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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 214
November 12, 2005

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Human Rights Analysis

Women's human rights

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

How do you judge the progress of a society? This query raises another question: what is the status of women within the society?

Treatment of women mirrors a society. It implies that the yardstick of judging a society is to measure as to what extent women enjoy rights as equal as men in all spheres of public activity.

Equal opportunity to all irrespective of the gender stands for fairness, no matter where you are born, who you are, what you like or what your social status is. Every one is entitled to the same opportunities as every other person.

It is acknowledged that giving proper and equal status of women is imperative for healthy development of society. In other words, development and women's human rights go together and cannot be separated.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his book “Development as Freedom” (1999) argues development as a means of removing discrimination to women and separation of economic from political rights is not possible. Development means providing empowerment of women in society. Empowerment gives creativity, innovation and improvisation to women.

Women are discriminated in both developed and developing countries
In both developed and developing countries women are not treated equally. For example, in industrialised countries, women still get less pay in most private sectors. In the corporate world, women face “glass ceilings or barriers” to rise to the top. Most women do not get jobs when they are between 35 to 40 years of age. For example, in some airlines, they only recruit young airhostesses, while men stewards can be of any age.

In the developing world, large number of women is deprived of basic human rights such as equality with men in society. Employers often provide women workers with low wages and seldom give maternity allowance. Discrimination is seen widely in employment in private sectors.

International Human Rights Instruments for Women's Rights
The most important document is the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its Article 1, it reads: “ All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” There is no distinction between boys and girls.

The most significant document is the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against All Women (CEDAW). More than 165 countries have ratified it.

In Article 1 of the Convention, discrimination has been defined as “ any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made upon” on women which has the effect of impairing or nullifying or restricting the rights of women.

Under the Convention, a UN Committee of Experts monitors annually the legislative, judicial and administrative measures of state-parties and report any failures or shortcomings in the implementation of women's rights in countries to the UN Economic and Social Council of the General Assembly.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration at the World Conference on Human Rights makes it clear that all violence against women in public or private life and all forms of harassment exploitation and trafficking in women are prohibited. The Convention goes further and stipulates that “customary and cultural practices” against women grossly violate women's human rights.

Two Human Rights Conferences on Women were held in 1995 (Beijing) and 2000

( New York) to highlight the promotion and protection of women's human rights.

Society's responsibility to promote equality of men and women
To eliminate discrimination, great amount of work needs to be done in changing the attitude of men towards women and there is a role for the government, non-governmental organizations and civil society.

Discrimination, like disease, exists in many varieties and forms, some are subtle and some are obvious. Discrimination, unless checked, slowly creeps in a society that in turn distorts conduct and behaviour of human actors.

Some sociologists suggest the change must begin from household. Empirical evidence indicates parents in general have a bias in treating boys better in preference to girls. Boys get all attention, are often sent to better schools and even get comparatively nutritious food than girls. This is partly because boys are destined to play a pre-determined cut-out role in a patriarchal society, denied, otherwise denied to girls.

Academic institutions must ensure that boys and girls are not discriminated. Interpretation of religious texts must not provide an excuse to treat girls discriminately from boys.

Government has to address the root causes of discrimination of women and some of them include (a) anti-poverty approach, (b) equity approach and (c) empowerment approach.

In these approaches, there is an underlying “golden thread” that both men and women can equally contribute to development of the country through their productive work. All these steps signify myriad processes of creating social consciousness about the role and status of women in the country.

Bangladesh and Women's Rights
Bangladesh's Constitution and various laws provide equal opportunity for men and women.

Articles 19, 27 and 28 of the Constitution emphatically make clear that women should enjoy equal rights with men and no discrimination is permissible.

Prominent laws to protect women in the country include, the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1980, Cruelty to Women Act, 1983, Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1984, Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Ordinance (Amendment), 1986, Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000, Acid Offence Prevention Act, 2002 and Acid Control Act, 2002.

On paper, the laws sound fantastic. However, the laws are not enough because the enforcement of laws is weak.

Furthermore, women face numerous difficulties to dissolve marriage. It is noted that the rule 18 of the marriage deed (nikahnama) appears to be clearly in favour of men. Rule 5 of the deed discriminates women because women have to declare before marriage whether they were married before, while men do not have to declare such statement.

The existence of some orthodox groups in the society that want to restrict the role of women in public spheres does not help in removing discrimination between men and women.

Discrimination of women is a global problem. It has to be acknowledged first that women do contribute to development and economic growth of a country. Until and unless public policies accord due recognition to participation of women in public spheres and design in such a manner to draw women in developmental activities, there will be manifest discrimination against women.

It is a long-term task and cannot be removed by laws only. The attitude of society towards women needs to be changed

The author is Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.


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