|Volume 7 | Issue 03 | March 2013 ||
Of Rights, Equality and Violence against Women
SAQEB MAHBUB focuses on the anomalies in the legal system that denies justice to rape victims.
A couple of months ago a young woman was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted in a public bus by a gang of men in the heart of the Indian capital New Delhi. The young woman, who died later in a hospital, was an educated technical professional. In Dhaka recently, a young woman, a college student, was attacked with acid thrown at her face by her angry suitor in broad daylight. Late last year, a young woman in Pakistan's North West region, was shot in the head by a group of religious fundamentalists because she was advocating female education for her peers in that area.
The incidents above drawn from three countries of the subcontinent are but a few of the countless atrocities and acts of violence that women in a large number of countries including Bangladesh face on a regular basis. The incidents of violence against and repression of women continue to happen even after numerous declarations on women's rights, women's protection against violence, and laws for equal opportunities for women have been enacted and put in place in most countries of the world.
In 1948 in a historic decision the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing non-discrimination and freedom of all human beings irrespective of race, colour, sex or religion. Even though gender discrimination was included in this momentous declaration, it took another UN declaration some 20 years later -- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women -- to say that discrimination against women is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity. Today, more than four decades after this second declaration, we are still battling against this discrimination in nearly half of the world's nations. We are still faced with crimes and violence against women despite laws and legislations aimed to protect them. In societies such as India and Bangladesh where women have made impressive progress in education, employment and providing leadership in politics and nation building activities, we still find women as victims of oppression and violence.
In Bangladesh, from January 2005 to February 2011, 1,257 women were killed, 348 were ill-treated and 243 committed suicide due to dowry related violence; 526 women were victims of acid violence; and 1,876 women and 1,598 girl children were victims of rape (source: Odhikar, Bangladesh). In 2011, in Pakistan nearly 9,000 incidents of crime against women were reported by a Women's Group of Pakistan (source: Aurat, Pakistan). Despite the serious possibility of severe understatement of the actual occurrences of crimes against women in Bangladesh and Pakistan, these numbers, however, pale into insignificance compared with 228,650 incidents of crime against women reported by the National Crimes Record Bureau in 2011 alone.
While much of the violence against women in our countries happens to women who come from the impoverished sections of society, the more literate and affluent sections are not immune from it. The incidents of violence cover a wide range, from dowry-related violence, rape, acid throwing, domestic violence, illegal fatwa, sexual harassment, wage discrimination and social discrimination.
The stark statistics of violence against women stand in great contrast against growth in female literacy, female employment opportunities and visible participation of women in leadership positions particularly in Bangladesh. We have more girls enrolled in our primary schools than boys, our female literacy rate has doubled in the last 40 years, we have a garment industry with 75% of workers as women, and the leaders of the two major political parties of our country are women. And yet we have a situation in the country where our women dare not be alone on the street lest they are sexually harassed, we have housewives who face constant dangers of physical and mental abuse, we have female students who become victims of rape or acid attacks, and we have female workers who are regularly exposed to harassment in the workplace.
As a recent UN-sponsored report on the status of women in Bangladesh observed, Bangladesh is no different from its neighbours. Violence and repression in numerous forms puts women's lives at risk in almost all parts of the country. The reasons cited for violence and repression are usually the same in all reports -- male dominant and patriarchal society, religious injunctions, societal prejudices that assign subservient roles to women, and of course, lack of access to power and resources. Men hold the power and resource within families and control any property and family income.
It is clear that legislations and declarations on women's rights and creating equal opportunities on a gender-neutral basis alone cannot prevent what is happening to our women at home, on the streets, in educational institutions or workplaces. Apart from the statistics on violent crimes and other incidents of repression of women, there are some stark realities that we have to deal with if the words 'rights' and 'equal opportunities' for women mean anything to us.
Let us start with education. We have made impressive progress in enrolling our girls in elementary schools. In fact, the enrolment ratio between girls and boys is 103:100 now. But lost in this statistics is the sad fact that nearly two-thirds of the girls who graduate from primary schools do not attend schools after age 15. The major reasons they do not make it to higher education are financial and early marriage. When it comes to finances, the priority is usually given to the boys in the family as they are considered to be future bread earners, and not the girls as they will belong to someone else's family. Therefore, the incentive for the parents is to marry the girls off as early as possible.
