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Discrimination blights women's development in Bangladesh

Asking them not to get pregnant to secure jobs shows deeply-rooted discrimination against Bangladeshi women, activist says
Garment workers, mostly women, block a road during a demonstration to demand higher wages in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in 2019. Women activists say discrimination against women is institutionally embedded in the South Asian nation.

Garment workers, mostly women, block a road during a demonstration to demand higher wages in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in 2019. Women activists say discrimination against women is institutionally embedded in the South Asian nation. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 31, 2023 12:26 PM GMT
Updated: October 31, 2023 12:56 PM GMT

Tohura Khanam and her colleagues are uncomfortable discussing a condition to keep a government job in Bangladesh--they should not get pregnant at least for 18 months.

Khanam, 49, a Muslim sighed as she shared a list of depressing decisions her colleagues took to keep their jobs -- abortion, delayed pregnancy, and childlessness.

She is the president of Paribar Kalyan Paridarshika Samity, an association of family welfare visitors, the government-appointed healthcare workers to oversee the well-being of mothers and children in villages.

About 80 percent of Bangladesh’s estimated 169 million people live in villages where such facilities are a rarity.

As per the job condition, no freshly appointed family visitor can get pregnant in 18 months and have children younger than three years.

Khanam herself delayed her pregnancy by five years to keep her job. Those who refused to comply with the condition quit the work, she said.

Khanam joined in 1994 for a monthly salary of 1,375 Taka (US$12.50).

Based at Koira in southwestern Khulna district, the mother of three now gets 35,000 Taka ($318.25) per month and some fringe cash and non-cash benefits such as festival bonuses.

In rural areas like Koira, where women’s employment opportunities are scarce, the job brought honor for Khanam albeit with the risks.

“This was very tough, risking so much for a job paying so little,” she remembered.

The state-run Directorate General of Family Planning (DGFP) justified the condition by saying the new recruits are required to take a mandatory 18-month training right after their appointment.

“I saw women thrown out of the job for being pregnant,’ Khanam said, ‘Many women ended their career because of the job condition.”

A woman had an abortion to keep the job, she added.

Since the 1990s, the agency under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has appointed 5,710 family visitors.

In Bangladesh, where government appointment process is slow-moving and takes years to complete, many women workers have delayed pregnancy and even risked their motherhood.

“Getting pregnant after a certain age is difficult and could mean harm for both mother and her child,” said Farida Yasmin, 45, a family welfare visitor at the Women and Child Center in Manikganj, a central district.

“Some families might prefer more than one child,” she said.

Health experts say women’s fertility rate starts dropping after 30 years.

This fear of losing motherhood due to delayed pregnancy enraged scores of women who joined a protest rally in front of the DGFP headquarters in capital Dhaka on Oct. 8.

They called on the authorities to remove what they called a discriminatory job condition that violates women's rights.

The protesters represented the 7,000 aspirants who passed a written test taken by the state agency three years ago against 1,180 new family welfare visitor posts.

The protesters told journalists that many of them got married after passing the written test and were delaying their pregnancy to “qualify” for the job.

“This is unbelievable. No such rule should ever exist. Life cannot be stopped,” said Farida Yasmin.

Discriminatory condition no more

The unprecedented protest attracted media attention, prompting the DGFP to declare the controversial job condition would not be applicable to potential family visitors being considered for appointment.

“We are reviewing the FWV recruitment policy,” said DGFP deputy director, Jalal Uddin Ahmed.

Human rights activists and gender experts called the job condition anti-constitutional and lamented that it is just one of many cases of institutional discrimination against women in the largely patriarchal Muslim-majority nation.  

Gaudy development narrative, often tinged with segregated stories of women empowerment, has successfully concealed how repression of women is still prevalent in Bangladesh, which is much more misogynistic and pro-Islamic than ever before, they say.  

In September, 64 women were raped, and 200 others faces various forms of repression across the country, says a report from the women's rights group, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (Women Council).

On Sept. 25, the authorities of Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib Hall, a female dormitory of state-run Jagannath University, asked its married and pregnant students to immediately leave, citing the dormitory’s code of conduct.

“Married students should be their husbands’ responsibility,” said Dipika Rani Sarker, the provost of the dormitory.

Some other provisions of the code of conduct have also come under fire.

Among other things, it requires students not to leave the dormitory before 7:00 a.m. and not to remain outside after 9:00 p.m. They must “behave well” in the dining hall and cannot take part in any activities that are “against the society and the state.”

“I don’t believe male dormitories have such rules,’ said Nigar Sultana, president of the Hall Provost Committee at Jahangirnagar University, a public university on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Discrimination deeply embedded

Human rights activist Sultana Kamal said discrimination against women is institutionally embedded in Bangladesh.

“But the constitution renders any form of discrimination illegal,” she said, adding that laws governing personal life such as marriage, divorce and separation also discriminate against women.

The religious personal laws govern families and have not been changed in decades.

In a report in 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Bangladesh’s discriminatory family laws trap many women in abusive marriages or poverty.

Bangladesh’s personal laws for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians deprive women of an equal right to marital property, said the HRW report.

Muslim personal laws permit polygamy for men only and make it more difficult for women than men to divorce. Muslim personal laws have limited provisions for maintenance.

Hindu personal laws recognize polygamy for men only and put significant barriers for women accessing maintenance payments. Hindu women can seek judicial separation, but the law does not recognize divorce, the HRW report said.

Divorce is allowed on limited grounds for both men and women in Christian personal law, but the grounds are far more restrictive for women, the HRW report said.

But women in Bangladesh deserve more, human rights activists and gender experts said, recalling the role women played in political and economic spheres.

Women constitute a majority of the informal workforce and also account for 60 percent of the 4-million-strong workforce in the ready-made garment industry – the lifeline of Bangladesh’s economy. 

Women also participated alongside men in all political struggles, including the 1971 liberation war.

“Bangladesh should be ashamed of its treatment of women,” said Syed Mohammad Saikh Imtiaz, who teaches women and gender studies at Dhaka University.

“Those applying discriminatory laws in Bangladesh should be punished,” he said. 

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