|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
The Way to an Equitable Society
MEGHNA GUHATHAKURTA (MG), Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, talks to TAMANNA KHAN of Forum about the role of institutions in ensuring social justice.
Forum: One of the definitions of Social Justice refers to fair distribution of resources, opportunities and responsibilities by challenging the roots of oppression and injustice and empowering all people to exercise self-determination and realise their full potential to build social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action. In the Bangladeshi context, who should be in charge of this distribution and ensuring social justice being established?
Women, for example, should get equal share of the opportunity to educate themselves but in our country, especially in remote areas, women are prevented from taking this opportunity. Because they are women, and there is a social stigma against women's mobility especially when the school is in a remote area, a woman is prevented from accessing education. There are also problems of personal security. Often it is because of family values that do not allow her to travel to school. As a result, there is a section of the population which tends to get excluded from education. This is something where responsibilities must be shared by various actors. The state and other social and educational institutions have a responsibility to take up this issue and see to it that justice is ensured.
One of the ways the state can do this is by constructing more and more education infrastructures in rural areas. That is the easiest way out however. The more difficult one is when responsibility of a girl's education needs be incorporated within family values as well as the social institutions such as the schools and colleges. If educational institutions take part in the responsibility of ensuring this principle of education for all in terms of women's education, then they should also ensure measures of safety that can be followed for women travelling to school. For instance, establishing an escort system for women or taking safe transport measures; schools can even have their own transport.
There are other communities which are prevented from taking advantage of this equity principle of education for all. One such community that exists in Bangladesh is the bede. They are the boat people or river gypsies. They do not have any permanent settlement and hence no address; they travel from one place to the other like nomads. Schools often fail to enrol children of bede because of two reasons. One, there is a social stigma against the bede. Second, since the bede people tend to move from one place to another, if a school enrols a child of the bede community, then the child will move away and the school has to show a higher rate of dropout. This problem can be remedied by the school by proper social attitude and by saying that bede people are citizens of Bangladesh and hence should get equal opportunity to educate themselves. So within the school board system there should be something that allows transfer of schools. In the third Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-III), our organisation has suggested the concept of a mobile school, that there should be a boat which follows other boats and schooling by boat system. This has been taken up by PEDP-III which means that the government accepts the concept and what it can do for the principle of social justice -- education for all. But the boats are not enough in numbers. Since the government has the responsibility of educating all the bede people, they need to increase the number of the boat schools.
The other problem is more deep-rooted in the society, which is social stigma. Not only in Bangladesh but even in Europe there are many communities called the gypsies or Romas. They are also looked down upon as lowly by the genteel society and there is a social discrimination against them. Similarly, it goes with the bede. Because they do not have any address they are looked down by other parents. Other parents say that they steal and are foul-mouthed. There are all kinds of myths around these children which are not always true. So, this attitude has to be dealt with. The state alone cannot do anything to reform this kind of mentality. It has to be taken up by the school itself -- whether the school subscribes to this mentality or whether the school tries to engage with other parents for them to take a tolerant attitude and remind them that the right to education is for all. Since the Constitution also upholds this principle, schools should too. They should take the effort to educate other parents of the community that they work in, about these children. So this is how social justice can really be brought about.
Forum: Since you mentioned women as one of the disadvantaged communities, how do we challenge the roots of oppression and injustice that women face in our country? How do we change the social attitude towards women that puts them in an inferior position when compared to men?
MG: The discrimination against women exists not only in our social roots but also in many of our institutions, even in our legal institutions. For example, a woman cannot get full inheritance and our Constitution accepts this because the personal laws are considered to be sanctified by each respective religion. We have subscribed to CEDAW which is the Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women with reservations. We have not repealed these laws even though they do not meet the international standard for social justice. However, each religion might think that it has its best possible ways to deal with the matter. That's a different issue. But as far as the equality principle goes, it still falls short. Of course now people say that even if the woman does not get inheritance you can still gift something to your girl child in equal amount as your boy child. As long as such laws remain they will have an impact on our attitudes and thinking. Sometimes the institutions that we are subject to, lay down the ground rules of certain attitudes. So if the institution gives space to such options, only people who have privileges will subscribe to those options. But the people who are not privileged by this law will definitely suffer and that is how women suffer. For example, the laws of Hindu marriage system have been reformed in India but not here. So the woman who has no right of divorce and inheritance, if she is abandoned by her husband, is totally left to her own devices or made dependent on her family resources. Sometimes, she has to go back to her natal family in order to seek shelter. These are injustices which have to be remedied at the legal, state and social level.
You have to increase the value of women in the eyes of everyone. Laws serve as the ground rules based on which society runs. So a man who lives under a law which does not give women equal rights will automatically think that this is the normal state of affairs. At the same time, there is also a division of labour which society follows. For example, the attitude that a woman who is a mother cannot participate in other aspects of life; e.g., be a pilot. We are slowly, but surely and steadily getting rid of this attitude. But this used to prevail in our society up till recently and does so even now. Basically, gender equality is an issue of social justice and it depends on how one applies social justice in our community and state in order to bring some changes in social relations.
