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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: 36
September 8, 2007

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Human Rights Analysis

Twenty-five years of CEDAW

Expectations and realities in Bangladesh

Sadrul Hasan Mazumder

A housewife in Thakurgaon was brutally tortured and locked in a house. Local police rescued and sent her back to her parents. A case was filed in this regard; the accused got bail and filed a theft case against her …… In Panchagarh a young girl aged about 12 years went to a local tailoring shop one evening and was missing; the following morning her dead body was recovered from nearby bushes…… A poor housewife in Madaripur was burnt to death by her husband…..These are few examples of the various forms of cruelty Bangladeshi women are facing when many other countries like Bangladesh are celebrating Silver Jubilee of CEDAW. Even after 23 years of ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), gender disparity remains one of the dominant concerns of women in every cluster of the society in Bangladesh.

The unequal arrangement for women in Bangladesh maintained by the constitution reflects gender-based discrimination in mainstream society. At domestic level, during marriages and separations, for example, women's right of choice is governed by the personal laws that give more importance to social obligation than personal choice. Unfortunately women remain unsafe at home where they are supposed to be the safest. Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman remarked “the Bangladeshi Women are enjoying the freedom of mobility and visibility” when unfortunately women workers in RMG sector are deprived of their rightful wages.

To ensure the protection of women's rights, like many other countries, Bangladesh has also ratified CEDAW -- the instrument to reduce discrimination and help enhance dignity of women around the world, which was adopted by the United Nations on December 18, 1979. The call for a women's convention emerged from the First World Congress on Women held in Mexico in 1975. Until 1979, when the General Assembly adopted the Convention, there was no document that addressed comprehensively women's rights within political, cultural, economic, social and family life. The creation of this treaty was the first critical step in developing appropriate human rights language for women that addresses abuses like physical, sexual, economic and political rights of women and promotes women's full enjoyment of their rights and well-being.

The primary goal of the Convention is to eliminate discrimination against women and to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights throughout the world. The language used signifies the incremental, or progressive, nature of the obligation of State parties to comply.

The Convention was the culmination of more than thirty years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the body established in 1946 to monitor the situation of women and to promote women's rights. The Commission's work has been instrumental in bringing to light all the areas in which women are denied equality with men. These efforts for the advancement of women have resulted in several declarations and conventions, of which CEDAW is the central and most comprehensive.

At the special ceremony that took place at the Copenhagen Conference on 17 July 1980, 64 States signed the Convention and two States submitted their instruments of ratification. On 3 September 1981, 30 days after the twentieth member State had ratified it, the Convention entered into force -- faster than any previous human rights convention had done -- thus bringing to a climax United Nations efforts to codify comprehensively international legal standards for women.

Bangladesh has ratified and signed the CEDAW in the year 1984 with reservation on Article 2, 13 [a] and 16.1 [c] & [f]. A strong network of women's groups including Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) started advocacy at the national level, hoping to mobilise other women to push for implementation of CEDAW provisions in domestic legislation and finally the government withdrew its reservation from articles 13 [a] and 16.1 [f]. In spite of having clear commitment, the government has not yet withdrawn reservation from Article 2 and Article 16.1 [c].

Article 2 of CEDAW [States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women] which is being considered as the nucleus and conforms the equality principle of the Convention and restricting its implementation any other initiatives may not address the causes of women. It has been evident that the rights of women are not maintained within the institution “marriage” thus restricting the Article 16 [c] [The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution] that deals with discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations, it is not possible to address violence against women. domestic violence against women, which has been found as the most pervasive still remains unrecognised as an offence. BNWLA along with other women activists groups have been vigorously advocating for an independent legislation on Domestic Violence and demand immediate withdrawal of reservation from these two articles.

To guarantee the substantial welfare of women through improvement of their health, the Government of Bangladesh has declared National Health Policy 2000 which is a pro-people policy having specific focus on women, children and the poor. The fundamental objective of the National Health Policy is to ensure health services for all in Bangladesh and to reduce the population growth rate but the government is yet to ensure basic maternal health services.

