Oh what a tangled web indeed has the world woven for women. Are we bold enough to unravel the threads of this enforced fabric?
BE BOLD FOR CHANGE is the theme of International Women's Day 2017. What an appropriate theme for a country like Bangladesh where economy demands one thing and stereotypes another. A woman finds herself between a rock and a hard place. Will she break the barriers or fit in?
There is no denying that women in Bangladesh have achieved changes in their lives. There may still be a long way to go, but the achievements are there for all to see.
Bangladesh’s readymade garment sector is the country’s biggest earner of foreign currency and women are the driving force of the industry. Where women were hardly visible on the streets of the city just a decade or two ago, the scenario has undergone a radical change. Every morning and every evening, women garment workers stream to their factories and back, striding with a hitherto alien confidence.
Then of course there is politics. There are not many countries in the world that can boast of simultaneously having a woman prime minister, woman leader of opposition, woman speaker of parliament, woman leader of the main opposition party, several women cabinet ministers, ambassadors, women labour leaders and women in various political positions.
Education statistics are encouraging too. Primary school enrollment rates cover 89 per cent boys and 94 per cent girls. Encouragingly, a large number of the girls continue on to secondary education. Both government and non-government efforts have given focus to education of the girl child and while it is still far from satisfactory, it is a great leap forward from times where girls were kept back at home to help in the household chores.
Non-government developmental organisations or NGOs have been an effective tool for women’s development. In addition to raising women’s awareness about their rights, health, and well-being, these have also helped in the economic empowerment of women. Micro-credit has been a major driver of change where women are concerned, making them entrepreneurs extraordinaire.
In the media too, women are making a difference. Their voices are being heard. Whether it’s behind the desk, or behind the camera, in all spheres of the media women have carved a niche for themselves.
Women are in all professions in Bangladesh and making a mark. We have mountaineers conquering Everest, judges in the courts, businesswomen, journalists, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, ministers, civil servants, military officers, pilots, sportswomen, artistes, police, women are showing the world that they are up to any challenge.
Challenges to be met
Challenges there are many and there is still a long way to go. Yes, the achievements are also significant but there is no room to bask in complacence. If the aspiration is for Planet 50:50 by the year 2030, there is no time to waste. All-out relentless efforts are needed to address the glaring problems that stare us in the face.
It was not just disheartening but devastating that the recently passed Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 contained a clause allowing girls to be married below the age of 18 in special circumstances. Already there is a strong propensity to marry off under-aged girls and this clause has simply legalised it. It will take women’s hard-earned development many steps back. Where a girl should be in school, learning, looking forward to a better life of dignity and achievement, she is made to marry and become an under-aged mother, risking her own health and that of her child. Women feel let down by the government and it is incomprehensible how this act could be passed with such unjustifiable clauses.
Coming to the employment sector, while more and more women work, exploitation remains high. Overworked and underpaid best describes most working women, whether in factories, in the fields, in households or other places of employment. All too often they are paid less than their male counterparts. If there is provision for maternity leave, it is mostly inadequate. A negligible number of workplaces have day care centres. Sexual harassment is prevalent in many workplaces, with little scope for recompense.
As for education, while the enrolment numbers are higher, unfortunately the dropout rate is high too. Early marriage is one of the reasons for girls dropping out of school. There is also a general feeling that since the boy will be the breadwinner, he should study. Since the girl will be married off, it’s better she pick up domestic skills at home. And this is not just restricted to the rural poor. Even among the urban better-off class, many girls are not encouraged to go for very high education. It’s better that she is married and remains a good wife and devoted daughter-in-law. Even if she does have a full time job, her domestic duties must not be neglected.
Social values are a determining factor for a woman. Mistakenly, some persons like to blame religion for the restriction of women’s rights. But the fact remains, it is hardly religion that cripples that women’s psyche or standing in society. There are external factors. Media had a responsibility too. The brain-numbing sub-standard TV serials, local and from the neighbouring country, are damaging beyond imagination. These portray women are malicious, spiteful, gossip-mongering, overdressed, shallow women. The heroine, no matter how strong or bold she may be, has to still be the 10-armed Kali – looking after innumerable tasks, taking on endless responsibilities, pleasing all and sundry, dealing with crises, and looking beautiful all the while.
Security is a key issued for women too. “As I see my girl grow up,” says a father of a 9-year-old girl, “I worry. I worry because the world is an insecure place for women. I want her to be safe. How can I protect here from the dangers that just seem to be increasing by the day?”
His fears may seem exaggerated, but are they? When you read of acid violence, of minor girls being raped, of how social media is used to lure innocent young girls, of violence again women, the fear hardly seems unfounded.
What is to be done?
Yes, the injustice towards women, their lack of opportunities, their being relegated to the ‘weaker sex’ category, violence and many other factors are an obstacle in the path of women’s development. We must be bold now to make the changes that will turn things around.
Firstly, policy is an important factor. Not only should there be policies directly for the development and empowerment of women, but all polices in all fields must be woman-friendly. These policies must be formulated in cooperation with women representatives and must ensure gender parity in all fields
When it comes to laws, stricter laws must be formulated addressing violence against women, equal rights for women, sexual harassment, education and other issues. And more important is the actual implementation of the laws.
Sensitisation is a key to gender parity. Not only must women be aware of their rights, but men must also be sensitive regarding women’s rights and equality. Responsible media cannot promote the dominating, insensitive, ruthless male as the quintessential ‘he-man’. Masculinity should be equated with responsibility, understanding, love and respect.
Education is where it all begins. From a tender age, with a proper curriculum in place, a child can be sensitised regarding gender issues.
Public opinion mobilisers, including religious leaders, must also come forward and negate misconceptions of women being inferior in any way. Teachers, parents, leaders and those in the position of role models, bear this responsibility too.
It’s all about choice. If a woman wants to work outside of the home and earn a living for herself and her family, so be it. If she wants to be a homemaker and stay-at-home mother, that’s a full time job and a rewarding one too. It is up to the women to decide. Society needs to stops judging a woman and pre-determining her role.
Similarly, if a man feels he would do better at home looking after the children and household, while his qualified wife earns a better income for the family, that must be accepted too. He does not deserve derision and scorn.
It is often asked why should there be a special ‘woman’s day’ since woman are equal to men. It is simple. The success of Woman’s Day will be in its own redundancy. Sheryl Sandberg, author, activist and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, says it best, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders."