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    Volume 8 Issue 93 | November 6, 2009 |

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Of Snakes and Ladders

Shayera Moula

Many girls are forced to get into early marriages and deprived of a happy and complete childhood.

The key to "empowerment," a word overused and under-grasped in its true sense, is through education. This key is believed to unlock the many doors towards not only understanding the concept of asserting one's agency but also actually going ahead and exercising that power and right. So, why is it that in the 19 million students enrolled in primary schools across the country, where half of them are girls, there lies a drastic decline as soon as they reach secondary or tertiary education? With a gross enrolment of 30% female students in primary schools around the 1990s why was there a sudden hit of 37% drop out soon after? And why is the female to male ratio for tertiary education 36:64 even today?

And here, the question is directed towards those parents who were made to believe that educating their daughters would benefit them and the nation in the long run. They were told that their daughters, too, would pursue higher education, earn a living and live a life independent from the burdens of monstrous in-laws. Instead, despite 18 years old being the legal age for marriage, 55% of the girls here become mothers before they reach 19, meaning two out of three adolescent girls get married between the ages of 10 and 19. Okay, so we have some idea behind those dropouts -- those girls were too busy making tea for the new family members!

Money and security seem to be the issues at hand. The latter is far more evident simply because of the increased level of abductions, rapes, acid attacks and murders. But it doesn't even have to be so extreme. A bus driver on the road is allowed to assert more power on the road over an "educated, upper middle class" woman driving a car. He can verbally harass her or even attempt to scare her on the roads as she drives, and he will still have enough supporters (whether rickshaw pullers or college students, most will give a little smirk at the thought of female drivers in Dhaka city). The driver may not be an evil person at all and will perhaps help any woman in need of aid but he would gladly indulge in some momentary satisfaction in poking fun at the ones with more money and less rights. In his understanding, all women are second-class citizens.

So why let your daughters out on the road and into independence if that road happens to be filled with such serpents, right?

It's also less a lacking in education than it is a lacking in adapting capabilities added to our cultural phenomenon that still adheres to traditions. Women in Peru are able to work in all fields of the workforce wearing clothes that comfort them, women in Nepal are more responsible in both harvesting crops as well as selling goods in stores and so on, and India is producing vast numbers of scooters these days for the convenience of women -- these are all third world countries so where are we going wrong?

Lack of security is a major hindrance to the mobility of women in our country.

It is an adaptability issue. You can teach a girl all you want about her dreams, her independence through studies but her mother along with many others know the secret chaos of "saas-bahu" domestic clashes thanks to all those cross border and in-house TV series that show us that a girl's freedom of choice is just a myth. You can try and convince the father that his daughter needs more liberty and less housework but he knows that the minute she is late returning home, the local gang of serpentines are awaiting their feast. He also knows that marriage is the only path towards creating a shield-force around such insecurities.

Going up the social scale, there is still a vast number of the population that would claim that women in the office add to distractions. I was told by a man who taught us the importance of proper transition from student to employee that women should not wear certain colours of nail polish at work, that it would create a "problem" for her male colleagues. Watching Mad Men, we can agree that Bangladesh is still going through a phase where in the men's world, the rising modern working women are there for some show and some play. The old saucy gossip about a relationship between bosses and secretaries still makes people perk up their ears!

Then there are those who still believe that women's work doesn't add to economic progress. There is of course the mathematical reason to this where a woman takes maternity leave and is likely to drop out of the organisation as soon as she is married and has to take care of her family. But also remember that she is being paid little and a lot of the times women working same hours as men get paid half the amount too.

That can be understood but what about the argument that women don't add to economic value simply because their work is not monetary based. Rosalind Miles when talking about modern tribal societies in The Beauty Myth says that "working unceasingly as 80% of the tribe's total food intake, on a daily basis… male members were and are doing only one-fifth of the work necessary for the group to survive, while the other four-fifths is carried out entirely by women."

Also a Pakistani woman is known to spend about 60 hours a week on domestic work alone, while a Western housewife, despite modern appliances works just six hours less. Where does that put the average woman, even with her education, in Bangladesh? Remember, the number of women in the upper class with their 5 - 10 home help is still a low number so we here refer to the common women and their double shifts, working efficiently both at home and at the workplace.

Then there is the understanding that women who are making it to the top are either climbing this ladder through their DNA (blood relations with all those in top positions) or those extra office hours and the work scheduled behind closed doors and at late night parties.

As in most professions, policemen are respected more then policewomen.

Keep that in mind every time your family members remind you that being a girl, teaching is the safest and most respectable job in history. There are more hidden meanings behind it, it's not just about less office hours… it's about how your companions (students) aren't old enough to lead you towards perversion. Remember: men don't generally trust women or they don't trust other men with their women anyway.

So the problem really is that we are not comfortable with the idea of "change" no matter how much we announce it. In terms of adapting to new laws, we would fail dramatically if we were ever to follow say the 'one-child policy’. It took us forever to make sure that rickshaws don't take certain main roads and still there are many who get away with it. We couldn't even get policewomen to control streetlights let alone ever consider them driving amidst us on scooters.

Sure, more and more women are out on the road, in the workplace, in jeans but the pace of adaptability is slow and so by the time we can reach that last cell towards winning in this game of snakes and ladders, there will always be that long python with its mouth wide open dragging us down all over again. The key we are looking for then is a shiny metal that can open an escape route. The better solution is to educate both men and women about the importance of not "women rights" but perhaps "human rights" where women are, believe it or not, human beings as well.

As Ndèye Khady Diop, the Senegalese Minister of Family Affairs, Food Security, Women's Entrepreneurship, Microfinance and Early Childhood said: "Change cannot be the role or duty of only one group or only one social category…”

Perhaps starting a curriculum on personal social education at an early age that teaches both boys and girls about working together can be the only way that a policeman and policewoman, a boss and secretary or male and female co-managers can work together without the women feeling insecure about the men around them and without the men feeling judgmental towards women and their work.

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