Bangladesh has started to rank well in official statistics on the advancement of women indicators. Over the past 50 years, women have emerged from their invisibility to feature in the development discourse in Bangladesh. Official reports recognize them as engines of the economy and peacekeepers. On the billboards, we are shown posters of a garment worker, or another in uniform, telling us about the entry of women into the market or into the frontline service of the state. Their work has become essential to the family economy.
While this progress can be attributed to positive state policies, this is only part of the story. Indeed, the changing roles of women in the economy have not yet resulted in an overall shift in gender relations or promoted the empowerment of women for several reasons: first, educational and employment opportunities. are hampered by social and cultural constraints; second, piecemeal reforms and limited participation without equal rights do not provide real freedom of choice or give women a voice; and third, women are not a monolithic group. Simple reforms do not open the doors to advancement equally to all women, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, caste, class or sexual orientation.
National and international investments over the past 50 years have increased women’s access to services selected to meet their practical needs, in part for education, salaried work and credit. The potential of low cost female labor has also been seized by the market to improve Bangladesh’s rating in world trade. While these advances are important in themselves, we must ask ourselves whether they have freed women from the shackles of forced marriages, dowry demands, domestic enslavement and domestic violence, or exploitation on the land. workplace and sexual harassment in their public life.
For a wide range of reasons ranging from insecurity to poverty, young girls are unable to complete their education, resulting in dropouts. Women’s participation in the labor force has increased, but their wages remain low and conditions are poor, especially in the informal sector. The export sector is recruiting an increasing number of women, but poor working conditions, low wages and the risk of workplace accidents call for urgent and effective changes.
Yes, women demanded material progress, equality in the allocation of resources and development opportunities, but beyond these piecemeal reforms, they awaited state interventions to restructure the institutional changes. that would enable a just transformation between the sexes in relationships within the family, in community values, and in the recognition of women as citizens. This is why the demand for legal reform has remained an essential part of women’s movements, as a means of affecting their public and private life.
Unequal rights, especially in marital relationships and inheritance, create situations of oppression often leading to violence. Thus, despite women’s increased educational opportunities, a customary preference for early marriage has limited women’s autonomy. Social insecurity, fear of sexual harassment and sexual violence are other reasons why young girls are forced into unwanted marital relationships. Yet the demand for equal rights in marriage and divorce did not advance beyond the Family Law Ordinance of 1961. After a sustained campaign by women’s groups, the government finally adopted a policy. National for advancement in consultation with many women’s groups. It is time to review this and move forward recognizing the changing times.
The legacy of traditional religious norms stands in the way of changing personal laws and emphasizes the need for reform. Tolerance of unjust customary practices is a contributing cause of gender-based violence. Since 2000, several laws have been enacted, including the 2010 Law on Domestic Violence, which aims to ensure the protection of the survivor and dissuasive sanctions for the perpetrator. But patriarchal norms prevent women from seeking justice, and the legal system often acts as a barrier. In many cases of rape and sexual violence, flawed prosecution and investigation procedures have hampered justice and increased women’s vulnerability. In the case of the rape and death of Shima Choudhury in police custody, the accused police officers were acquitted for insufficient evidence, when there could not have been any other conclusion.
Women challenged social tolerance for violence sparked by fatwa. Nineteen years after the incident of a fatwa against Nurjehan in 1993, which led to his death, a Supreme Court directive declared illegal any sentence imposed by a fatwa. He is now calling for institutional control (by the National Human Rights Commission) of violations of this decree, whether by local elected officials, civil servants or social elders.
More recently, a younger generation of women have collectively challenged perpetrators of sexual violence in public institutions by attacking higher courts and campaigning in public. The High Court recommended that educational institutions and others establish follow-up committees for dissuasive or punitive actions in rape complaints. These interventions await firm implementation measures from public institutions and active interventions from women and human rights groups.
Women’s movements campaigned for legal and political reforms as a means to change social or cultural practices. Women fought for their representation in parliament or other electoral institutions so that their demands could be debated at the political level. Through this, they hoped to exercise their right to freedom in decision-making. Admittedly, the number of women has increased in parliament and in local communities, but why the elected officials, who entered this space, do they speak vehemently in partisan debates but remain silent on central concerns to the women’s security, such as violence on campus or the use of activist student executives?
And is their presence in elected bodies representative of the different communities, or do they only represent an important segment? The division among women based on their class, religion, ethnicity, or caste suggests that we need to understand how different identities subject women to different forms of exploitation, and how state and society reinforce these inequalities. When a Chakma or Marma girl is raped in Khagrachari or Bandarban, in some cases by law enforcement, shouldn’t we be as concerned as we are about the rape of a girl in Tangail?
Women’s struggles for equality, for non-discrimination for peace and security, cannot be a simple means of winning privileges for a few or obtaining concessions from an unjust economic and political order. Shouldn’t the exploitation of garment export workers or young domestic workers be seen by female employers as a women’s issue? Or should it be dismissed by them as a class problem? The struggle is to overcome the traditional norms of oppression established by a patriarchal society, to restrict the power of political hierarchies and to challenge the exploitation of unregulated market regimes.
A young generation of feminists has taken up the challenge of citizenship. We need to work together in different spaces: to change the gang culture that prevails in the political space, to speak out as free citizens, and to raise a collective voice against hierarchies of power.
Our struggles should therefore consider a recognition of diversity in the life experiences of women and work for social and economic justice through meaningful representation in state structures. By challenging the current structures of power, the struggle cannot be diverted by marginal changes without justice.
Hameeda Hossain is the coordinator of the Sramik Nirapotta forum.