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     Volume 6 Issue 14 | April 13, 2007 |

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Mahila Parishad's 37th Anniversary
The Fight Goes On

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Ayesha Khanam, General Secretary, Central Committee of Mahila Parishad speaks at the anniversary programme.

As a forerunner of the women's movement in Bangladesh, Mahila Parishad has tenaciously pursued the difficult task of making society and government at least acknowledge (albeit grudgingly), the simple fact that the rights of women are nothing but the basic rights that every human being is entitled to. 'Women's Rights are Human Rights' has been the ongoing slogan for Mahila Parishad's arduous journey of 37 years and today, with 150,000 members that include workers, organisers and leaders and a presence all over Bangladesh, it is an institution with one of the largest networks of women activists. Along the way, many other organisations have joined hands with Mahila Parishad, to take part in collective movements to protest against the grossest injustices against women, whether to demand justice for victims of sexual violence and murder, for better and more meaningful representation of women in the parliament, for amendments in discriminatory laws, for greater economic empowerment of women, for the government to fully ratify international conventions, the list is endless. Relentlessly and consistently, Mahila Parishad has been heading along this difficult and thorny road with a dream of establishing a nation based on democracy, secularism and equal participation of men and women in all spheres of life. Based on voluntary service, the organisation has pushed on the women's movement, which is basically a movement to protect human rights, where the only way to go is forward.

(Top to Bottom): Father of Simi, (a victim of sexual harassment), receives a crest from Prof. Anisuzzaman, honouring his deceased daughter; Norwegian Ambassador Aud Lise Norheim addresses the audience; Mahila Parishad commemorated its 37th anniversary by honouring 40 women from different professions.

On April 4, 1970, and on the threshold of a momentous time in history, a group of progressive women students and a few other socially conscious women established Mahila Parishad under the leadership of poet and social activist Sufia Kamal. It was a movement-oriented, nationalist, non-political, voluntary organisation.

Later the organisation continued its movements under the leadership of the Central Committee's Chairperson Hena Das and General Secretary Ayesha Khanam as well as many other dedicated women.

Today, there are Mahila Parishad branches in practically every district of the country with representation in the upazillas, thana, unions, villages and neighbourhoods. Training women to develop their organisational skills and creating a professional mindset among women has been a big part of the organisation's activities.

The first decade of Mahila Parishad's journey from 1970 to 1980, was devoted to mainly bringing women out of their confines and creating an awakening among them regarding their rights. Going from house to house Mahila Parishad workers had the daunting task of not only convincing women to join the organisation but also their husbands and families, that this was a positive move. In a patriarchal, conservative environment, the idea of equal rights for men and women was not very popular, let alone acceptable. But the efforts paid off in the end. By the end of the decade, there were branches in 15 districts and the number of members was 15,000; four huge national conventions were held. In the 80s there were 35 branches and 25000 members. In the nineties the number of branches had increased to well over 300 and members were over one lakh thirty-two thousand.

By 2006 Mahila Parishad had established branches in 59 districts. Organisers and workers numbered an impressive 3,731; they included women engaged in farming, professionals, indigenous women and women workers. One thousand fifty women had become members of the organisation.

Apart from extensive training programmes for trainers, workers and ordinary members, Mahila Parishad has since 1989, undertaken major research on gender issues. This includes studies in mainstreaming women in electoral politics (with the help of Netherlands Tropical Institute (KIT), gender perspective of suicide and research on rape.

Providing legal support through its legal aid cell has also been an important function. Settling disputes through shalish, providing legal assistance and training in laws such as para-legal training, training in CEDAW, and training village watch teams, have all been part of this endeavour. The organisation, through its branches nationwide, gives counselling to victims of violence, receives specific complaints and helps victims to be rehabilitated (giving them skills training) and provides them with shelter (Rokeya Sadan) when needed.

But it is in organising and initiating movements that Mahila Parishad has done groundbreaking work:

1973: Under the leadership of Sufia Kamal, the organisers founder and chairperson, lobbies with the then Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for direct elections for women candidates and an increase in the number of seats allotted to women.

1979: Lobbying in the parliament for an anti-dowry law.

1980s: Lobbying for a Universal Family Code with the help of lawyers.
Movement to abolish the 8th amendment.
Mobilising movement against autocratic rule.
Movement to raise social consciousness to protest against the rape and killing of Shobmeher, a child victim.
Translating the UN CEDAW into Bangla and making it known nationwide.

1990s: Catalysing a movement against fatwa.
Movement to increase women's political participation through increasing the number of parliamentary seats for women and initiating direct elections for women.
Movement against religion-based politics and communalism.
Movement for law against repression of women.

2000s: Ongoing movement for the formation of a draft bill regarding reserved seats for women and turning this into a national issue.
Movement for reforming of the National Women's Development Act '97
Movement against repression of women and minority communities.

Movement demanding justice for victims in many sensational cases including: Saleha Banu (killed for dowry); Nurjahan, (victim of fatwa givers); Rima, Champa, Sheela, Shobmeher, Shapnahar, Sitara, Nurjahan ; Kodbanu , (another victim of fatwa); Smritikona, (victim of rape); Simi and Rumi (victims of sexual harassment); Mahima and Fahima (committed suicide after being raped); Fatema (victim of gang-rape and murder); and Shilpi (victim of gang-rape).

Mahila Parishad has, moreover, submitted several proposals for specific laws to the prime minister, law ministry and law commission etc. They include a law to prevent the practice of dowry (1980), Family Court Law (1985), Prevention of Repression against Women and Children Special Act 1995 and 2000 and Prevention of Repression Against Women and Children Amended Law 2003, a proposed citizenship law bill (2006) and a proposed Uniform Family Law.

Internationally too, Mahila Parishad has been recognised and has played important roles in international conferences, the most well known being the UNCEDAW committees' 31st session.

Activism is often a thankless job. When it comes to establishing gender equality in one of the most sexist societies, it can be a formidable task. For the women of Bangladesh, the struggle to attain their rightful place in society seems to be endless. Brutality and violence are still the most fearsome realities for many women. Bangladesh as a signatory of CEDAW continues to have reservations against parts of Article 2 and Article 16 of the convention as they conflict with Sharia laws. We continue to suffer because of a discriminatory citizenship law which does not give children automatic Bangladeshi citizenship if they have a Bangladeshi mother but foreign father; the reverse is true if their father is Bangladeshi. We are economically deprived because of wage discrimination. We suffer humiliation, injury and even death because of the absence of a universal family law. There are innumerable more examples of how society hold us back and keep trying to silence our voices, to break our spirit. But we are learning to stand up for ourselves, we are learning to speak out. “We have to define what our rights are, we have to start our own revolution…we have to make our own history” says Ayesha Khanam Mahila Parishad's a fiery activist and the Central Committee's long-time General Secretary, during a speech celebrating the organisation's 37th year. As far as Mahila Parishad is concerned, the fight is still on.



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