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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: 38
September 29, 2007

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Women's access to information: A journey ahead of informed choice

Shaila Shahid

The importance of information accessibility to the struggle for establishing women's human rights is inevitable. The issue is being widely recognised as a prerequisite for women's empowerment in recent years. It confers an overview of the way women have used information to try and change their status quo, and highlights the challenges that still remain to be tackled. Discrimination against women or unequal position of women in relation to man has acquired different scales and dimensions in different regions and societies.

In the prevailing patriarchal societal structure, social customs, moral standards, traditions, history and institutional regulations tend to marginalise the position, rights and status of women and even undermine their security. Therefore the discriminatory practices, which uphold male supremacy over female, have become an established rule and women have to comply with it without any question. Women therefore, traditionally remained in the interior, devoid of their basic rights and became accustomed to the situation.

Why access to information for women
Access to information plays a critical role in the attainment of socio-economic and political development as well as democracy and human rights. Therefore, the right to information is a crucial component of the right to freedom of expression, and necessary for the protection of all other human rights. The UN General Assembly in 1946, in its very first session, adopted the Resolution 59 (1) by stating, “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and …the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the African Charter both recognise the right to freedom of expression as a right to receive and impart information. This right has been widely recognised as fundamental to a democratic society and to the inherent dignity and development of every human being. For example, without the free flow of information, it is difficult to hold governments and individuals accountable for their actions and therefore they are able to commit violations with impunity. Such violations seem to be common in most of our societies and therefore could be indicators that majority of our people especially the women lack this fundamental basic human right.

The CEDAW Convention
Access and sharing of information is an effective strategy of enriching women's lives. Thus the CEDAW convention articulately stipulates what governments should do to guarantee that women enjoy their basic human rights. These include: equal rights and representation of women at all levels of political and public life (article 7), rights to equal access to education (article 10); employment (article 11); health care and family planning (article 12), economic and social benefits (article 13), among others. All this necessitates women to be rightly informed.

Right to information in CEDAW
State Parties must guarantee all women on a non-discriminatory basis -
* Access to specific educational information to help ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning. [Art. 10 (h)]
* For rural women in particular, ensure the right to have access to adequate health care facilities, including information, counselling and services in family planning. [Art. 14 (b)]
* Eliminate discrimination against women in matters relating to marriage and family relations and ensure the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights [Art. 16 (1)(e)]

Access to information and improvement of women's reproductive health
The considerable and largely preventable burden of poor reproductive health falls most heavily on the poorest women and their families, who can least afford its consequences. The ability to make free and informed choices in reproductive life, including those involving child bearing, underpins self determination in all other area's of women's lives. (UNFPA 2005). Also in Bangladesh, women are exposed to many health threats because of their limited access to information and resources. Being the poorest of the poor they are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. An unknown number of women are coerced into sex by their husbands, often unprotected, which exposes them to sexually transmitted disease and forces them to unwanted pregnancies. This kind of disadvantaged position perpetuates poor health, early entry into motherhood, especially in rural areas, frequent pregnancies and continued poverty.

Access to information has enabled women and men to acquire basic knowledge about their reproductive physiology, the way diseases can be transmitted and how the transmission can be minimised. The importance of such information is that it raises awareness among the society and helps to dispel rumours and myths, which prevent them from knowing the truth. For example accurate information has been vital in reducing unwanted pregnancy especially among adolescents, it has protected women and men from diseases such as STDs. A healthy body gives women in particular, more time, energy and ability to exercise control over their lives.

Giving voice to rural women
Communication can promote changes in attitudes and social behaviour and help communities to identify sustainable opportunities and development solutions that are within their reach. In addition to putting development planners in a position to respect women's traditional knowledge, communication processes can improve the management and effectiveness of new social organisations and institutions, ensuring that they provide services to women in a participatory and democratic manner.

In recent years ICT is playing a vital role for improving the status of women particularly the disadvantaged women. For the first time ICTs and Gender was put on the Agenda of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which held its annual meeting from 3-14 March in 2003. The topic chosen was “Participation and access of women to the media, and information and communication technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women”. In choosing this topic for consideration at its forty-seventh session, the Commission intended to provide an input to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The commission emphasised the importance of focusing on the gender dimension of information and communication technologies to prevent and combat an adverse impact of the digital revolution on gender equality.

Right to Information Bill and Bangladesh
There is no law in force in the country to recognise specifically people's right to information and providing a procedure for its implementation. Rather, there are certain prohibitory acts and rules to block the information. The Constitution provides no explicit guarantee of the right to freedom of information. However freedom of information can be assumed in Article 39, which guarantees, “The right to freedom of expression, subject to reasonable restrictions.”

One of the ways to give democracy a deep root is to ensure that people have right to know how the government runs and how different government bodies function. However the need for access to information has been recognised by the Law Commission of Bangladesh that prepared a working paper in 2002, which now lies with the information ministry but the people of the country are yet to know the fate of the proposal or the law drafting. The working paper on a proposed Right to Information Act 2002 states, "For the sake of transparency in the democratic process and good governance in any county, public access to information appears essential." At present, a national movement is emerging in Bangladesh in support of the demand for right to information. In the mean time a 'Draft Law on Right to Information' has been prepared by a law core group facilitated by Manusher Jonno Foundation. The draft law was made on the basis of a working paper on the proposed Right to Information Act 2002 prepared by the Law Commission.

No provision exists in the country at state level for ensuring women's right to know or access to information. The gender aspect of Right to Information is equally important. Women face added constraint to access information due to their exclusion in decision making both in private and public sphere. A special attempt should be made to ensure that women are represented in the drafting of such law and also in its implementation and monitoring.

Women's right to know and the media
The media can play a pivotal role in influencing and promoting transparency in the way three organs of state operate. It can bring to public attention the hundreds of examples of misuse of power, lack of transparency and bad governance that affect people's lives everyday.

In all States mass media are more or less restricted by the governments. Bangladesh is no exception to this. In spite of all the restrictive laws media can play pro-active role to re-orient and sensitise policy makers, proprietors, editors, news editors, reporters, scriptwriters, producers, crew and camerapersons, as well as advertising executives on gender issues in order to perceive, portray and project women as equal partners in society. The persistent negative and stereotypical portrayal of women in different forms of media and the increase in exploitation of women as sexual objects are also visible although it is recognised widely that media is a useful tool to promote a positive and realistic image of women and men. In terms of portraying woman, it is important for the media to refrain from presenting women as inferior to men and exploiting them as sexual objects, also to eliminate all forms of gender stereotyping, and the violent and degrading portrayal of women.

Without relevant information, people as individuals, especially the women, cannot make well-informed choices about most important aspects of their own lives. Therefore, without information, they can neither make right choices nor assume responsibility of their lives. As a result, women's human intellectual growth is impeded and individual liberty and human dignity are violated. It is because of the above crucial issues the UN General Assembly affirmed the centrality of the right to information as a fundamental human right and a touchstone to all the freedoms.

The writer is working with the Law Desk, The Daily Star.


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