On the 28th of November, The Daily Star and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) jointly organized a policy-level dialogue at the Azimur Rahman Conference Hall, The Daily Star Centre. The title of the discussion was "End Violence against Women and Girl Child: 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence". Participants at the dialogue included representatives from NGOS, law enforcement agencies and policy makers. The Chief Guest was MP, Waseqa Ayesha Khan and the roundtable was moderated by Shahnoor Wahid.
Ayesha Khanum,President of the Jatiyo Mahila Parishad presented the key paper discussing issues such as the prevalence of gender-based violence and typologies of violence, ranging from emotional to physical and sexual violence. Ms. Khanum especially highlighted the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the accompanying Programme of Action as a milestone document especially as it specifically addresses the elimination of all forms of discrimination against girl children and addresses the root causes of son preference and its detrimental impact in the form of female infanticide. National laws and policies in Bangladesh should therefore also be aligned with international agreements and goals, such as the ICPD and the new Agenda 2030.
In his introductory remarks Mr. Iori Kato, Deputy Representative, UNFPA spoke of the staggering number of 4.5 million people globally who fall victim to forced sexual exploitation, of whom nearly 98%, are girls and women. Mr. Kato affirmed that violence against women is a human rights violation - it is both a cause and consequence of this gender inequality and discrimination stemming from a patriarchal culture. The first ever study on violence against women, undertaken by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, with UNFPA support, in 2011 brought to light that 87% of ever married women and girls have experienced some form of violence from their husbands, 65 percent physical violence and 37 percent sexual violence.
Mr. Kato went on to mention child marriage as another form of gender based violence, which is particularly common in Bangladesh, with the highest prevalence in all of Asia. While speaking about the consequences of GBV the UNFPA Deputy Representative called to attention the tremendous negative impact on the lives of victims; leading to physical injuries in some cases even death, life-long psychological trauma, forced pregnancy, forced abortion. Many of them have to give up their education or work and they have to live the rest of their lives in fear and stigma. GBV breaks the fabric of a community and thereby impacting the country as a whole. The costs of GBV are not only limited to a personal or family level, but also have implications on national budgets, due to health expense, legal expenses, opportunity costs in terms of educational gain, productivity and economic profits, among others. A study by CARE shows that the cost of GBV in Bangladesh represents 12 to 13 percent of the entire annual expenditure, or two percent of the entire GDP. The occurrence of natural disasters or conflicts exasperates the GBV. Mr. Kato moreover mentioned the historic setting of this year's campaign: "We are observing 16 day activism against GBV at a historic juncture. This year Bangladesh Government has launched the 7th Five-Year Plan, which speaks of freedom from violence. 2015 is also historic globally because UN members including Bangladesh have adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Agenda 2030, for the first time in history include the explicit targets to eliminate GBV, carrying forward the unfinished agenda of ICPD.
By 2030 Bangladesh will be a country of almost 100 million women and girls so unless everyone including women and girls are empowered and reach their full potential, there will be no real prosperity or sustainable development. Now the question before all of us is how long more we want to see our fellow women, girls and boys fall victims to violence. If all of us, the government, the police, the parliamentarians, development partners including the United Nations, civil society, private sector, religious leaders, school teachers, parents and others work together, we can not only reduce but eliminate GBV. UNFPA will not stop the efforts to prevent and respond to GBV until the day comes when all the women, all the girls and all the boys feel safe and have the dignity that they deserve."
Prof.Dr.S.M. Wahiduzzaman, Director of Secondary Higher Education stressed that GBV is not only violence against women and girls but against humanity and it must be stopped. He informed that the Ministry of Education has taken steps to stop sexual harassment. In school curriculum chapters on GBV and sexual violence have been included to raise awareness level.
