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Building a better world for women in Bangladesh

Despite having a female premier, women find the fight for equal rights is a well-trodden road with much distance yet to cover

Rita Roselin Costa, Dhaka

Rita Roselin Costa, Dhaka

Updated: March 08, 2018 04:57 AM GMT
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Building a better world for women in Bangladesh

A female worker is pictured inside a textile factory in Dhaka in this file photo. Women in Bangladesh have come a long way in terms of education, equality, employment and empowerment but more progress needs to be made. (ucanews.com photo)  

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Women in Bangladesh have come a long way in recent decades in terms of the education they receive, equality, employment and empowerment.

The two most powerful people in the country — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League and her rival, former prime minister Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) ­— are women. Although they ascended the ladder of power and fame thanks to a dynastic political system, each has proven their worth by leading their parties to power on two occasions.

In Bangladesh, more girls attend primary schools and public exams, with girls often outperforming boys academically.

The majority of the four million workers in the vital garments industry are rural women who are helping drive the economy forward.

In largely agricultural Bangladesh, women work side by side with men. Across all sectors, both industrial and non-industrial, women play a vital role running businesses.

That is the good news, but it's not the whole the story.

Women in Bangladesh still have a long way to go in terms of fighting for their rights and dignity.

The problem of patriarchy

Violence and discrimination against women are major barriers to their development and empowerment.

One of the key factors working against them is the male-dominant social system.

Women are considered inferior to men. Their contributions to the family, society and state are undervalued, which leads to episodes of violence. Those who try to raise their voice against examples of economic, academic or social injustice and discrimination only invite more trouble. This is the case in terms of having a say over environmental issues.

Many women endure some kind of abuse on a daily basis but remain silent in order to save themselves from the next wave of violence and discrimination.

Unless this patriarchal gridlock is broken, they will have no respite.

Bangladeshi women attend a rally organised by the Domestic Violence Prevention Forum (Paribarik Nirjaton Protirod Jot) to mark Violence Against Women day in Dhaka in this file photo. The last major study into domestic violence in Bangladesh found that about 60 percent of women had been physically or sexually abused. (Photo by Munir Uz Zama/AFP)


However, women are now more empowered to speak out against discrimination and their rights than in the past. They are better educated than before with a higher social status, and their level of participation in government institutions has increased.

One contributing factor is their changing role within the basic family structure.

Whereas before women depended greatly on their partners or male relatives, legal amendments and campaigns by women's groups to raise awareness of their rights is gradually improving their situation.

This provides them a glimmer of hope that they can identify their potentiality and make a significant contribution in their chosen arena.

But social groups and law enforcement agencies need to do much more to ensure they receive justice and their human rights are respected.

Town vs. country

The support system for women varies from rural to urban areas.

In towns and cities they tend to be more self-aware, self-employed and independent than in rural areas. Families and institutions are more sensitive to the prospect of violence they face, putting women in a better position to form mass gatherings to create more social awareness of their plight.

Women's groups in urban areas are also more active when it comes to promoting women's rights. They run campaigns, network with media outlets and create platforms to steer women toward greater self-empowerment.

But in the countryside, where the majority of these groups are in fact located, women's rights and self-respect are a luxury they must pursue after first trying to basic economic problems like finding a job, earning a wage and creating a sustainable livelihood.

Whenever they find themselves in trouble, women in towns and cities receive more support from their families and public institutes like the police and hospitals.

In contrast, those who live in rural areas operate within more male-dominated social structures where women are placed more in the role of dependents. There is almost no way out for them.

Bangladesh's recent elevation from a poverty-stricken country to a middle-income nation is a result of more women participating in the workforce in recent decades. They have proved themselves worthy everywhere in all government institutions.

However, their contributions often go unrecognized and they still play second fiddle to male counterparts in the family and the workplace. Moreover, due to lax law enforcement, they continue to face various forms of harassment at home, in the office or wherever they go.

Religion dominates

In Bangladesh's traditional society, religion strongly influences people's way of life. Religious teachings decide how a woman is seen and treated.

Religions determine family laws, which don't favor women.

A Muslim girl is not considered her brother's equal and are only seen as having half as much value. This is reflected in the property law, which states that women are only entitled to inherit half of their father's property, whereas a son would get the whole lot.

Many Muslims believe that "a wife's heaven lies at the feet of a husband" — a direct endorsement of female subjugation.

Hindu family law has no provision covering registered marriages. This means a husband can engage in extramarital affairs and there is no way the wife can present any kind of legal challenge as the marriage was never formally documented.

A Hindu daughter is not entitled to inherit her father's property or her husband's after wedlock, putting her at the mercy of male family members as long as she lives unless she accumulates her own assets. There is no family law for Buddhists, who are supposed to simply follow Hindu laws.

Christian women are relatively better off in terms of their social status and the social respect they receive, as Christian family law grant them equal rights to property as that of a father or husband.

But this does not mean they are free from discrimination, devaluation and violence, either. In reality, it isn't easy for them to obtain property in this way. Any young woman who attempts to assert herself and claim what is rightfully hers is shunned and criticized for being self-centered and greedy.

In most Christian families the man is the head of the household. It is he who has the final word on important family issues.

In both urban and rural areas, Christian girls and women face restrictions in terms of their role in the family, how resources are distributed, the education they receive and their inclusion in decision-making.

The Catholic Church is still dominated by male clergy. Women, including nuns, rarely ascend to positions of leadership or key decision-making.

They are not considered resourceful enough even though many provide a greater service to the church than clergymen due to their hard work and dedication.

Another challenge they face within the context of the church is a lack of spiritual mentors who can relate to them and encourage them to actively engage in working for Christ in their roles as wives, mothers and in some cases, professionals.

Generally, women in Bangladesh may have a long wait in store before they see major changes happen in the family, society and state that would guarantee their equal rights.

This is not a fight they can win alone: They need the support of male counterparts who also see the wisdom in restoring them to their rightful place as equals.

Intelligent men know that no society or nation can prosper by leaving women behind and so it behooves them to stand up for women's rights and work to build a better society, nation, and world.


Rita Roselin Costa serves as the program coordinator of the Community Empowerment Program at BRAC, a leading Bangladeshi development organization. She also works for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh as convener of the women's desk. 

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