Social practice has to change and it changes because of many things. The leftists would say that practice changes because the modes of production demand it. For instance, when resources are squeezed, women have to go out to work just as it happens during war time whence many women who have never gone out to work, have to, because the men are at the war. Because of social changes and the requirement of production, this is one way society has to accept this concept of equal rights. Other people will say that economic changes alone are not enough to change the mentality, rather, it is education. In education, we have to change the curriculum towards a pedagogy of equality. There is a pedagogy underlying equity principles that one has to follow. This means that you have to change from within and you have to start early for that. That is why you have to start from children's education about the role of women. Gender roles are often now being taught especially in NGO schools. These changes are slow in nature but they have to be introduced either in educational institutions or legal institutions or social institutions like the family. I think, a lot of the conservativeness that we have is lost as life goes on and as Bangladesh becomes more globalised. At the same time, the other aspect of gender inequality is often derived from the more globalised institutions or corporate bodies such as using women as commercial objects. One has to look at it as a multi-layered terrain. It is not an easy and one-off solution but different policies and practices also have to be introduced.
For example the women's movement at one point of time had something called 'Take Back the Night'. They lit candles and held rallies during the night, because it was said it was not safe for women to go out at night. So they decided to light up the night and reclaim it. So these are ways through which conscious women can bring in practices in society and of course that is not a usual practice. First it will be seen as outlandish, as something not true to your community or culture; there will be resistance, but as the practice is continued over a period of time then it becomes accepted.
Forum: But would fair distribution of resources as stipulated in the concept of social justice empower the disadvantaged community?
MG: Social justice is a process. Practices for empowerment of disadvantaged groups can be put in place not by distribution of resources but by addressing the roots of oppression. Once it is addressed, you will automatically come up with something to solve it. As I said, whether it is in the form of practices or policies, some move has to be taken. And there you can empower but empowerment is a matter of consciousness and self-emancipation. You feel empowered when someone gives you the opportunity and you can take it. For example, a woman goes to the garments factory and earns a lot of money and at the end of the month she is saving her earnings to give to her fiancé as dowry. This is not empowerment. If she is economically empowered that means in the long run she must also be conscious about what long-term strategies will be good for her. This might be a good empowering strategy for the short term where she and her family are facing a lot of oppression because the woman is not getting married. But ultimately if she gets married the laws are the same. She is not ensured equal rights or control in that kind of an institution or relationship. So she might easily be divorced or abandoned. Empowerment is a matter of strategy. If women cannot strategise their lives, they are not empowered.
Forum: We talk about social solidarity and such, but how can dialogues take place within the communities in a state when all of them are not at the same level? Would the socially oppressed feel free to interact fearlessly with other more powerful communities? What social programmes should be in place to eliminate this fear?
MG: The whole thing about any oppression is about whether you are following practices which cultivate respect for the other, be it religion, women, the downtrodden and whether you have respect for people as human beings. You have to have that kind of a practice which respects people. For instance, we (my organisation, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh) work in a refugee camp where many other NGOs also work but the refugees often complain that they are looked down as outsiders and feeds off charity. The NGOs consider themselves to be charity organisations that they are doing some good by giving them something. But they do not think that refugees have the rights to determine and have a say in defining what kind of help they need. But as we see it the refugees are also human beings; persons with families, with children, wives, brothers and sisters. If you go to such a person who is for instance cultivating rice and tell him, 'You should start cultivating wheat now because that is better for your health', that person will not realise whether it is better for his health; they just might follow you because you have more power. This is also happening with refugees. People are constantly telling them what to do without understanding their viewpoint. We may have a lot of social programmes but if they do not have respect for the people they are actually trying to develop, then those programmes will fail. Those programmes may give some kind of output in terms of defined targets, but it will not give output in terms of social justice. That is why social justice programmes should be participatory in nature. You should go to the farmer and ask what he means by justice, you should go to the bede and ask what she means by justice because they might have a different sense of justice.
When we worked with marginalised communities, our board members went and asked people of the Dalit community what they wanted. One of them said, 'It is true that we are poor but we do not want money. Whatever I earned, I have saved that and gave my grandson an education and he has become a lawyer. He then got a job in a NGO. After three days when they realised that he is not a Hindu but a Dalit, they kicked him out of the job. So what is the point of educating my grandson by spending so much money behind him?' So she said, 'We don't want money, we want dignity. We want to be respected.' Everyone has, through their own experiences, some idea of welfare, justice and good life. In an aggregated sense, a proper welfare state or policy will be aggregating these into a composite policy. Basically, the best way to deal with this charity orientation of social justice is to allow for a participatory practice to develop. After all, in a democratic state is it not natural that participation and participatory practices should be the byword of the day!
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