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50 years of unshackling and moving towards gender equality

  • Published at 05:30 pm March 25th, 2021
RMG factory women garment
Female workers at a garment factory REUTERS

Despite facing countless hurdles, Bangladeshi women have come a long way and are striving towards building an egalitarian society, say social activists

It has been 50 years since Bangladesh became an independent nation, and the women of the country have undoubtedly made great strides in the workforce, politics, entrepreneurship and education.

However, they still have to fight against discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual violence, discriminatory laws, restrictions on movement, early marriage and patriarchy — some of the factors that are deeply rooted in society.

Women’s rights activists believe that despite facing countless hurdles in their paths, Bangladeshi women have indeed come a long way and are yet striving towards building an egalitarian society.

Maleka Banu, general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), said women had made tremendous progress in education, political empowerment and the workforce in these 50 years of independent nationhood.

“... [however,] a woman’s road to success is never a cakewalk. Patriarchal mentality, religious zealotry and early marriage of girls have always obstructed women from moving forward,” she told Dhaka Tribune.

“Women working in the RMG (readymade garment) sector have made huge contributions to our economy. Imagine the country’s economy without their contribution,” the activist said.

According to the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh now ranks seventh in the world in the political empowerment of women — women hold 50 seats in the country’s parliament and at 12,000 local political offices.

Meanwhile, the number of working women in the country has increased to 18.6 million in 2016-17 from 16.2 million in 2010.

Around 57% of the country’s women are currently engaged in the workforce, accounting for 80% of the manpower in the RMG sector.

Remarkably, Bangladesh is the only country around the globe where the factor-weighted hourly gender pay gap is positive.

According to a United Nations report, the gender wage gap in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world — it came down to 2.2% last year compared to the global average of 21.2%.

Shoko Ishikawa, country representative of UN Women in Bangladesh, in an interview with Dhaka Tribune, said: “Bangladesh has come a long way. There have been significant strides in women’s participation in education, the labour force — driven by the garment sector, maternal health, etc.

“Yet, if you look at the Gender Inequality Index, which measures gender equality differently than the Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum, you will notice that the gaps are still high.”

She added that women’s economic empowerment — particularly in terms of expanding employment opportunities for women and improving working conditions in the informal sector — was an area that still needed a lot of attention.

Political empowerment, decision-making power

“It [Bangladesh] is the only country in the world where women have had a longer tenure than men at the helm of the state over the past 50 years … This contributes to the strong performance on the Political Empowerment subindex (score of 54.5%, 7th),” according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum.

Maleka Banu, however, was of the opinion that having a few female political leaders at the top did not mean that Bangladesh was doing well in the sector and said women should have the decision-making power to make gender-friendly political decisions.

“Women are becoming financially independent, but many of them do not have any power over their income. In many cases, the man in the house takes away the woman’s hard-earned money,” she added.

Lack of implementation makes laws ineffective

Violence against women is one of the main forces that is pushing them backwards.

Bangladesh has passed a number of laws in that regard over the 50 years of independence, but the lack of proper implementation is still a matter of concern.

BMP General Secretary Maleka Banu said women-friendly laws, including the Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act, 2000, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010, the Acid Control Act, 2002 and the Acid Crime Prevention Act, 2002 were some of the good laws that Bangladesh had enacted.

However, poor implementation of the said laws was not allowing women to get justice, she remarked.

Incidents of sexual violence against women, including rape, sexual harassment and sexual abuse, have spread like the plague.

Maleka opined that as women were going out to work and freedom of movement had increased manifold in recent years, many new violent trends like gang rape on moving buses, harassment on the streets and groping of women on public transports were becoming commonplace.

“Should women be cooped up in their homes because of this? Absolutely not. There are plenty of good laws against these kinds of violence and harassments. Make good use of them,” she said.

Meanwhile, Shoko Ishikawa of the UN Women said violence against women was endemic and it would be difficult for Bangladesh to prosper if decisive measures were not taken to address the issues.

Female initiatives

Social activist Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, said over the last few years, women had shown tremendous progress in entrepreneurship.

“Social media has emerged as a blessing for many women entrepreneurs. Women in Bangladesh have always shown their potential in entrepreneurship, but social media has given them a platform,” she told this correspondent.

Mentioning that women in the agriculture sector were the unsung heroes of Bangladesh, she said even if their contribution did not get enough recognition compared to their male counterparts, they were still transforming the sector for the better.

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