Second is employment. Generally, women's employment in South Asian countries is lower than in any other part of the world (except Middle East). However, despite doubling women's employment in the last 30 years, Bangladesh still remains at the lowest end of the spectrum in South Asia. The major obstacles in higher female employment are sex discrimination in various occupations, dearth of higher education and training, and absence of workplace security and safety. Much of the growth in female employment has occurred in health and community service in rural areas, and most glaringly in garment manufacturing in urban areas. In most other occupations, males predominate. On top of lack of right education and training there is still a great reluctance among employers arising from a deep-rooted culture to accept women as equal to men in the workplace. And then there are places that employ women but cannot provide them with protection from harassment or dangers of a more sinister kind.
The third and probably most significant obstacle to according rights and equal opportunities to women are personal laws of our country -- laws of marriage, inheritance and property. Analysts of women's issues in South Asia have many times pointed out that our personal laws are the singlemost deterrents to creation of equal opportunities for our women. “Bangladesh is world famous for programs meant to reduce women's poverty, yet for decades it has ignored how discriminatory personal laws drive many women into poverty,” a woman researcher commented recently. In fact, a root cause of family violence against women relates to marriage and property (dowry), and inheritance. Both India and Bangladesh banned dowry decades ago, but in India while it is still frequent (nearly 9,000 deaths were reported in 2010), in Bangladesh such deaths are not uncommon.
It is easy to enact laws to ensure equal rights for women, but it is difficult to enforce them without parallel efforts to reform some of the basic aspects of our personal laws. We have marriage acts that forbid marriage of girls below 18, but this prohibition is more flouted than observed particularly in rural areas. We have reformed our marriage laws that made it difficult for a second marriage (for a Muslim) without written consent of the first spouse. Yet, a second marriage with an existing spouse is not uncommon. The dowry has been banned, yet we frequently hear of dowry-related violence and deaths. We have laws in place that are aimed to protect women in workplaces and educational institutions. Yet we often encounter news of sexual harassment, acid attacks, rape and often murder of women in our streets and workplaces.
We can have any number of laws and declarations on women's rights and equality. But these will have no effect if we do not rise above our deep-rooted culture of looking at women as dependents, as burdens. We need to change the mindset of a society that relegates a woman to a subordinate position, a position of inferiority. We need education for the nation as a whole that treats women equally from birth, gives them the same respect and opportunity as we would like to give to the other gender. We need to recognise that a woman is as much a bread earner and provider of a family as a man, and we need to prepare them equally to enter the work force as a dependable member of the family.
I do not have prescriptions that will cure us of the negative mindset that we as a society have toward women overnight. But I do know that to make our women able to access the opportunities that we create for them we also have to change the environment. The first step in this direction is to ensure that we strictly enforce the laws that we have in place. Our workplaces and educational institutions need to be more secure. The victims of offences need to be assured of prompt justice and safety when they report offences. Employers at workplaces need to assure that the environment is not only safe but one that treats all with equal respect. The next step is empowering them with the right changes in the personal laws in marriage, inheritance and property that have hindered them so long.
The biggest change and the biggest challenge, however, in creating a true condition of equality lie elsewhere. That change comes with altering the mindset of viewing women as inferior and treating them with respect, and as equal. This change comes with a social awareness of repression and violence that still occur and these need to stop. This change comes with a deep conviction across the nation that women form an integral part of our life, our future, and our nation. The change will come when we all realise that modernisation of the society does not happen simply by creating more educational institutions for women or by employing them.
I am aware that the change will not come right away or that violence against women whether at home or in the workplace will stop soon. This change will not come until every home reforms its views toward women and shows it by example, and every educational institution plants it in the mind of all those who attend them. This change will come when every parent treats their daughter equally to their son. True rights and equal opportunities for women will come when a society does not consider a female child a burden, and wishes that this child were not born. It will take time, but the change will come when we change our mind.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a retired staff member of the World Bank.
© thedailystar.net, 2013. All Rights Reserved