Senior ASP, Md. Tareq Jubayer said that girls and women only come to the police for help when they are in desperate situations. The Bangladesh police have started Victim Support Centres, now called Women Support and Investigation Division under the supervision of a woman Deputy Police Commissioner. There is also a Cell for Prevention of Women and Children Violence. He informed that the issue of GBV has been incorporated in the police training curriculum and gender sensitive policing in police management course. He thinks the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) developed by UNFPA has become very useful in the training of the police force. He is of the opinion that if the program is scaled up in all the districts from the present pilot it would be very helpful in ending GBV.
Advocate Kamrun Nahar from Naripakkha observed that the continuing prevalence of GBV is due to the inferior status of women in society. However, one change has taken place, the silence has been broken. Women are talking about the violence they experience, reporting it to the police and media. Advocate Nahar however expressed doubts whether the perpetrators of violence were being dealt with effectively. A small study (2011) undertaken by Naripakkha revealed that men continue to believe they have the right to commit violence against women. Many said they deserve to be beaten for violation of dress codes. Kamrun Nahar believes work needs to be done to change the patriarchal mindset. She feels the policy of posting one mental health counselor in every hospital is a good idea as they can address the to-be-perpetrators and help change their mindset.
Shamima Pervin from UNFPA said that though there are some remarkable achievements such as the domestic violence act and dowry act that have been passed, implementation is still largely lacking. She observed that discussions on gender and women issues are often not considered important. Many invitees from the government sector for example choose to not attend seminars or roundtables dealing with gender issues. She questioned why it should take 44 years to implement laws to bring about the desired changes in society. Acknowledging the fact that GBV is a global problem she, in the context of Bangladesh, questioned the existing culture of impunity. She suggested we learn from other countries where they have overcome the culture of impunity and brought down the rate of GBV. Ms. Pervin believes that unless the political parties and the administration put GBV on the agenda and political manifestos the issue will never be adequately addressed. In her words, " We are teaching our boys so many things but not how to respect women. Social media can play an important role in this regard.
Honourable Member of Parliament Waseqa Ayesha Khan assured that gender and women's issues are incorporated in the manifesto of the ruling Awami League. Policies ensure that there is no gender discrimination. "We have achieved gender parity in the primary level and presently there are more girls enrolled than boys," She informed. She stressed that awareness and social values are of utmost importance teaching boys how to respect women; that women are human beings too, a lesson that needs to be taught even before boys enter school. The Honourable MP emphasized that if boys see a sister or a female member being abused or discriminated, he will learn the same thing. She mentioned a UNFPA study where male respondents said they believe they have the right to abuse women - emotionally and sexually, and 52 percent of them said that they physically assaulted their intimate partners. She agrees that sensitization of the members of the police force regarding how to handle abused victims is very important. She said, "Our girls will face discrimination in the work place, in educational institutes, at home and outside but we have to teach them to protest." She gave the example of the prominent UN 'He for She' campaign, calling for it to be spread throughout Bangladesh. The Honourable MP further observed that our culture does not teach us to disrespect women. The idea of masculinity has to change. Being masculine does not mean being violent.
Towards the end of the roundtable, Ayesha Khanam requested the Honourable MP to push the agenda along with the women caucus in parliament. Shamima Pervin from UNFPA provided a brief on the 16 Day Activism against GBV. In his concluding remark Mr. Iori Kato said that gender inequality is a social norm deeply rooted and the challenge is how to address it. He believes this is the task ahead of all of us.
* Discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minority women and men must be stopped.
* The SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) developed by UNFPA has become very useful in the training of the police force and needs to be scaled up in all the districts.
* Work needs to be done to change the patriarchal mindset.
* A policy of posting one mental health counselor in every hospital is important to help change the mindset of to-be-perpetrators.
* Political parties and the administration must put GBV on the agenda and political manifestos.
* Teaching boys how to respect women; that women are human beings too even before they enter school.
* Sensitization of the members of the police force regarding how to handle abused victims is crucial.
* Girls must learn to protest when faced with discrimination let that be in the work place, in educational institutes, at home and outside
* The prominent UN 'He for She' campaign, should be spread throughout Bangladesh.