Dr. Faustina Pereira
It is true that in the past decade and a half women have become increasingly more mobile in the public place in Bangladesh. However, women in Bangladesh still seem deprived and struggle to retain control over their bodies, households and decisions regarding their children. What is most worrying is the persistent and stubborn problems within the household, that do not go away –problems such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, restrictions on choice, and decision-making and mobility. The woman continues to be undervalued and repressed in the household.
Do Christian women enjoy equal rights and respect? Academically or theoretically the answer might be “yes.” But since I deal with the very real, day-to-day cases of sufferings, unfortunately many from the Christian community, my answer is “no.” Some cases that I personally have handled for Christian clients deal with a wide range of issues from theft, fraud, desertion, blackmail, polygamy, adultery, child custody, divorce and land disputes to domestic abuse, rape, incest and murder. With a sampling of such complaints one can decide whether women and girls in the Christian community are enjoying their due rights or not.
Unfortunately, the rate of physical and mental torture of Christian women is disproportionately high when compared to the size of the population. What is truly worrying is that only a fraction of the cases appear in the media or get reported. Most remain unreported, suppressed and unaddressed. Every week we get an average of about three cases involving Christian clients through our legal aid clinic in 61 districts.
This problem is largely due to a patriarchal mindset that governs our systems including the law and also the way institutional religions uphold male privileges at the cost of women and girls.
Certainly women’s education and independence play a significant role to eradicate these problems. But it plays only a partial role. For a full redress we need men to play an effective and visible role in standing up for women’s rights.
Christian women (and in some cases men) I feel, find themselves in two minds. There are very clear rights that they can enjoy as citizens but they fear acting upon those rights, for possible reprisal of the Church.
Take for example the case of dissolution of marriage. The law of the land provides, since 1869, very clear provisions for Christians to go to Court in cases of adultery, torture, cruelty, desertion, forcible conversion etc. But Catholics, many living very tortuous marital lives are hesitant to take a definite step for fear of the Church. It is however a positive sign that, with higher levels of consciousness permeating within younger Catholics, many are showing a healthier and more pro-active justice seeking behavior than their previous generation.
I think the Catholic Church has a very significant role to play to claim the rights for women and stop violence against them. The first step is to distinguish the remit of Church and State. The second thing it needs to do is undertake a value-neutral assessment of its population and see how it is doing. If this assessment were done today, even through a randomized survey, I’m confident that it will portray that the Christian population is silently weeping. They are not only crying out to be heard, but crying out for acknowledgment and recognition of their pain, confusion and lack of redress.
The Church should concentrate on playing its fullest role in the pastoral and spiritual guidance of its population and not overstep its role to become obstructionist, especially when issues of justice are concerned. The case of Catholic priest arrested over alleged rape settlement shows that the boundaries between Church and State were forgotten.
Deprivation works at various levels and manifests itself in different ways, not all are visible or reportable. Bangladesh may have a prime minister and opposition leader as women, an indicator of how far women have come in Bangladesh. But to me the indicators are much broader and go deeper. If one looks at the increasing numbers of women as farmers, as entrepreneurs, in the garments and service industries, in the armed forces, in higher education, in the judiciary, police force and as ambassadors, then I would say that yes, women have come a long way. But the best support comes from a gender friendly household, where every member is loved and valued for who they are, and not the sex they were born into. Every family, especially those with young boys, has the opportunity to make a positive difference in society. after all, a smart man is one who stands up for women.
Faustina Pereira, 42, practices law at the Bangladesh Supreme Court and is the director of Human Rights and Legal Aid Services Program for Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC)