|Volume 5 Issue 11| November 2011|
Mothers, Daughters and Sisters
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY looks at the state of women in Bangladesh then and now.
"All are equal in the eyes of the law; but some are less so than others, in particular, if they are women”. This was a tongue in cheek comment to me from the venerable Superintendent of Police in Abbottabad (Pakistan) back in my trainee days as a civil service probationer there. I was complaining to him about the reluctance of a police inspector to investigate deeper into the allegations of rape brought by the father of a young girl against the son of a powerful land holder in the area. This was one of the three or four criminal cases that I had to try my judicial knowledge in as a civil service apprentice. I had found the police investigation in the allegation to be perfunctory. The old Superintendent made the comment, which was a paraphrase of the famous Orwellian quote (from Animal Farm), when I had particularly raised the issue of coddling of the suspect youth by the local police, and dragging their feet at investigating into the allegations more vigorously. The Superintendent, a Pathan himself, had grayed his hair in the mountainous region hunting out murderers and thugs. His world, like most of his cohorts, consisted of men only. The women never came to the police as they had their own men to protect them. At my urging, the old man agreed to push his people. The case was investigated further, and the youth was finally prosecuted.
Fast forward two years later, to Manikganj (Dhaka), where I came across a botched case of police investigation into a case of abduction of a young girl. This time the victim's father came to my court (SDO's court) and complained that the police not only had failed to arrest the accused, they also had neglected to take into account important evidence. The defense of local police was inadequacy of resources for investigation as they were busy responding to Pakistan Army demands on their time (it was 1971). The fact was that the poor father of the victim was again pitted against a more powerful local business man. However, at my urging Police took up the investigation once again, the case against the suspect reinstituted.
The third case, some three years later in free Bangladesh, was not as heinous as the two before. But it was more egregious as it concerned an officer of the law and his spouse. The officer was posted to a subdivision that period in Dinajpur district where I was an Additional Deputy Commissioner. The officer, who reportedly abused his wife both physically and mentally, had given her an ultimatum to leave. The spouse found no recourse in her own family of parents who insisted that she sort this out with her husband herself. When the wife had approached us for help, this was a mission impossible. Unlike other cases where a crime had been committed, here no crime was reported. An ultimatum to leave was not a crime in itself. And the officer had not actually given her notice to divorce. We did not have a family court in the country (at least then) where the wife could go and seek redress. It fell to our wits and administrative fiats to admonish the officer and ask him not to turn his wife away. We all knew this was an ad hoc solution as the man could do whatever he pleased once he left the subdivision.
I narrate the cases above that happened four decades ago not with the intent to bring to attention the helplessness of women in our country that time, or of police neglect toward them. We would be living in a much better world today if the story were different. There would be a litany of cases such as the ones narrated above when we examine violence against women and inequality before law even today. The women in these cases were too weak, too feeble to take protection of the law, and the men who would give them this protection were unwilling to do so. On paper, they were equal before the law, but in reality they were less equal than their male counterparts. Sadly, even some 40 years later most of our women remain as powerless as ever; remain as unequal before law as before.
A seminal report this year brought out by the International Finance Corporation “Women, Business and the Law 2012:
Removing Barriers to Economic Inclusion” finds that 103 out of 141 countries studied still impose legal differences on the basis of gender in at least one of the report's key indicators. Globally, women represent 49.6% of the population but only 40.8% of the workforce in the formal sector. A main reason for this gap is the legal differences between men and women.
The report measures such things as a woman's ability to sign a contract, travel abroad, manage property and interact with public authorities and the private sector. In all survey countries, married women face more legal differentiations than unmarried women. In 23 countries, married women cannot legally choose where to live, and in 29 they cannot be legally recognised as head of household.
Although a vast majority of countries grants equal access to the court system for men and women, there are many countries (at least 11) where the testimony of a woman carries less evidentiary weight than that of a man. In one country (Democratic Republic of Congo), married women need the permission of their husbands in order to initiate legal proceedings in court.
Although most countries do not prevent women from accessing the court system, many do not provide small claims courts, which would make dispute resolution for minor claims easier. Only 75 countries have small claims courts or fast-track procedures for claims of a smaller value.
The using property indicator explores women's ability to access, manage and control property. For this indicator, the Women, Business and the Law data show that a greater number of restrictions apply to married than to unmarried women. In seven countries, married women do not have the same property rights as married men. In Bangladesh, property inheritance rights are skewed to men because in inheritance Islamic guidance is followed.
We may derive some satisfaction that for a low income, predominantly Muslim country, Bangladesh fares better in most indicators on gender equality. About 62% of our women contribute to the labour force of the country -- one of the highest among Muslim countries (compare 22% in Pakistan). Girls' enrollment in primary education is among the highest in the world. Yet, there are serious gaps.
Women in Bangladesh continue to lack equal legal rights in workplace. There are no laws mandating nondiscrimination in hiring (between men and women), no laws against sexual harassment and no additional rights for work schedule flexibility to women with minor children.
Women employed especially in garment industries constitute a highly vulnerable group: young, poor, unskilled, sometimes illiterate and often single women in a society that is dominated by strong gender hierarchies. In spite of constituting a very large majority of garment factory workers, women remain at the bottom of the work ladder where they have weak bargaining power and are subject to hard work, low wages, poor working conditions and the risk of harassment.
A running theme in this year's Annual Meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as well as this year's World Development Forum (from the World Bank) was gender equality, and the slogan was “Think Equal”. As I go over our achievement in reducing gender gap and gender inequality I am reminded of one of Gandhi's statements on men and women. “There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men...Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacity... If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man's superior...”
Thinking equal is a good start, but it will take several more decades to act equal and treat all genders as equal. In Bangladesh, we may have more miles to go to treat our women and give them their rightful place in society. Education is a good beginning, but preparing our legal system to protect their rights and give them power is an important condition of gender equality. I hope the next report on condition of women world-wide will portray us better.
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in the USA.
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