cases in public places. There was mention of sexual harassment in the 2000 Nari-o-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain. However, in 2003, the Parliament removed this word citing the reason that the term “sexual harassment” was vague and could be misused. New laws need to be developed for educational institutions and workplaces, in which the internal mechanism is dictated, and the administration can be held accountable. The existing Labour Act must also be amended to include the definition of sexual harassment, and incorporate complaint committees. A co-ordinated draft, which has the contribution of all parties, is thus strongly required.
Sabina Sultana, Senior Programme Officer, Multi-Sectoral Programme on VAW, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs
Complaints and issues of women in the workplace need to be addressed during weekly or monthly meetings. MoWCA has a 24-hour helpline 109, which caters to both formal and informal sectors. This number should be disseminated in all workplaces. An Android app named “Joy” allows people to connect directly to 109, or the nearest police station. It also sends a text message stating, “I am in danger,” to friends and family. National Trauma Counselling Centre (NTCC) will conduct research to understand the mindsets of the perpetrators.
Humaira Islam, PhD, Founder and Executive Director, Shakti Foundation for Disadvantaged Women
Violence can be really subtle, and it is difficult to judge which women take offence to which actions. The best strategy could be to teach women forms of self-defence, such as Tai chi. We recently relaunched our women empowerment department of Shakti and plan to involve more women in Tai chi classes.
Irfath Ara Ira, Programme Analyst - EVAW, UN Women
UN Women has an ongoing project in partnership with BLAST which deals with combating gender-based violence at workplaces, especially in universities. Positive male engagement from all levels is also required to ensure a safe workplace.
Mosharrof Hossain, CEO, xDSocial
A bottom-up approach is required. We want to make people at the grassroots levels aware of the steps to take in cases of violence. Awareness is required because even sexual harassment committees can be infected with people who themselves abuse others. There needs to be more focus on developing the soft skills of women to counter any sort of gender-based violence. In Bangladesh, the participation factor has improved, but the opportunity to attain skills development training is not being provided to women.
Khadiza Akter, Treasurer, Awaj Foundation
Factories in the RMG sector do not follow labour laws, and this largely affects the informal or contractual women workers. Many cannot avail facilities they are entitled to receive by law, such as maternity leave, since factory owners say that there is no law to back them up.
Automation has led to many women workers shifting to the informal sector, with the percentage of women workers in the RMG sector dropping from 85 to 60. This is happening due to a lack of training provided to women on automation. Trade unions, which are not led by women, do not help the cause either. The ratification of ILO Convention 190 has been strongly opposed by factory owners, as they see it as a loss for them. Inequality in wages happens usually through an unfair grading system.
Sharmin Islam, Women’s Economic Empowerment Specialist, UNDP
While choosing a guarantor, women often have to pay bribes or are asked for sexual favours to receive loans. More women should open up about harassment they face. One of the reasons behind is the burden of associated investigation processes and the negative impact that falls on women.
Women entrepreneurs are unaware of their rights. Women-led SMEs would benefit if male “gatekeepers” are sensitised.
The local government can help by providing suitable infrastructure such as lights on roads to ensure safety.
Israth Jahan, Programme Officer, Bangladesh Labour Foundation
Numerous women in Bangladesh still do not know what they must do if they get abused. Boards containing safety information should be set up to prevent violence. Many families usually encourage victims to keep silent about harassment. Men are not blamed for their actions, and women are blamed for not maintaining the “correct attire”.
Sohana Samrin Chowdhury, Programme Officer, International Labour Organization (ILO)
We must keep in mind that incentives are important when thinking of investing in workplaces. Why do laws not get implemented? I believe it is because there is a lack of incentive in the implementation process.
Sankar Das, National Consultant, International Trade Center
It is important to note how the value-chain actors are responding to overcome violence against women. Violence happens at marketplaces too (raw materials trading areas, etc.). Are male suppliers treating women suppliers as equals? Are they giving women the required credit facilities? How are microfinance institutions working and helping women-led businesses with the correct information? These factors should be taken into account.
Rumana Ali, Senior Research Associate, BIGD, BRAC University
If women are not given the confidence that they will not be defamed for sharing their experience of abuse, then reporting will eventually fall to zero percent.
Rafeza Shaheen, Programme Co-ordinator, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF)
We always focus on female workers in the formal sector, particularly in the RMG sector. But a large number of women are involved in informal sectors who are equally vulnerable, if not more, to workplace harassment and violence. We should take initiatives to address this issue.
Sahida Khondaker, Research Associate, BIGD, BRAC University
The 2009 Guideline states that all organisations must have written sexual harassment policies, which is not followed by most Bangladeshi organisations. Workers are also not aware of how they can actually lodge complaints when they experience any sort of sexual abuse.
Shabbir Shawkut, Technical Advisor- Capacity Building and Public Private Dialogue, WEESMS, The Asia Foundation
Workplaces need to be designed so as to prevent violence. The premises should be open and transparent, and employees should be made aware of the limits they must maintain to avoid committing any sort of violence.