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Where is the promised change for women in Bangladesh?

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by Hameeda Hossain

From: Forum, May 2009

What Women Want

Din Badal became a buzzword on the road to elections in 2008, the promise of change, arousing multiple expectations amongst voters. It made a strong sales pitch because it echoed citizens’ hopes for change — from the ritual of electoral voting to a meaningful inclusion in political decision-making. Once again, hopes were aroused that democratic institutions would function, not merely as instruments of majority power, but to uphold principles of human rights, respect rule of law, and nurture plurality.

Women expected a democratic state to guarantee gender justice and equality in our public and private lives, to promote dignity and freedom in the community and the family. These concerns were articulated in preparation for elections in 2008. When citizens demanded an end to impunity for war crimes and extra-judicial killings, women agreed but added justice for crimes of rape, violence against women, particularly domestic violence and sexual harassment.

Women also joined citizens’ campaigns against corruption, but went beyond in demanding equal and non-discriminatory access to opportunities and resources, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, profession, or class. They have pinned their hopes on legislation to establish equality and non-discrimination.

These expectations are not exaggerated. They draw upon the many commitments made by Bangladesh in its constitution, and in its ratification of several international conventions, the most important for women being the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). Most recently they were fed by the promise in the Awami League’s election manifesto of revisiting the National Policy for the Advancement of Women, 1997.

This policy was formulated in consultation with many women’s groups under the Awami League’s earlier tenure, and reflected a consensus on addressing women’s concerns for gender justice and equality. What, then, are the chances of these expectations being realised, and when?

There can be no bar in a constitution that guarantees equality, rule of law, and justice for all. And if we’ve followed the international debates on women’s rights we must realise that Bangladesh has taken on obligation to adopt the Beijing Plan of Action (1995), as well as to comply with Cedaw.

In fact, Bangladesh is due to submit its five yearly report to the Cedaw Committee by next December on the measures it has taken to implement the committee’s recommendations, which were made in 2004.

The government will need to explain what steps have been taken to withdraw its reservations to the convention, to endorse Cedaw provisions into domestic law, to adopt a law on domestic violence and sexual harassment, to prevent fatwa-instigated violence, to legislate on equality in marriage and family relations, enact a non-discriminatory citizenship law and law for direct elections to Parliament.

In addition, the committee had recommended policy measures to increase women’s participation in decision-making, for a gender-sensitive policy on migration, and to monitor equal wages for equal work and maternity leave. These are fairly comprehensive recommendations, which should have been acted upon in the last five years.

The 1997 Policy for the Advancement of Women, formulated in consultation with a large number of representatives of women’s organisations, made some radical recommendations to ensure equality in personal rights, as well as to property, land, and at work, etc.

Unfortunately, it appears that it had not been given the official approval by the cabinet at the time, and subsequently it went through several metamorphoses. In 2004, many of its clauses were reversed with a view to limit equality to traditional boundaries of gender relations.

In 2008, the caretaker government made an attempt to revive the original with a few additional progressive entries, but it went into rapid reverse gear in the face of a reactionary response from the religious right, and agreed to take on board revisions recommended by a committee of imams, many of whom represented religion-based political parties.

When the 1997 policy had expected to move forward in the pursuit of justice and rule of law, the revisions to the 2008 policy suggested by the imams’ review committee stipulated that all rights be “in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah” and that any contradictions be resolved by religious experts. The revisionists proposed “discouraging early marriage” to water down a deterrent law on early marriage.

In March 2008, as fiery, slogan shouting imams emerged from the Baitul Mukarram Mosque brandishing firearms in front of a sleepy and inactive police posse, their opposition was made explicit through violence. When the government buckled under, the 2008 Policy was buried.

Can we now take the Awami League’s electoral manifesto promise of reviving the 1997 policy as a serious commitment to gender equality and justice, or was this no more than a sales pitch for women’s votes?

There has been no reference to the policy for women in the first 100 days, so obviously this is not top priority. Nevertheless, the 1997 National Policy for the Advancement of Women must fit somewhere into the government’s time-lines for change, particularly as it was formulated through a consultative process and some of its provisions have already become operative through the national poverty reduction strategies.

While such incremental changes may come in as side effects of other policies, rights need to be established through legislation, and this is where the women’s movement must press the state into action.

The presence of a large number of women in parliament (not all with credentials for activism on behalf of women, and some as distinct proxies for male kin) has been held as a victory of the women’s movement. It can become so if the members relate to the women’s movements outside the Parliament, and be persuaded to take up the cause of genuine change in women’s lives, and not submit too zealously to the whip.

Since Bangladesh is ever keen on its image, it is time to put words into action, by introducing changes in the next six months, so that the country report to Cedaw doesn’t repeat (as in previous reports) that reforms are still under serious consideration but no changes have been incorporated in laws and policies.

Then again, given the contradictory elements that political parties need to accommodate in their vote-catching spree, there are reasons to worry that the 1997 Policy may be punctuated with many ifs and buts.

The Awami League manifesto is reported to have stated that they would not legislate any law contrary to the Quran and Sunnah. How will this enable the promise of equal inheritance rights in the 1997 Policy? The recent negotiations with the quomi madrassa heads, some of whom were active in the violent rejection of the 2008 Policy, is not a signal for change, certainly not for women.

In the last two years the issue of sexual harassment in universities has been taken forward by the University Grants Commission and through judicial cases, but it seems to be suspended in the Education Ministry. Will these deterrent measures be neutralised if student cadres are given impunity on account of party loyalty?

The 1997 Policy included a commitment to women workers’ rights, but given the representation of the business community in the Parliament and other policy-making forums, how serious can the government be in defending the rights of the powerless?

There’s a long way to go before women see the promised din badal — but this should not stop the government from taking steps now. More specifically, it can begin to meet its commitments to the rule of law by drawing upon the draft prepared by women’s coalitions for domestic violence legislation; it can conform with the constitutional guarantee of equality for all citizens by amending the citizenship ordinance to make it more comprehensive. A petition to the Supreme Court against a High Court judgment invalidating fatwas that instigated violence is due to be heard, and the government could make strong arguments against the petition, that seeks to legitimise the power of the clergy.

We need to move our struggle against injustice and inequality beyond rhetoric, to set standards that reflect the realities of women’s lives today, and that are not clouded by perceptions of what is customary and what is traditional. Let us not buy the line of cultural relativity and religious values, there are many countries similar to Bangladesh who have not let these outmoded concepts stand in the way of women’s rights.

Dr. Hameeda Hossain is a women’s rights activist.