Dhaka Wednesday November 23, 2011

Discrimination against girls has to go from family first

Rizanuzzaman Laskar and Pankaj Karmakar

In a country where women hold some of the most powerful offices including that of the prime minister, the home minister and the foreign minister and also the leader of the opposition -- women remain well behind men in the race for rights and opportunities.

The reason, gender experts say, is the blend of the country's decades-old norms that put men before their better halves, while insecurity and safety issues continue to plague the lives of women.

It all starts from the very birth, said gender experts and women rights activists.

Soon after birth, a “division of labour” is introduced in the families where boys are allowed to do certain things and take certain responsibilities while girls are sent to other lower directions, they said.

Things only go downhill as a girl grows up to be an adolescent and then an adult, according to a 2011 UNICEF report.

Published in October this year, the report says “young girls are weighed down by social and cultural pressures from society as they reach puberty, although they are relatively free from discrimination up to the age of five”.

The discrimination is visible in different forms including dropping out of secondary schools, girls not being allowed to leave homes unattended and being subjected to sexual harassment such as stalking, among others.

“If you look at the statistics, there are 11 percent more girls than boys up to class six in schools,” said Rasheda K Chowdhury, noted educationist and women's rights activist.

But in class ten the situation is reversed with 11 percent more boys than girls, she said.

No time to read or play, no better job.
Photo: Rashed Shumon

However, now, as a casual urban visitor can observe, women are well represented in the civil service. They account for around half of university enrolments, and rates of participation by women in the work force are significantly higher than they once were.

But, discrimination within families remains a big issue in a society that prefers boys to girls.

Nowrin Oshin, a Keraniganj resident, said her parents always favour her brother, even if he does anything wrong.

“I get criticised for even the smallest and silliest of matters while my brother gets off the hook with things like smoking, stalking girls and even enjoying obscene films,” she told The Daily Star.

“Even before my examination, my brother plays loud music from his room,” said Oshin, a first year student at a private university in Dhaka.

“Instead of scolding him, my parents ask me to study by closing the door of my room.”

The discrimination does not end within the family.

On an average, women earn significantly less than men, government data show. Fewer women stay in the work force long enough to attain top-earning positions. Many who do stay say that social pressures, and their employers, make it tough for them to advance.

“It's a world where the top echelons of many businesses are dominated by men,” said Rasheda K Chowdhury, also a former adviser to caretaker government.

Lack of adequate education is a major factor, as many girls tend to drop out before they reach secondary schools, experts say.

They believe a major reason behind the higher dropout rates in secondary education is the cost factor. It is there the families have to make a decision.

In a country where majority of the population lives under the poverty line, most families decide not to send their daughters but sons to secondary school.

Another big challenge, experts say, is the security and safety of girls outside their homes.

Most educational institutes are located far apart from each other in rural areas. This discourages parents to send their daughters off to school alone, experts said.

State minister for women and children affairs Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury has a solution to the security issue.

“They could go to schools in groups instead of going alone,” she told The Daily Star. “It would be much safer.”

The problem lies in some social norms and culture that undermine women, she said, adding that the change should come from the families for a wider impact.

Healthcare, another major point of discrimination for women, is a “systematic problem”, according to experts.

Many public schools now have toilet for girls. But they either remain locked up or used exclusively by teachers, they said.

Problems with sanitation and hygiene start from here, which go on to play a major impact in their health status at later stages, they added.

According to the healthcare workers, while status of primary healthcare is acceptable across the country, many families do not take girls to the healthcare complexes unless they are seriously ill.

It all boils down to social awareness and perspectives, experts say.

However, all these problems cannot overshadow the achievements in attaining gender parity, they added.

Girls' enrolment in schools is now higher than ever before, celebration of the national girl child day along with special stipends for girl students are some major steps in empowering girls, said Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury.

“Girls are now driving cars, buses and trucks professionally,” said Rasheda K Chowdhury, adding that such feat would have been hard to imagine even a few years back.

There are many positive policies from the government, which has improved the status of women in the Bangladeshi context, she added.

“But we want more,” she said.

Experts say without achieving gender equality, many of the national objectives including the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and other development objectives would remain unachieved.

The change should come from the very way we express ourselves, said Kamla Bhasin, an Indian feminist and gender expert, at a discussion under the South Asia Social Forum, Bangladesh 2011, held at the Dhaka University (DU) campus earlier this week.

Swami refers to someone who you bow to, she said, adding that even the English word 'husband' does not evoke a very positive image as it comes from the word 'animal husbandry'.

There is general lack of respect towards women in a patriarchal society, she said.

Government cannot change it by itself as it has limitations, experts maintain, adding that the changes need to come from within the families.

'Mass awareness against discrimination imperative'

State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury talks to The Daily Star

Despite a number of laws, policies and initiatives of the government, girl child in the country is being discriminated against in different forms due to social attitude, said Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs.

