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     Volume 4 Issue 37 | March 11, 2005 |

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Working Women Get a Raw Deal

Kavita Charanji

Rallies, discussions, processions and cultural programmes marked the observance of International Women's Day (March 8) globally. This historic day was an opportune time for social activists and women at large to reassess the successes and failures of the previous year, and chalk up a plan of action for the future.

Women certainly have come a long way. While in the 1950s even highly educated women had to reconcile themselves to life within their homes, today the whole scenario has changed. No longer does one find women solely as teachers, nurses--and maybe secretaries-- they have made a niche in professions such as medicine, information technology, journalism and advertising. Large numbers of women also work in the industrial sectors of garments, jute, textiles, pharmaceuticals, electronics and chemicals.

Today these women are conscious of their rights and their contribution to the economic, social, political and cultural spheres.

What about the less privileged women? They are increasingly stepping into the informal sector in a diversity of professions. Capturing these women on the camera--whether as agricultural workers, shop vendors, hawkers, potters, weavers or 'just mothers'--is a book called Women at Work Women in Struggle. With striking photographs of working women, the aim of this book brought out by the NGO Karmojibi Nari (KN), is to put the women's role in proper perspective.

As Shirin Akhter, president of (KN) , says in her foreword to the book, "Thousands and thousands of women workers have joined industry, specially the garments industry, as industrial workers. Historically neglected women have achieved recognition as 'working women'. Needless to say, such a change in the role of women has not been and still is not easy."

Apparently the underprivileged women in the informal sector carry a heavier load than their urban counterparts. Like the latter, these women have to combine work with childbearing and rearing. However, the dual role falls heaviest on low-income women in developing countries who supplements her family's income through her work.

"Women are workers but they do not have recognition or dignity. We are struggling for them to be treated with dignity," says Rokeya Rafique, team leader of Theatre Art Unit and director in KN, a working women's organisation that aims to achieve equality, for women.

Another group that is active at the grassroots level is Nijera Kori (NK). It's target group comprises men and women who earn their living mainly through physical labour. "Our mission is the empowerment of the rural poor through creating their own autonomous organisations at the grassroots, says Khushi Kabir, co-ordinator of NK. In a departure from the norm, the organisation shuns the path of giving out loans to the poor. As Kabir says, "We are sceptical about giving loans. Some of us who have come from various other organisations saw that loans created a very strong dependency."

Some of the changes are apparent. For instance, women were first elected to local bodies in 1973. the Union Parishad (UP) elections of 1997 is a milestone in the history of political empowerment of women in Bangladesh. The government enacted a law for direct elections to reserve seats for women in local level elections. In the UP elections 12,828 women were directly elected in reserved seats. Besides 20 women were elected as chairpersons and 110 women were elected as members.

Nevertheless there is much ground to traverse for working women in both the formal and informal sector. Though there are several laws on paper, such as the Maternity Benefit Act (1939), rights relating to child care centres (Factory Act-1965), Principle of equal remuneration (The Minimum Wages Rules--1961), women cannot access these rights because they lack bargaining power and are in dire need of jobs and money. A lot of women in the garments sector do not have contracts, appointment letters or adequate security measures, say women activists. Further they are not allowed to unite in trade union, if they do they are branded as trouble makers and sacked.

"There are loopholes in the law and they are not implemented fully. Furthermore, there is no proper monitoring mechanism." says Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain o Salish Kendra, a well known legal and human rights resource centre. The government often bows down to the pressure of the industrialists or groups who are actually controlling the economy. That is why it is difficult for the government to be strict with them. "We are asking for equal wage for equal work for women and security measures," says Sultana.

Despite their contribution to the country's economy, women in the informal sector remain 'invisible' as they are neither visible nor audible.

In sum, their labour is not recognised as work. As one activist points out, agricultural labour is automatically associated with men rather than women.This is one area where activists believe there is much ground to cover.

It's time that the government got together and displayed a political will to give women their full due. It may be a long and winding road till women are taken seriously by men and the powers that be, but the process has been set in motion.

Ultimately, the one day earmarked for women is likely to have a ripple effect. In the words of Shirin Akhter, "International Women's Day was an opportune time for women to stand up with hope to achieve their demands, goals and dreams."

Many poor women have pulled themselves out of the morass of poverty and ignorance. They , in fact, have shown that it is possible for them to stand on their own feet and live a life of dignity.

Take Sufia Begum of Etbarpur village under Chandina thana in Comilla district. Sufia never had a chance for education and got married at the age of 16. Her conservative in-laws discouraged her from interaction with the outside world. In 1982 when NK began social mobilisation in the disadvantaged areas of the district, they came in contact with Sufia. Though she had a hard time of trying to convince her in-laws and husband about joining the landless group, eventually she formed her first group in 1984 along with the members of the family. Within six months, all the members elected her as the finance secretary of the group.

However, Sufia had to contend with severe pressure from the so-called leaders of the society. She fell a victim of fatwa several times and pressure was put on her husband to divorce her. She was also blamed for being a sinner since she did not have a baby.

However, Sufia did not give up so easily. She approached a doctor who proved that the blame of infertility given to her was false and evil-designed. Though the fundamentalists again raised the demand to expel Sufia from society, her increasing popularity made it hard for them to do so. Sufia also formed a group for the landless people comprising of husbands of female group members. Finally, her family also began to see the light.

Her husband, a rickshaw puller, and her jointly began sharecropping by taking a lease of land. Due to Sufia's determination and courage, her family has attained a distinct position in society. She received Tk 7,200 in four times from the savings and profit distributed among the members by the group. With this amount, she took a lease of cultivable land and purchased a rickshaw. There have been several other achievements: they have rebuilt their mud house with tin roof. Though they were illiterate, now they can read the newspapers.

Sufia got elected as the president of the village committee, area committee and in the year 1997, she got elected with a huge margin in the union council election. Now she is busy conducting village salishes, bargaining and sharing views with the local administration and performing as cultural activist at the national level. Despite the previous fierce opposition from her family members and previous foes, today she commands a great deal of respect in her community.


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