Talking Gender Parity

March 19, 2009

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Tahmina Shafique recaps the steep climb for women’s rights in Bangladesh, starting from the initiation of the National Women’s Development Policy in 1997 and the follow up, or lack thereof

photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

Like every year, this month we will be celebrating International Woman’s Day across the world. This is presumably the day when women on all continents, despite differences of class, ethnicity, culture and economy come together to celebrate their day. It is a day to reflect back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

It is in this very month that once again the fact dawns that Women’s Day, in a country such as Bangladesh that is structured and characterised by patriarchy, 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.

Yet again, Bangladeshi women find themselves sifting through the tales of many movements, protests and struggles.

According to a recent survey report released by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation based in Dhaka, violence against women claimed 518 lives across the country last year. Of the victims, 172 women were killed over dowry and 246 in domestic violence while 83 killed after rape. The list also includes 17 female domestic helps.

Besides that, 367 more women were raped and eight of them committed suicide during the one-year period. Two domestic helps also committed suicide. Twenty women fell victim to fatwas (religious edict).

The report points out that a total of 168 people were killed in shootouts with the law enforcers and 68 people died in the police and jail custody in 2008.

Add to this, according to a study undertaken by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), about 60 per cent of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) have been physically or sexually abused during their lifetimes. The finding was based on a survey of over 3,130 women.

These statistics are sheer reflections of the struggles that Bangladeshi women face in several spheres. It is here, that important questions begin to appear. In a nation where violence against women is a major issue and where a large segment of the women fight for their basic minimum rights, let alone any other, one cannot help but wonder as to why the state does not step up. Why is the much talked about National Women’s Development Policy yet to be implemented?

‘We really need to have the policy implemented,’ says Ayesha Khanam, president, Mahila Parishad. ‘How much longer are we going to wait?’

In the election manifesto of the Awami League, there was great emphasis on working for women empowerment. The manifesto read, ‘In order to ensure women’s empowerment and equality in rights and opportunities, the Women Development Policy formulated by Awami League in 1997 will be revived. The number of reserved seats for women by direct election in the Parliament will be increased to 100. Necessary measures will be taken for appointment of women in senior posts in the administration and in all spheres of employment. Strictest legal measures will be taken to stop oppression of women. Discriminatory laws against the interest of women will be rectified.’

Over a month after AL has assumed its seat, we are yet to see any concrete steps being taken. This past month, several women’s right organisations including Bangladesh Mahila Parishad demanded the immediate implementation of the National Women’s Development Policy of 1997.

The policy needs to be implemented urgently and immediately and this should have been on the top of the present government’s mandate, say women activists. There is a reason for this sense of urgency.

In the past one decade, there has been the constant struggle of women rights groups to voice these very rights that are still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses. Although the movement has made great strides in several ways, in adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality, they continue to struggle on certain issues. Despite all that has been achieved, gender parity is still a distant milepost, because of a specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day – which is narrow and regressive, say experts.

More importantly the sense of urgency comes due to the sheer challenge that has been seen in implementing this policy that has been due for over a decade now.

The long cycle

The National Women’s Development Policy in Bangladesh dates back to 1997, which was the result of long struggle of women’s movement in Bangladesh which indicated equal status and sharing of power for women in written document.

‘It was one of the major successes of our time, to introduce such a policy where major issues such as women’s reproductive rights and equal inheritance rights and more were included,’ points out Dipu Moni, foreign minister, also secretary, Women’s Affairs, Awami League and a lawyer and public health expert.

The original policy was formulated in 1997, following the United Nation’s Beijing Women’s Conference, directly involving activists and thinkers in the process. The policy adopted by the AL-led government in 1997 said that steps would be taken to provide women with ‘equal opportunities and share of resources, employment, market and businesses’. Underlining the importance of ‘economic empowerment of women’, the 1997 policy stressed their ‘full opportunity of owning and equal right over controlling property, earned through better health, education, training, lifelong education, vocational/technical training, information, employment opportunities, inheritance, resources, credit facilities and market management and their right to land’. The policy also stressed the need of ‘enacting fresh laws required to put these rights into practice’.

The 1997 policy had 104 principles, grouped into 14 areas of concern. While the policy was an eye-opener, and in several ways a landmark in the form of a written document, the government failed to implement it.

