Mapping Women's Empowerment
Lusana Anika Masrur
According to the Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Program, Bangladesh has a literacy rate for women at 81.9%, followed by India at 70.9% and then Pakistan at 58.6%. On one hand, this encouraging statistic illustrates the growth in women's status and position in our country, but it also shadows the many obstacles and drawbacks they face when compared to their male counterparts. Traditionally, women are still primarily associated with their roles as daughter, wife and mother. Increasingly however, they are becoming more involved as members of the society. It is the dynamics between these two roles that highlight their position in our region.
Since 1996, BRAC Development Institute (BDI) has been conducting various forms of research to explore the many dimensions influencing the journey that has brought women where they are today and the challenges that block them from moving further. BDI launched their first book based on these findings called “Mapping Women's Empowerment- Experiences from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan” last week at the CIRDAP Auditorium. The book is a collection of original articles written in a journalistic style by 11 internationally renowned authors from the region. They discuss both the determinants of and the adversities to women's voice, work and control in the sub-continent – the three themes that BDI's research programme, Pathways for Women were based on. At the inauguration ceremony, which was attended by many professionals and enthusiasts, Maheen Sultan, Coordinator for Pathways of Women's Empowerment Program, discussed in her welcome speech how this book, the first in what she hopes would be a series of publications, was aiming to send its messages to the government and private institutions as well as individuals.
Although women's studies is not a new field, it has very limited insight into the context in which the issues fit into our culture. This programme seeks to highlight the concept of empowerment through objective, non-partisan arguments. Empowerment is a relative term that takes different approaches in different places and cultures. Likewise, the concerns of feminism in the west are very distinct from the colours and shapes it takes here. Concepts that revolve around it are constantly being reshaped, making women's empowerment a multi-dimensional tool. Even within this sub-continent the status of women differs greatly across borders. Dr. Binayak Sen, Research Director for Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) and Guest Speaker at the book launch, mentioned how the lack of a garments industry in Pakistan was a direct result of women's inflexibility to work. For decades, it has been a key export division in Bangladesh and a crucial source of the country's GDP. This exemplifies how the rights of women are directly related to a nation's development and success. In the face of modernity, sticking to the perception that women are passive with no independent role and power over their lives no longer applies. They are equal and not inferior in what they have to offer and in what they should have access to in our community.
The book fundamentally focuses on women from the middle and lower income groups, who are more representative of the majority of the country's female population. In our patriarchal institution and ideology, there are unlimited constraints that deny the existence of a truly gender-egalitarian democracy. Culture, religion and financial factors are just a part of the causes that dictate women to serve as homemakers before anything else. This web of conflict between modernity and tradition is where women of South Asia are caught in and struggling to get out of. By carrying out an empirical study the thematic concerns of voice, work and bodily integrity are evaluated to bring out a more in-depth analysis of their achievements and struggles.
In Part One, women's ability to speak for themselves is looked into under the title of Voice. As much as their accomplishments are praised, the barriers within our systems that prohibit it from being achieved fully are focused on. Of course, this is directly linked to the power struggle that defines any society. Even though the country is led by female figures, in no way does that mean that we as a people reject male supremacy. Even though the Constitution assures equality of women in the public sphere, the foundation of our country's development was formed through a division of labour according to gender. As such, the political sphere still limits the participation of women and presents the values of the dominant male ideology. Consequently, women still remain a minority. This aspect is one that all the three countries share regardless of religion and border. The authors in this section stress on the importance of breaking down these barriers and achieving a relationship whereby the public sphere and the female population of the country (a majority) can exchange in a mutual dialogue, because both are thoroughly interconnected and beneficial for each other.
The impact of paid work for women and the obstacles that limit it is the topic of focus in the next section. Worldwide, the main issue under consideration is the disparity between a man and a woman's income. In this sub-continent however, it is the disproportion in participation that concerns interested parties. Whereas in Pakistan, purdah was considered as the main reason for women to be working from their homes, such severe conservatism is usually not the case for most women in India and Bangladesh. Here, it seems that increasingly, the worth of a woman's labour in feeding her family is being realised. Even so, the gender-based job patterns keep women in low-paying, low-status activities… ones that fit the stereotypical image accepted by families and employers. The authors address the significance of policy-reformation through education, awareness and legislation because in the broader context, a woman's income and contribution are just as favourable to her family unit and her self-reliance, as her male counterparts. Furthermore, the conditions of a country's female taskforce demonstrate its standard of living as well as its potential for economic development.
In the last section, “Bodily Integrity”, women's freedom of choice and physical and sexual security are looked at from a localised angle. Violence against women, forced marriages and malnutrition are just some of the problems faced in a country that is otherwise less tolerant towards these issues when they affect men. By constricting what we perceive are the purposes women are 'meant to' serve, we objectify and subjugate them, forgetting that if they are to fulfil their role as mothers, they need to be healthy enough to bear children who will grow up to be productive resources of this country. They need to be welcomed as equals and recognised for what they offer and bring to our community and to be given the respect of choosing for themselves, a fundamental right of any being, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender.
Despite Bangladesh's long history of struggle and rights movements, much remains to be achieved, not least in the area of gender equality. While recognising the achievements, the authors of the book point towards the necessary interventions and collective consciousness required to bring about positive change.
The book is available for sale for Tk. 650 at UPL Sales Centres and at major bookstores in the city.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010