The basic principles of the National Policy for Advancement of Women and the National Action Plan (NAP) to implement Beijing Platform for Action, which are the two guiding tools for advancement of women have put much emphasis on implementation of the CEDAW but changes in the National Women Policy in 2004 has experienced strong protest from the civil society, in particular from the women activist groups. The National Policy has categorically committed to eradicate rape, prostitution, dowry and violence against women and also the physical, mental and sexual harassment of women at family and social level as well as at work place; provide legal assistance to oppressed women; prevent trafficking of women and rehabilitate the distressed; promote awareness at national and international level against violation on women during armed conflict and war, and take all possible steps to combat violence.

The law entitled Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000 amended in 2003 is enacted to combat the crime of violence against women very sternly. The law provides stern punishment including death sentence, life imprisonment for the crime of rape, abduction, dowry, trafficking and sexual exploitation of women.

To combat raging menace of acid attacks, particularly on women, the government enacted a tough law entitled “Acid Control Act 2002” to control production, import, sale and use of the deadly chemicals. Under the law, National Council for controlling the production, import, sale and use of deadly chemicals is already working.

Another law entitled “Acid Crimes Control Act 2002” has been enacted to address the acid related cases more sternly, which has the provision of tougher punishment including death sentence for splashing acid on people causing death and serious injury. Special tribunal has been set up in each district for ensuring the speedy trial of the acid-violence related cases. Although a few judgments came out of such tribunals so far there was no execution of the same.

“One Stop Crisis Centre” has been established in six divisional towns to provide legal, medical and other required assistance to oppressed women, especially the victims of acid violence.

Gender issues and concerns are gradually being incorporated in the training curricula of all the government departments like administration, judiciary, police, medical professionals and others. While sensitising the media towards gender sensitivity, portrayal of positive images of women has been encouraged. Prominent women personalities are often invited in different discussion programmes to give their views on different social issues from gender perspective.

To improve the working condition for women in the export processing zones, the government committed of pragmatic programmes such as housing for women workers and establishing day care centers but have not yet taken any realistic decision in this regard.

The government has taken different initiatives to ensure the systematic birth and marriage registration. Special birth registration forms have been developed to register detailed and all required information. Recently government has asked all citizens to complete their birth registration by July 2008.

The government has attained substantial development in education sector; in particular introduction of stipend for girls up to grade twelve in all 460 Upazilas in the country which resulted in reduction of dropout rate and recorded increased number of girls completing Higher Secondary education, but quality of education still remain in question mark. For instance in recent Higher Secondary Certificate examination no student passed from sixty colleges.

It has been evident from different studies and researches that poverty is the root cause behind prostitution in most of the cases. Consequences of prostitution are healthy neither for women involved nor for the society at large. Women who are involved in this work are the worst victims, as this becomes a sort of social stigma for them. Government although initiated a project but the human rights of women and girls involved in this profession are not maintained.

To ensure women representation in parliament government although has increased the reserved seats in the parliament from 30 to 45 but has not initiated system of direct election. The civil society particularly the women activist groups have been relentlessly advocating for reservation of seats for women candidates and introduction of direct election to those. Election Commission however in recent reform proposal stated that the political parties should nominate women candidates in at least ten percent of the constituencies.

A unified effort is more effective than several isolated approaches. Keeping this in mind twelve leading human rights organizations of the country have come together to raise their voices demanding “Absolute Ratification of CEDAW and its Meaningful Enforcement”. Although women have begun to be vigilant and participative in political decision-making but women's representation in parliament and mainstream politics remain as dream. The actions of previous governments in consulting with women's groups and activists for the preparation of the country report vis-a-vis CEDAW and the integration of CEDAW in domestic legislation prove that women's voices can no longer be ignored. This involvement in the law reform process is by far a great achievement for women. Finally, the effort has united women and other NGOs in articulating the promotion of women's equal rights demanding complete harmonisation of CEDAW in domestic laws.

The author is the Programme Manager of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA).


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