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     Volume 6 Issue 3 | January 26, 2007 |

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Breaking the Barriers

Syeda Shamin Mortada

It has been 27 long years since the Convention on the 'Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women' was adopted; where do women stand today? How much could we empower them? Are they secure from all sorts of violence and discrimination? Did they receive equal opportunities in all the fields within the society? And most importantly, could our society, our country, our world achieve “Gender Equality” in its true sense?

Discrimination against the female gender starts at home. There are parents who give precedence to sons than daughters regardless of the social status they belong to. Around two thirds of male respondents in Bangladesh believe that university education for boys should get more importance than that of girls. The women folk too are closed out of crucial household decisions. Fifty percent of women in Bangladesh said they lack control over their own health care and one third of husbands control their wives mobility outside the home. A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute said that if men and women had equal influence in decision-making, the incidence of underweight children under three years old in South Asia would fall by up to 13 percentage points, resulting in 13.4 million fewer undernourished children in the region. This proves women who have greater influence in the decision making process can promote better health care practices for the family. Then there is the problem of domestic violence. Sixty-two percent of women in a province in Bangladesh reported having experienced physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner. The domestic workers suffer even worse consequences. Many girls, under 16 have reported to have been severely abused at the hands of their employers, which include physical punishment, sexual harassment and humiliation.

Inequality does not stop whether it is at home or work. According to Oxfam, women work around 60 to 90 hrs per week, while time use surveys say that across a selection of developing countries women's working hours exceed those of men and often by an extensive margin. Women working in informal sectors face difficult working condition, long hours of labour, unscheduled overtime, with no job security; leaving many women and their children at a high risk of poverty, which again results in poor health and growth for the members of the family. Women spend significantly less time in paid labour and their average income is far lower as well; data shows women's nominal wages are roughly 20 percent lower than men. Not only do they earn less but also own much fewer assets than the male counterparts. The absence of policies to support working mothers, the scarcity of child care facilities seriously hampers women's earning power.

If we dwell on the Chinese saying “Women hold up half the sky” where do they stand when we talk about national and international politics? Despite progress, women are largely locked out of politics and the government. As of July 2006, women accounted for just under 17 per cent of all parliamentarians worldwide (around one in six). If the current advancement continues, gender parity in national legislatures won't be achieved until 2068. Even today women face discrimination at the ballot box, moreover many people in the developing and developed countries believe that men make better political leaders than women.

True, women are in a much better of position than they were even 30 years ago. They have a greater voice in the household, the community and politics than they had in the past. Women today are educating themselves, working, participating in peace agreements, taking responsibilities of the family, and inspiring the next generation. Yet a lot more needs to be done.

Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70% are women. Women do about 66% of the world's work in return for less than 5% of its income. In the least developed countries nearly twice as many women over age 15 are illiterate compared to men. Two-thirds of children denied primary education are girls, and 75% of the world's 876 million illiterate adults are women. Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, and yet earn only 10% of the world's income and own less than 1% of the world's property. An estimated 14 million girls between 15-19 years old give birth every year. Every minute, a woman dies as a result of pregnancy complications, adding up to more than half-a-million women per year. Some begin to suffer even before they are born; birth histories and census reveal a high proportion of male births and male children under five in Asia, which suggests sex-selected foeticide and infanticide.

Even today the birth of a girl child brings grief in many families. Women are forced to bear three or four daughters to have one 'precious' son. Daughters are thought of as burdens who have to get married and go away. To this day, an independent self-sufficient woman has to think twice before going outside late at night. Wives are beaten and raped by their own husbands. Many face violence from in-laws as well. There are scores of women who do not have the right to decide if she wants to have a profession, to wish to have a child later on, to go to a doctor, to hope, to desire, to need. Why are they called the second sex? Why not the first? Aren't they the ones who have been bestowed with the power to give birth? Are they still perceived to be subordinate to men? Yes, a lot more needs to be done; we have a long way to go and have a lot of tasks in our hands.

If we want poverty to become history, we need to empower our women folk in every possible way. If we want a developed, prosperous, peaceful nation we need to have gender equality. The strongest and most effective tool for development is empowerment of women. Gender discrimination will be stopped and gender equality established if we can fully empower the women folk in three main spheres: the household, the work place and the political sphere. Remember, healthy, educated and empowered woman will have strong, knowledgeable and confident children, and these children in turn will create progressive societies.

Only good intentions, catchy slogans and such articles are not enough to end discrimination and bring equality. We need the government, public, private and educational institutions and all the important actors of the society to come forward to face and take necessary actions to meet the greatest challenge that is holding back of what we term as our “Modern World”.

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