20th Anniversary Supplements Archive

Women development policy:
Pushing the boundaries?

Hameeda Hossain

Photo: Amdadul Huq/Drik news

Sixteen years after Bangladesh endorsed the Beijing Plan of Action (1995) for gender equality at the UN Conference for Women, the Cabinet has finally okayed a National Policy for Women's Development in 2011. Its earlier incarnation formulated in 1997, in consultation with women's groups, and perhaps in deference to international commitments and aid promises never got off the ground. It then became hostage to fractionalized politics. A revisit to its history explains why the 2011 Policy remains conservative in limiting its recognition of women's rights in the public sphere and how institutional weaknesses and bureaucratic conservatism can frustrate implementation.

Drafted two years after Beijing, the 1997 Policy was not put into operation before elections intervened in 1997 and power passed on to the Four Party Alliance government formed by the BNP, Jamat and the Islami Oikkyo Jote. Changes were then introduced quite surreptitiously in 2004, and appeared in the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs publication entitled Jatiyo Nari Unnayan Niti 2004. Articles 7, 8, 9 and 12 of the 1997 policy document were amended to deny women rights to property, land and inheritance, to limit their access to employment opportunities, deprive older women of much needed support, and undermine their participation in public decision making. This move into reverse gear puzzled most women's rights activists, particularly as official rhetoric on gender equality had not changed. During her term of office, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in her public speeches, never failed to mention her government's role in the advancement of women. And, the Minister for Women's Affairs in submitting Bangladesh's Fifth Report to the UN Committee on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (UNCEDAW) in 2004, committed her government to removing the remaining obstacles to equality, with particular reference to rights in marriage, property, citizenship and political participation. Not that these promises were expected to be carried out! The published changes were suspected to be the handiwork of the BNP's extremist partners. The announcement of a remake of the Policy in 2008 by the Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government provided another opportunity to the Islami Oikkyo Jote to take to the streets even though inheritance was a taboo word. This backslide in women's rights was made worse as three of the Advisers openly courted the agitators and conceded to their threats to withdraw the Policy.

The state has taken several positive steps. Earlier, the NSAPR II and other sectoral plans, had underwritten support, however limited, through safety nets, vulnerable group development. Entry into the market was supposed to be facilitated through micro-credit and micro-enterprises. Affirmative action in education and health showed some results in increased enrollment and reduction of, say, maternal mortality. Women's representation in public affairs became marginally more visible. In the last few years, the Parliament has enacted several positive laws for women eg on domestic violence, citizenship rights, etc. The courts have passed strong judgments against sexual harassment, stalking and illegal penalties imposed by fatwa edicts. However, its taken several years for these rights to be legislated; and law enforcement continues to be tempered by relations of power and a high degree of community tolerance of violence, particularly gender based violence. A weak or partisan enforcement machinery has allowed impunity to powerful perpetrators.

What does the 2011 Policy promise? The Women's Ministry draft is an extensive inventory of development plans and state obligations culled from international conventions, while staying within the boundaries of prevailing laws. The Policy document starts off by describing the situation of women, their participation in political struggles, the consequences of the 1971 war of independence, and their subsequent inclusion into Bangladesh's development plans. As its objective the Policy acknowledges the need to address the persistence of poverty, insecurity, and injustice. It advocates women's participation, advancing their capabilities, recognizing their contributions. It seeks to restrain violence, eliminate discrimination, increase access to education, health and employment, address special needs of older women, women with disabilities, women from indigenous and marginalized communities. In 23 more detailed sections, the Policy claims to reaffirm its commitment to non-discrimination in compliance with CEDAW provisions; it touches upon protection of the girl child, incentives for education, participation in sports and culture, economic opportunities, access and control over property, credit, land, market, food security, agricultural work, health care throughout her life cycle, shelter, post disaster rehabilitation; its concerns include women in excluded communities, and women with disabilities. A gender disaggregated data base and a gender responsive budget are expected to provide a back up.

The details of the document need to be analysed in greater detail and its implementation methodology needs to be worked out with minute attention. An assumption that economic opportunities will catalyse a woman's rights, or enhance her capabilities to exercise these rights does not seem to be validated in practice, as we find in the case of women industrial workers, who are denied their rights at the work place, carry on a double burden at home, and are subject to domination of global markets. Or in the case of domestic workers, invisible behind four walls, and unrecognized in law.

What women asked for was a comprehensive charter of rights. The Policy remains evasive on the subject of rights in a woman's private life and does not challenge the essential sources of disempowerment. Section 16.1 aims to ensure constitutional right in matters of the state and public life only; section 17.1 limits observance of human rights and fundamental freedom in political, economic, social and cultural spheres, without mentioning personal rights in the family. The Government could indeed have moved forward first by withdrawing its reservation to Article 16.1(c) to guarantee equal rights in marriage, rather than taking a rap from the CEDAW Committee for non-compliance. As a result, the Government is expected to report on compliance with CEDAW provisions within the next two years. In Sec. 25.2, the Policy refers to women's access to or control over earned income, credit, land and market only. The document has shied away from equal rights to inheritance. Sec. 17.3 proposes legal reforms based on human rights, but does not categorically imply a leveling of gender inequalities in marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody and guardianship within different communities. By ignoring the personal, the Policy has hesitated to move towards substantive equality, perhaps to avoid confrontation with the religious right and to placate social conservativism within party ranks.

Why then did the policy pronouncement on March 8 sound a provocation for political agitation? Is it likely to become hostage to Bangladesh's fractionalized politics as happened in the past? Even before the final draft could be made public, expressions of protest have been voiced by a religious right party, to the extent of a hartal call for April 4. Is this a show of strength by the religious right to mobilize their street power, by calling into action mosque attendees and madrassah cadres or as a strategic tactic to impose social controls. We must remember that these protests come from a party that has challenged the judgment on fatwas, denied the supremacy of the constitution and seeks to impose social controls over women.

Historically, demands for state intervention to address women's poverty, gender discrimination and violence against women emerged from successive women's movements after the 1971 war. After 1975 gender entered into the development discourse, instigated either by a demand for visibility of women's work or the utility of their labour in the market. In the eighties as women entered the work force in greater numbers, either in rural, self employment driven by micro-credit, or in urban industries, women began to construct issues of equality in terms of social justice. Into the nineties the notion of social justice has been taken up by women's groups who locate themselves as adibashis, religious minorities, socially excluded communities, women with disabilities, or vulnerable to climate change and pursue their agendas for recognition of identity and rights. These multiple experiences need to be taken into account in setting directions for social and political change and creating a space for the diversity of women's voices, differentiated by class, religion, ethnicity and gender.

While we continue to challenge the boundaries of discrimination and struggle for substantive equality and social justice, we need to move forward by translating the Policy intent into action plans matched by budgetary allocations. The challenge is not only from regressive political dogmas, or traditional conservatism of our communities which subscribe to social injustice. The weakness of state institutions and bureaucratic resistance to change has often stalled good plans. In fact, the Policy document has stressed the need to build the capacity of state institutions for an effective engagement. It is for the Women's Ministry, as the lead coordinating agency, to bridge effective bridges with other relevant ministries. And to sustain a participatory and democratic exchange with the women's constituency at different levels, the local and the macro, rural and urban, workers and employers. A critical engagement between government agencies and women's groups is important to monitor the distributive system for leakages or partisan exclusion.

The writer is Chairperson, Ain o Sahlish Kendra.