Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bangladesh – A Woman in Power and Powerless Women?

By Stine Eckert

As Americans witnessed failure to elect their first female president in 2008, Bangladeshis elected a female prime minister past December for the fourth time. Sheik Hasina is one of 11 female heads of state worldwide according to the Council of Women World Leaders. But many of the roughly 76 million women in Bangladesh are still facing discrimination and violence.

“Women of Bangladesh are guaranteed equal rights in the constitution…in practice [they] generally remain far from enjoying equal rights,” responds Qumrunnessa Nazly in an e-mail interview. She works for Ain O Salish Kendro, an organization in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka that provides legal aid to women and advocates women rights.

She says women face discrimination in education, employment, and access to resources and services, in particular healthcare. The legal position of women, she explains, is still ruled by religious laws when it comes to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. Religious laws are privileged over constitutional guarantees, she says, working against the interest of women. Ms. Nazly says that secular state law is also highly patriarchal and discriminatory. Some have not changed since colonial rule.

“Women are part of the patriarchy and they are trained by men,” writes Ayesha Banu, Chair of the Department for Women & Gender Studies at Dhaka University in an e-mail interview. “Elections don’t really follow the democratic process; inheritance plays a role,” she says. “Just because you are a woman doesn’t make you a good woman leader.”

Ms Nazly explains that attitudes in society still stand against gender equality. Very often women are not aware of their rights, she says. “Even when they are, women who depend on male protection are convinced that it’s not in their best interests to claim those rights.”

Concluding the first Universal Periodic Review for Bangladesh this February, the United Nations Human Rights Council urged the Government of Bangladesh to reform discriminatory laws and to take a comprehensive approach to violence against women. Ain o Salish Kendro raised other concerns such as the continued failure to advance the National Women’s Development Policy of 2008 and to enact existing laws to prevent and punish especially domestic violence. The 2007 Human Rights Report on Bangladesh states that up to 50 percent of Bangladeshi women have experienced domestic violence at least once that year.

Similarly, Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, a journalism professor at Dhaka University, writes in an e-mail interview that despite the creation of a separate Ministry of Women in 1979 and formulation a National Women’s Development Policy in 1997 no specific action has followed. The policy, she says, was changed again in 2004 and 2008 but “has been talked about more than it was acted upon.”

Part of the problem is the low visibility of women in media. In her 2005 report on Women and the Media for the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Dr. Nasreen writes only 6 percent of Bangladeshi journalists are women. In Bangladeshi media, she writes, women appear mostly as victims in the news or in entertainment shows. Especially Bangladeshi movies portrayed women as sexual objects with “submissive acceptance of physical violence.” Dr. Nasreen says that cruelty is often presented as a natural expression of ‘angry’ man.

An exception to this might be Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street. It is funded by the U.S. government agency for development aid (USAID), Harvey Sernovitz of the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka writes in an e-mail interview. “Sisimpur shows women as role models and successful women in non-traditional professions for Bangladesh.”

Since 1971 the U.S. government has provided more than $5 billion to Bangladesh. “Gender equity has always been a key goal,” says Mr. Sernovitz. Currently USAID runs several programs to help women including projects against human trafficking and training for local level female leaders and 1,850 female preschool teachers.

Just recently Ms. Banu and her department celebrated International Women’s Day with a rally and open-air music. She says it is the only department of its kind in the country. About 300 undergraduate and graduate students study women and gender issues in 60 classes.
“[International Women’s Day] is very, very important in Bangladesh,” writes Sazzad Hussain, Program Coordinator at Odhikar in an e-mail interview. Odhikar is one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh. He says March 8 is not only a universal day to stop violence against women but also a day for people to show solidarity.

Odhikar recently became runner-up for the 2008 Freedom Defenders Award of the U.S. State Department. The organization publishes monthly reports on human rights issues. They state that between January 2008 and February 2009 over 496 women and girls were raped and 80 women and 26 children became victims of acid attacks, which are often connected to refusing marriage or sexual relations. Another 297 women became victims of dowry related violence. Odhikar suggests actual numbers are even higher because only incidents that were reported could be counted.

Laws against these crimes exist but are poorly enforced. For instance almost 30 years ago, in 1980, the Dowry Prohibition Act made the taking or giving of dowry illegal. But a Bangladeshi student in the United States, who wants to remain anonymous, says in a phone interview giving dowries is still a common tradition. The student tells of the love marriage of an acquaintance from a higher social class. The parents of the groom asked the bride’s parents for about 100,000 Taka ($1,450) as dowry. Asked why dowry is a tradition even in families who don’t need money the student answers with a Bangladeshi proverb: In this world the person who wants the most, is the person who already has a lot.

Ms. Banu says the implementation of the National Women Development Policy should be a pressing issue for the new government. Dr. Nasreen concurs: “I can only hope the present government would put this issue in its priority.” After 12 years it still needs to be passed by the parliament.

Photo Top of the Page: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
(Source: Image is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made during the course of an employee's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Photo Middle of Article: Dance performed by Bangladeshi artists in honor of former US President Bill Clinton during his Bangladesh tour of March 2000.
(Source: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

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