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          Volume 10 |Issue 12 | March 25, 2011 |


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Human Rights

Women Development Policy
Forward Looking but not Flawless

Farhana Urmee

Women development policy ensures women’s equal opportunity to work. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

It is a harsh reality that in a country that was born protesting against oppression and injustice, it needed 40 long years after its independence to come up with a policy guideline to ensure the rights of its women. The government's approval of the Women Development Policy 2011 in a view to preserve women rights has been seen by many as a major step forward in women's fight to come out of their subordinate status.

Approving of this policy was one of the electoral manifestos of the ruling party which, in their earlier tenure had formulated a women's development policy in 1997. According to Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, state minister of Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA), the present policy promises to create an enormous scope for women empowerment in Bangladesh. Formed from 1997 to 2011 it took a long time for the women development policy to see the light of day.

According to Dr Faustina Pereira, director of Human Rights and Legal Service, Brac, the women development policy, 1997 was a forward looking policy which could give equal rights of women in property, opportunity in employment, political and administrative empowerment; it also facilitated women with equal opportunity in education and training, sports and culture and proposed to eliminate oppression of women.

Lauding the newly approved women development policy Faustina says, it has also made a wide scope for women's development in Bangladesh in all aspects. The new policy has included some additional contemporary issues. It has included provisions for the development of indigenous women, physically or intellectually challenged women, rights of women coping with the effect of climate change and so on. And to implement these rights and control over property the policy has proposed formulating new or amending existing laws if necessary.

Women development policy ensures women's equal access to mass media and media's positive role in building the image of women.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan

While rights activists are giving recommendations and urging the government for an immediate action plan to implement the policy, on March 8, 2011 Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), a partner of the BNP led opposition alliance has called a day long nation wide hartal on April 4, 2011 assuming that the women development policy might contradict Muslim law with regard to equal share of women in inherited property.

In a number of statements MOWCA state minister Shirin Sharmin Choudhury said however, the policy does not contradict with Muslim law. Although the 1997 women policy proposed equal rights of women in inherited property and proposed necessary amendments to existing contradictory laws the 2011 policy has conveniently avoided the issue of equal rights of women to inheritance. The new policy says that women will have full control over the inherited and earned property instead of mentioning equal rights to them.

According to Dr Faustina Pereira, the concept of property has a number of dimensions, one is 'movable property', another is 'fixed property', 'earned property' or 'inherited property'. “In a broad sense women will be given equal opportunity and full control over respective properties as Bangladesh is a country where women often cannot claim hundred percent control over any kind of property. This policy would help women to have control over their existing and earned property,” adds Faustina.

According to advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), as women struggle for the control over earned property in many cases, this policy will help to establish one's right to own property. “Regarding the control over property, women often need to come to court, fight cases and then manage to get a verdict in their favour. But this policy will change the state of women who will not be requiring court cases to establish their ownership over their property and their rights to be recognised,” hopes Salma.

Again, the new policy has incorporated a clause to formulate a gender sensitive budget. This budget can ensure women's inclusion in the whole planning and development programme of the country, observes experts.

The formulation of a national women development policy has gone through a number of ups-and-downs and been subject to politicisation as well. The 1997 policy was formulated in line with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Bangladesh has also been a ratifying nation of this global concern for women’s development and gender equality.

Women development policy secures women's security in national, social and family life. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad president Ayesha Khanam says, “We, women rights activists, definitely welcome the initiative of the government to bring back the women policy from a complete dead state at least. After '97 the new draft of the policy overruled the previous one with major changes. And the legacy of the democratic government was well carried on by the interim caretaker government in formulating a women's policy with a vague definition of women rights and development. The AL government has also taken two years to turn their words into action, as reinstating the 1997 women policy was one of the electoral manifesto of the current government.”

In 2004, the then BNP-Jamaat led government approved the women's development policy excluding some existing and introducing some new phrases defining women's rights. The phrases 'equal rights', 'equal and full participation', 'inheritance', and 'property' were replaced with 'constitutional right', 'preference' and 'greater participation'.

In 2008 the caretaker government cancelled the 2004 women's policy and approved a new one which restored the provision for direct election to the parliamentary seats for women. Interestingly, this policy (2008) had the word 'equal property right' in the clause of economic empowerment of women but it carefully avoided the word 'inherited property'.

Ayesha Khanam thinks that implementation of the women development policy should be kept completely outside of politicisation, as it is an issue of national development. As the policy is talking about eight crore people who are women, its implementation requires active participation of both the government and civil society through a participatory process along with a specific time-bound action plan. Again, the new policy now requires a thorough action plan to monitor the state of women in Bangladesh. “As the government has already approved the policy we are now counting on the proper implementation with concentration on carrying out the requirements stipulated by CEDAW”, she adds.

“We have to be conscious and aware of our rights and should move forward with the noble utilisation of the policy in empowering women and ensuring gender equality”, observes Ayesha Khanam.

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