A voice for women
Shirin Akhter, in her 50s and president of Karmojibi Nari (KN), an organisation of working women, would prefer to be known as a “political activist” rather than purely a women's activist. As she says, “As a political activist, I work for women in particular. The big task that lies ahead of me is the question of political and economic empowerment of women and especially their representation in the decision making process.”
Her political odyssey began early. “I am a born fighter,” she says, going back in time to her days as a Class VII student at Azimpur Girl's High School in Dhaka. This was the height of the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965 when the denizens of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) realised just how insecure they were even in the event of severe national disarray. “That was the beginning of my political awareness,” she reminisces. Her interest in politics was further fuelled when her brother told her about the role of patriots like Pritilata Waddedar and Masterda Surja Sen in the freedom struggle against British colonial rule.
This political awakening coincided with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's 'Six Point'demand in February 1966 for a substantial measure of autonomy from West Pakistan.
Shireen Akhter (sixth from left, front row)
The young Shirin, along with her friends and relatives from East Pakistan, participated in the historic student movement of 1968-69, which forced dictator General Ayub Khan of Pakistan to announce that he would not take part in the next elections.
Later, Shirin joined Badrunnesa College in Dhaka. As a member of the East Pakistan Student League, the biggest student organisation backed by the Awami League, she was catapulted headlong into student politics. The students cast their entire might behind the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali armed freedom fighters who fought against the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Recalling her role at that time, she says, “ We were trained for the War, and then we created awareness among the students and women and recruited them for arms training in the run up to the Liberation War.”
After the liberation of the country from Pakistan, in 1972 the young and politically conscious Shirin became a member of the newly formed Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal's (JSD) student wing. The JSD was a voice of dissent in the martial law period when Army Chief of Staff General Ziaur Rahman emerged as a strongman, pledging the army's support to the civilian government headed by President Sayem. JSD dared to speak out strongly against the authoritarian rule. The years 1975-1977 were a nightmare for the young Shirin when she was thrown into jail. “Along with some party members, I was severely tortured and harassed. They beat me, gave me electric shocks and interrogated me for long hours.”
When she was released from prison, she married Monirul Islam, a well-known leader of the JSD who was in hiding at that time. In 1983 she took on the mantle of president of the Bangladesh Student's League. Once again an agitation began against the military and for a restoration of democracy. That was the time when Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia came to the forefront, the former with a 15 party alliance and the latter with a seven party alliance.
In 1987 Shirin joined the trade union Jatiya Sramik Jote Bangladesh. “I felt it was very important to organise the workers and to change society through their empowerment,” she says. Later she started a trade union on her own.
“There were women in the trade union but they had no voice,” she recalls. It was against this backdrop that Shirin along with a group of women activists, launched Karmojibi Nari (KN) in 1991.
In a country where a vast majority of workingwomen are denied their rights, KN has had to intervene in both the formal and informal sector. In the Readymade Garment (RMG) sector, though women account for 80 percent of the 3.5 million workforce, they have to cope with patriarchal attitudes which leave them minus fair wages, maternity leave, crèche, housing, medical and health facilities, training, overtime or job security even today. The story is much the same in other formal sector jobs in the textile, pharmaceutical, jute and leather industries.
Women in the informal sector, be it agriculture, construction workers or domestic help are the most marginalised because they are invisible players in the economy. According to the Bangladesh Labour Force Survey of 2002-2003, one-third of the total population of the country comprises the labour force, and 51.69 percent of them are employed in agriculture and live in rural Bangladesh. To date, agricultural labour, of which women constitute around half, are not recognised as workers at all and still fall outside the ambit of the legal system.
KN has striven to get all women workers a better deal both at the workplace and in the eyes of the law. In the words of Rokeya Rafique (Baby), executive director and a founder member of KN, “It is necessary to build a woman-friendly workplace. This is a man-made world and it is a challenge for a woman to make it as a skilled worker in any sector.”
To organise the women, KN has set up 2,000 cells which operate in 35 out of 54 districts in Bangladesh. The cells, which comprise 10 members in the urban areas and 25 members in the rural areas, enable women to speak in one voice and draw strength from unity.
Prominent singer Fakir Alamgir joins the rally.
KN's mission also includes advocacy and combating violence against women. The organisation lobbies for new laws to safeguard the interests of women at the workplace as well as the stricter implementation of existing labour laws.
Asked about the KN”s achievements, Shirin says, “We have been able to organise a large number of women and given them a voice so that they can work unitedly against inequity and discrimination.” Further, she says, when KN was launched, women workers' issues came to the forefront in the media.” “The most important event for KN and the women's movement is the raising of the question of equal pay for equal work and awareness on women workers' rights. Another great achievement is that we were able to make a bridge between the women's movement and the women workers' movement.”
(R) thedailystar.net 2010