"It is not possible to change social views and culture overnight. The change is incremental and we all will have to work in a comprehensive way to bring the change," she said.

She also stressed the need for 'community mobilization' to create mass awareness to end gender discrimination and to build social resistance against violence that women are subjected to on and off.

Discrimination against a girl starts from her family, as parents do not provide equal facilities to boys and girls in many families, she said, adding, "A boy gets extra care and privilege in education, healthcare and other matters, while a girl remains neglected in the same family."

The issue of gender discrimination should be included in textbooks in schools to change the attitude of the children from the very beginning of their life, she said.

Many parents think that educating a girl is wastage of money, observed Sharmin, adding that arrangement of stipend for girl students is one of the main ways to encourage girls' enrollment in schools.

Disadvantage of infrastructure and communication and security concern are other important causes of girl students' drop out rate, which increases more at the higher secondary level.

School feeding programme, which remains on card for introducing, will be considered as an added incentive to retain the enrollment rate of girl students. Under this programme, the students will get food once a day in school, she said.

About healthcare situation of a girl child, the state minister said, whenever a girl reaches puberty, she faces significant mental and physical change. But she feels timid to share her problem with the family.

So a congenial atmosphere of interaction should be created within the family so that girls can share their problems freely, she said.

She also termed 'child marriage' a form of discrimination, saying it affects both maternal and child health.

Featuring different government initiatives, she said her ministry has initiated to operate 'Kishore-Kishori Club' (adolescent club) across the country to create an environment so that boys and girls can interact with each other to remove their inertness and abashment.

They will learn different things like -- movement against dowry, stalking, domestic violence etc. by attending the clubs, she said.

Laying emphasis on strict implementation of existing laws, she said the government has zero tolerance for violence against women, stalking and sexual harassment.

She recommended that media should play an effective role to create mass awareness that is very important to change social views and attitude.

Talking of the ultimate impact, she said the trend is improving. Now women make significant contribution in economy, education and in other productive sectors. "Hope their days will further change," she added.

'Traditional social norm also discriminatory'

Rasheda K Choudhury, Executive Director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) talks to The Daily Star

Because of 'male child preference' of the parents and the society, discrimination against girl child in family starts from her birth, said prominent women rights activist Rasheda K Choudhury.

"The arrival of a male child is much more welcomed than a girl child in our families," she said.

A thought of protecting property and earning livelihood has strengthened the concept of male child preference among both privileged and underprivileged sections of Bangladesh society, she said.

Referring to a survey of United Nations Development Fund Women (UNIFEM), she said currently 'male child preference' prevails in seven countries, mostly in South Asia.

There were some incidents in rural areas of Bangladesh here of husband divorcing wife due to giving birth to three female children one after another.

Although there are a number of affirmative laws and policies in favour of girls and women in the country, socio-cultural norms cause gender discrimination, she said, adding, "Our cultural norms are undermining the girl child."

Division of labour, in the traditional perception of physical endurance, from the very beginning of a child's life is another cause of discrimination. For example, parents and society think boy child would play football, while female child stay home; boys would be pilot or army personnel, while girls at best be doctors.

"A girl child is supposed to be very submissive, to be doing very stereotyped works. This kind of attitude is another form of gender discrimination," she said.

The society does not allow girls to enjoy equal rights or facilities, she claimed, adding, "But those girls, who are getting opportunity, are performing well."

Discrimination against a girl in most cases intensifies at her adolescence because of insufficient security, lack of reproductive healthcare, dropping out from schools and other factors.

Dropping out of large number of girl students at secondary level is one of the major examples of gender discrimination because many girls stop going school at their adolescence due to stalking and insecurity, troubled communication system and financial crisis, and family preference to boys.

Usually we see that those girls, who are performing well in profession, belong to affluent families. And girls from poor and underprivileged section of society are lagging behind. But this discrimination against girls is creating further discrimination in the society, she said.

Talking about discrimination in healthcare, she said family does not properly take care of a girl at her reproductive age.

Whenever a boy falls sick, he gets extra care because the family members consider the boy as bread-earner. But a girl remains uncared for even after days of becoming sick, she said.

In rural areas, girls are forced by their families to marry at early stage of their life, whether they are fit to conceive or not.

Moreover, natural disasters like flood, cyclone etc. severely affect girls' health because they become more vulnerable during calamity, she said, adding, "Impact of climate change also affects the reproductive health of women."

Replying a query on what is the ultimate impact of gender discrimination, she said the country would remain far behind in achieving the target of improving maternal mortality and child mortality rates.

Besides, gender discrimination retards the pace of achieving literacy rate.

If we ensure a girl-friendly environment, discrimination against women will be reduced. Parents, community, state--all will have to come forward. No one can escape responsibility, she asserted.

She recommended for stopping child labour, creating a congenial atmosphere for working mother, building enough day-care centres for looking after the children of working women, ensuring efficient doctors in community clinics for better treatment of women and implementation of related existing laws and policies.

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