In May 2004, the BNP-led government’s policy, adopted the policy – almost a duplicate of the one adopted by the government of the Awami League in March 1997. ‘But while copying it, they deliberately changed, as well as dropped, certain words, phrases and paragraphs, making the policy document much worse, undermining some democratic responsibilities of the state to empower women, particularly in terms of ensuring equal political, economic and other material rights,’ says Ayesha.

In addition the 2004 policy adopted by the BNP-led government dropped the idea of providing women with ‘share of resources’, let alone equal share. Furthermore, the idea of women acquiring property through ‘inheritance’ on the one hand and the ‘right to land’ on the other was excluded.

The 1997 policy clearly valued the role of the women’s rights movement and NGOs. While sidetracking this issue, the new policy had also dropped the principle of inspiring these two groups of actors to take up campaigns for encouraging women’s participation in politics. On violence against women, the 1997 policy expressed concern about state or police violence and community edicts subjecting women to public lashing, stoning, even burning to death. The 2004 policy did away with all of this.

The 1997 policy also highlighted ‘induction of a significant number of women in the cabinet, the highest decision-making forum (of the government), under the relevant articles of the constitution, if necessary’. The 2004 policy diluted the need for inducting ‘a significant number of women’, particularly in the cabinet, by technically re-phrasing the sentence. It opted for induction of ‘a significant number of women’ in the decision-making bodies ‘at all levels’, ignoring the importance of the presence of more women in the cabinet.

Finally, last year, in 2008, the policy the military-controlled interim government tabled the National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) 2008, but with that important questions were raised as to why the content of the policy had omissions and lacked clear and detailed issues that needed to be considered. Above that, the recent outrage of religious clerics and different Islamist radical groups, have given rise to suspicions of political machinations, say some women rights activists. The policy was attacked in processions and protests by a section of the Islamist groups. Several thousand activists of different Islamist outfits staged demonstrations protesting the policy and demanding its immediate withdrawal.

‘The policy brings to life some actions and beliefs of the state,’ points out Farida Akhter, a women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantha Prabartana, a Dhaka-based NGO. ‘When we had protests on the streets by women, police chose to hit women and stop them. Yet when other groups, who are undoubtedly anti-women rights, came on the streets giving religious excuses in 2008, we saw the state defending itself, justifying its steps, giving explanations to anti-women rights groups. What does that reflect?’ she asks.

About time

Experts agree that the 1997 policy introduced by AL by far, among all the others introduced the best reflections of issues to be addressed. As the manifesto of the present government suggests, it is expected that the policy will be implemented. But at the same time, it is important to note that after 11 long years, the policy needs to have further progress in terms of empowerment in education, jobs and more. As the manifesto points out, seats for women would be increased to 100, indeed a laudable step, if implemented, given the decade-long fight of women for this significant political right.

Needless, to say that the challenge for the present government comes in several folds. For one, it is likely that given that the 1997 policy is followed without the omissions made, it is a test for this government to fight through the expected chaos and protests by religious groups – specifically in case of equal property rights.

‘Through this new law they want to teach us what we know and practice before them,’ said Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant general secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘Is there equality between man and man in society? Some men are rich and some have nothing, so where is equality? The idea of equality is vague, what we can do is to reduce the existing difference between man and woman. This step has been against Islam and all of the recent actions show that politically the state wants to show that we are not for women’s right but the truth is Islam does ensure women’s rights.’

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 19, Equality of opportunity, sub clause 2, it is stated clearly that ‘The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between man and man and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic’.

The constitution clearly says any law inconsistent with the equality rights will become void. The government can discard religion-based personal laws. Instead it is regularly stated that discriminatory laws in inheritance, rights in marriage or divorce cannot be touched because that would hurt religious sentiments. ‘Personal values in religions are always applicable, but that does not mean that we cannot have a state policy that supports equality in all spheres,’ states Ayesha.

It is here that formulation of uniform family code becomes significant. ‘Women in different religions get different shares of properties – equal in some religions and less in others. Our demand was to formulate a uniform family code giving women equal rights. The issue was not made clear in the policy,’ said Sultana Kamal.

A Uniform Family Code is still a far cry, believe women activists, yet it is not impossible.

To challenge personal laws is to go against religion and challenge the constitution of Bangladesh, which declares Islam as the state religion, which will be the basis of all actions. While many Muslim countries have ratified CEDAW and included Uniform Family Code, it is yet to be widespread. With this government, it is hoped that that there will be the courage to break tradition.

The choices for this government remain quite clear. With over a decade of rule with two women as the head of the state, it is not too much to ask that the policy be taken a close look at, in the current context and implement what has been the right of women in Bangladesh.



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