Where is a woman’s right?

March 14, 2008
It is important not only to mark this day with celebrations, but also to remember that the celebrations belie a thousand tragedies that take place through the rest of the year, writes Tahmina Shafique

RAMSEY Clark, a former US attorney general, once said: ‘A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.’ On International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to women and their struggle for their basic human rights, Clark’s statement seems to fall apart. The Bengali society, in our country today, is structured on and characterised by patriarchy, where despite all the progress of the past century, the ‘king’ – be it the head of the family or group or even symbolically the state – can do no wrong, and women continue to struggle for their basic minimum rights. Women’s Day is till date a singular attempt to recognise the fundamental right of a woman and the need for change in our inherent social norms that further isolate a woman from her right to protection, freedom and decision making.

In Bangladesh, it is no small feat that women’s rights organisations are putting up a fight and their efforts have brought many changes in the last decade. But it is also a fact that in certain aspects of public and private life a woman is still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses.

This very week, 16-year-old Rozina from Mahimaganj of Gaibandha was raped and burnt in her house by the man she addressed as Nana. She later died of her burn injuries at Gaibandha Sadar Hospital. Thousands of cases like Rozina’s raise the important question of why, despite repeated attempts, women are still unsafe, equally, whether on the streets or at home. According to statistics compiled by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, about 458 women and adolescents were raped last year while 201 were gang-raped. A total of 126 were killed after rape, 48 were burned and 125 women were victims of acid violence.

They say education begins at home. And yet, despite the lack of concrete statistics, there is a great body of empirical evidence in each of our lives that suggests that it is at home that most women’s basic rights are violated and, even worse: it is at home that women’s right to security is violated. More than anything the problem seems to stem more from our social operation rather than the legal aspect.

It is also ironic that the actions and reactions of the state – which makes ambitious and high sounding claims of gender neutrality – mirrors the way the household operates. The state is patriarchal as is the family. The lawmakers are men, and the decision-makers in the household are men. Badhon, who was molested after she had gone to enjoy the new year celebrations in 2000 wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes ‘late’ at night, was accused by the legislative and the executive of having called the violence upon herself. When a woman is molested or sexually abused by her closest family members such as an uncle – and there are enough studies to suggest this is common – she is asked to remain silent or, worse still, blamed because it ‘must’ be invariably her fault.

From a woman’s birth, our society moulds her with these very beliefs and values – that no matter how progressive a society may become it is the woman who must compromise, step aside, remain silent, burdened by clichéd concepts like ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ of the family and the state. When a woman in Bangladesh is deprived of simple, civilised prerogatives such as privacy in personal decision-making and even her own reproductive health, it is rather a tall order to try to achieve larger goals like property or political rights at this point. It is, therefore, not an understatement, to say that across the social strata, women struggle every day for their basic rights – their social, economic and legal rights are still distant mileposts.
Ironically, even when women are in strong positions, such as in politics with two women leading the country’s two major political parties for over fifteen years, women have had to put up a strong and enduring fight to retain their position. In the 2001 elections, for example, only 6 of the 300 elected members of parliament were women. The number was dramatically lower than that of the previous parliament in which women had held 30 seats. Ahead of the elections, we are yet again asking the same questions, demanding our ages-old share of state-level decision-making power, denied by the same arguments and same constraints.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly which almost one hundred nations including Bangladesh have agreed to be go by, explicitly acknowledges that ‘extensive discrimination against women continues to exist’, and emphasises that such discrimination violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity.

The convention gives positive affirmation to the principle of equality by requiring state parties to take ‘all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men (Article 3).’
In Bangladesh violence against women has, historically, been a focal point of the feminist movement. Violent crimes against countless women and girls have fuelled determination and faith in the international women’s movement that came into prominence at the beginning of the 20th century with the political activism of the suffragettes. Yet, according to Human Development report, among South Asian nations, Bangladesh has the worst record of rape in South Asia, with one in every thousand women having been raped. Cultural backwardness and severe poverty are cited as contributing factors.

It is important not only to mark this day with celebrations, but also to remember that the celebrations belie a thousand tragedies that take place through the rest of the year.

published in http://www.newagebd.com/oped.html

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