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     Volume 8 Issue 68 | May 8, 2009 |

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Human Rights

Zero Tolerance for Violence

Elita Karim and Ershad Kamol
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

While analysing myths, American contemporary poet Adrienne Rich in her popular poem "Diving into the Wreck" says that women have been oppressed by the gods and men, since the era of the legends. This practice has continued to the day. Official estimates say presently in Bangladesh about 58 per cent women are physically assaulted by their male counterparts; most of these incidents happen at home. Almost all women in the country face physical torture in their lives. In fact, violence is a constant threat in the lives of women and contributes to a large number of women feeling insecure both in rural and urban areas.

Social scientists have identified 28 types of violence against women that they face in domestic life, at work, on the street and various other institutions. The fact that violations against women are on the rise at such an alarming rate in the country is not because Bangladesh lacks good laws to protect women. There are many laws and even the Constitution of Bangladesh ensures the prevention of violence against anybody. What actually deters women from getting justice are manifold in nature: lack of awareness about existing laws, extreme pressure in the domestic life, expensive judicial system and others dominating forces.

The purpose of the programme was to facilitate a process, which will enable people to change patriarchal attitudes towards women.

Manusher Jonno Foundation's three-day national council on violence against women at the Bangladesh Institute of Administration and Management (BIAM) brought hundreds of women (and men) to speak about the abuse that women face in their particular district or town. The crowds included students, activists, NGO workers, victims and media people from all over the country.

Addressing the issue of violence has been a deliberate endeavour for Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), which promotes human rights and good governance. The foundation is working through 20 district partners and 79 sub-partner organisations in 30 districts, 19 Upazilas, 395 Unions, 2488 villages. The programme has 16 lakh participants.

The purpose of the "Prevention of Violence Against Women" programme is to facilitate a process which will enable people and relevant organisations to change age-old patriarchal attitudes towards women and engage more effectively in preventing violence against them.

The main attractions of the national council that ended on April 29 were the presentation of seminar papers and open discussions. A total of six-seminar papers were presented at the six workshops in the council. Though the title of the council was "Prevention of Violence Against Women", the range of issues discussed was far more diverse than the title would suggest. Many of the papers focused on violence faced by marginalised communities such as Dalits, disabled individuals, ethnic minority groups, sex workers and children.

The programme highlighted several recommendations and suggestions from activists for the panel.

Child abuse is one of the most disturbing issues in our country that is hardly ever talked about. In her seminar paper titled "Violence Against Adolescent", Roksana Yasmin, coordinator of Breaking the Silence, talked about the frightening sexual violence inflicted on children at home by family members, relatives or neighbours. Other seminar papers presented at the council were: "The Role of Grass Root Organisations for Preventing Domestic Violence", presented by Professor Shahnaz Huda, a professor of the Department of Law of Dhaka University; "Role of Public and Local Government Bodies to Ensure Justice", presented by Programme Manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation Ruma Sultana; "Financial Empowerment of Women and Prevention of Violence" presented by Executive Director of Nari Udyag Kendra Masuda Khatun Shefali; "Bibhinno Prantik Jogoshthir Narir Proti Shohingshota Protirodhe Koroniyo,” presented by Programme Manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation Mahua Leya Faliya; and "Local Government Programmes to Prevent violence Against Women" presented by Ranjan Karmakar, executive director of Steps.

These papers featured the nature of violence, limitations and obstacles on preventing any forms of violence in society.

In the open discussions, the grassroots workers and victims highly criticised the government agencies and NGO organisations such as the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs, Ministry of Law, Ministry of Home, police, Jatio Mahila Shangstha and others for not doing their activities properly.

The last day of the programme highlighted several recommendations and suggestions from activists and NGO workers. Justice Mohammad Fazlul Karim of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, Home Minister Advocate Sahara Khatun, Law Minister Barrister Shafik Ahmed and Shaheen Anam, the Executive Director of Manusher Jonno were present at the seminar.

In the open discussions, workers and victims highly criticised the government agencies and NGO organisations for not carrying out their activities properly.

Even though more than 60 per cent of the reproductive and productive contributions in society come from women, they are still most abused when it comes to maintaining their rights and integrity as individuals. Executive Director of Manusher Jonno, Shaheen Anam spoke about one of the most terrifying acts in society, women being abused inside their very homes by their own family members. Echoing Anam, Mitali from Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) said that home violence is one of the most common crimes committed against women and also the most ignored. “Existing laws should be made stronger to control domestic crimes against women,” she says. “Because these kinds of crimes occur behind closed doors, it becomes very difficult to prove them and hence the criminals are left unpunished.” Like Mitali, many activists and workers from several organisations from all over the country spoke to the guests and speakers, and offered suggestions and recommendations to combat this crime. The recommendations include, formulating a law to check trafficking of women, ensuring joint efforts of the government and non-government organisation in preventing violence, establishing a council to prevent violence in every district, implementing women development policy of 1997, ensuring equal rights of women to the property of parents and husband and ensuring participation of women in local government.

It is women themselves who should take the first step to protect themselves from violence, especially when it happens inside their homes. They must know their rights and have the strength to fight for them. The recommendations also included giving special attention to violence against disabled women, trafficking women in the name of giving them work in foreign countries, creation of more one-stop crisis centres at police stations, unification of the religious laws according to which women are sometimes deprived and discriminated against, especially with regards to property and marriage issues.

According to Pofessor Shahnaz Huda's paper, 'Role of Grassroots Organisations in Combating Violence within the Family', an increase in female autonomy can cause conflict between a woman and her husband or his family, thereby increasing the risk of domestic violence. In a family, women are socially discriminated against with regards to nutrition, general care, etc. This is a very common practice in many of the educated families in society as well. Professor Huda emphasises the need to make the men more aware about these issues as they are often the abusers. They should be made aware about family laws and that violence of any kind, is not be justified under any circumstances. Moreover, in many families, women encourage or sometimes even directly commit violence against other women, for instance, over dowry, a common occurrence in many parts of the country. One of the solutions, according to Professor Huda, is to interact with religious leaders. They should speak against dowry and domestic violence, learn and understand the correct version of religious laws and mobilise against illegal fatwas. Another solution, which she talks about, is the changing of the general attitude towards the girl child. Right from the time of birth, confidence should be instilled in children equally in boys and girls. Boys should also be taught to respect girls from a very early age and not treat them in a condescending way, mirroring the adults around.

In fact, Home Minister Sahara Khatun appealed to the men, especially, to come forward and voice out against violence against women. She said that men have a very special role to play. “Only then will women be able to get rid of this menace,” she said. “At least 47 to 60 per cent of women fall victim to violence,” she added referring to a study.

MB Akhtar, a Gender Programme Coordinator from Oxfam Bangladesh, analyses a man and his thoughts in his paper 'Victimising Women From A Man's Perspective' speaks of a man's age-old attitude towards females. According to the paper, centuries of patriarchal leads us to believe in man's superior power to think and act logically and better as compared to a woman. We tend to depend on his all-worldly ability to fight the world and at the same time take for granted his tendency to underestimate and victimise women.

The national council, apart from bringing to the forefront the extent to which women all over the country are tortured and oppressed, gave people from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to brainstorm how we can stop this disease that debilitates society and prevents it from progress. As the Executive Director of the Foundation put it, the way to go about fighting violence against women is to have zero tolerance for it.



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