By Rubana Huq*
Dhaka, 12 November 2014 (Alochonaa): The discourse on female empowerment in Bangladesh has been ongoing for too long a time. Some say we are getting there; some say we are far from even reaching the first bend on the first road; some even say that we’ll never make it. Some openly rebel and are courageous enough to defy house rules; some play the good wife; and some just spend their entire lives balancing between what is and what appears to be. For most women, the reality is often surreal.
Last week, three stories reached my desk. All three were appeals for help. Unable to cope with their debts, all of the women had turned to my organization for cash assistance. The first story surrounds Selina, a 22 year-old sewing operator from Jamalpur. She had always been a steady student, but she suffered a typhoid attack when she was about to sit her High School Certificate (HSC) exams. Her parents declared that since she couldn’t sit for her exams, she would not be given another chance later and that it was best to marry her off to a relatively stable businessman from their tiny village. That “businessman” still required payment of a 20 000 Taka (around US$260) dowry. After a year, Selina returned home with her little one, a daughter in a family that only had space for a son. Little Laila now lives with her grandmother and Selina lives in a women’s hostel and works at a factory in Khilkhet.
Female empowerment project in Bangladesh (Google image).
The second protagonist, Fatema from Mirzapore, was married off to a man at age 18. She was a young bride and suddenly a mother to four stepchildren she had no prior knowledge of. Fatema suffered torture and abuse, before eventually being sent back home with two children of her own. The daughter accompanied Fatema back to her parent’s home while her son was admitted to a Madrassa – simply because it offered a free education.
The third letter was from Sakhina, and started with an unusual line: “Ami choto family-r boro meye.” This referred to the fact that Sakhina was the oldest daughter of her father’s second wife. The first wife’s family is labeled as the “senior” family while the second wife’s family is the “junior” one. This senior, yet junior, Sakhina of ours is today cash strapped as none of the offspring of her father earn even a dime. So our Sakhina has four other step-siblings to take care of, along with her own younger sister.
All three letters appealed for help paying off loans in the next three years. Stories like this pour in to our office and would each make great individual plots for a collection. Unfortunately editing these stories is challenging as most of them cannot be cut or shaped to fit our perspectives or purpose. Together, they are a collage of abuse, but are they enough to prompt a reality check?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) surveyed 2400 men, out of which, 89% rural men and 83% of urban men answered that it was perfectly normal to “mildly” hit their wives as per our religion. A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) survey of 12 600 women revealed that 87% of them face abuse. Of these women, 65% faced physical torture, 53% had mental anguish, 36% were confronted by general violence and 42% had a disturbing environment at home. A recent study undertaken by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a private think tank, along with the Manusher Jonno Foundation, revealed that the estimated value of women’s unpaid work could be 2.5 to 2.9 times higher than the income women received from paid services in 2013-14. The economic contribution made by women has always been an undocumented story. Statistics related to women are notoriously hard to access. Yet abusing women has always been easy.
In the last two weeks, four school-aged girls have been raped in Nilphamari, Thakurgaon, Sirajganj and Pirojpur. In addition, again in Nilphamari, a woman who was out with her husband was violated in his presence; and in Tangail, a mother and her three daughters were set on fire and killed. Having a Janet Yellen or a Christine Lagarde in positions of global power does not change the reality of most women, whether it is in Bangladesh or beyond Asia. Neither does it change the fact that women’s participation in the world has been the same for the last two decades; nor does it positively impact the often invisible, under-appreciated world of the second sex.
In spite of statistics suggesting an increase in fertility rates, consumer spending or work force participation, only 25% of women in the European Union hold top positions in business; only 4% of women lead the leading 500 companies surveyed between 2008-2012 by Standard and Poors; and around 23.6% of women in the United States still face domestic violence.
In spite of their direct contribution to the economic landscape, Sub-Saharan women, who account for more than 80% of the agricultural work, receives less than 10% access to credit. Yet, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that increased access to credit for these women would lower the malnourished population by 100 million as a result of agricultural output increasing by 4%. Furthermore, the visibility of women contributing to GDP is less than what it ought to be. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) released figures stating that 865 million women in the world could potentially contribute more to global GDP. Of these women, 812 million are from the third world. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that 27% of the world’s GDP growth per capita is lost due to a lack gender parity. In World Economic Forum’s 2013 gender gap report, Bangladesh stood at 75th place with a total score of 0.685/1 in terms of reducing the gender gap.
Despite 20% of members of parliament being female and an encouraging increase in the primary school enrolment of girls, Bangladesh still has a number of equality hurdles to negotiate. For example, in Bangladesh, a 16 year-old is still officially considered ready for marriage. By lowering the age of marriage from 18 to 16, Bangladesh will certainly be able to halve its child marriage stats by 2041, but will this truly change the quality of lives? Can an official decree simply arrest the potential for indecent exposure and treatment of a 16 year-old child girl? In all honesty, such actions may be a regression. In an interactive talk show on a private television channel, a young bearded man posed a few questions to the panelists (of which your columnist was one). He asked: “Why does a woman need to serve a man up in the air when she has a husband to take care of? Isn’t just hearing “ma” enough for a woman? Why would a woman ever require independence?” I shuddered in disgrace and burnt in shame. While not risking to be too politically incorrect, I quietly asked him if he had ever visited a garment factory where women who have no husbands or even immediate family have no option but to work there in order to feed themselves? To this, the young man remained silent.
Perhaps silence is the best option for a society where we pretend to live in an equal world yet offer at best a 90/10 share for women. Perhaps it’s best to whisper in a world where women have access to only 2% of the world’s total assets. Perhaps it’s best not to have a voice at all!
* Rubana Huq is a Bangladeshi entrepreneur, writer and philanthropist. She was featured in the BBC’s 100 women list in 2013 and 2014.
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