May 23, 2013 | 04:55 AM (BD Time)
23 May, 2013 Thursday
Removing social discrimination against women
The rights of women are a widely discussed issue across the world, in response to developing international norms and standards. There have been continuous efforts towards a universally recognizable concept of women's rights, even while debates based on religious (mis)interpretations and (so called) cultural values continue in different parts of the world. More importantly, it is undeniable that the conceptualization of universal human rights cannot be separated from women's rights.
This article will focus on the situation of women, as it is visible in Bangladeshi society. It will discuss the lives of women, domestically and publicly in terms of dignity and accessibility to various opportunities.
According to the Constitution of Bangladesh, every citizen is subject to enjoy equal treatment and rights before the laws of the land (article 27). This equality however, is not defined properly regarding women's rights of property inheritance.
The Constitution also has provisions (article 29) to promote women as one of the underprivileged groups in society and the public sector, as a result of which there are certain quotas reserved for women in education, public employment and local and national government elections. Unfortunately, the serious forms of discrimination rooted in the system and in the public mindset in general, prevent the efficacy of the provisions. There are also a few special laws in effect, in addition to the Penal Code, to address violence against women, including the Women and Child Repression (Prevention) (Special Provision) Act-2001. This law allows for the establishing of a special tribunal of sessions judges in each of the country's district headquarters to prosecute perpetrators of violence.
Bangladesh is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). With the excuse of religious bindings and poverty however, the country has a number of reservations (articles 2 and 16.1©, pertaining to eliminating discrimination against women and ensuring equality between the two genders in the public and official domain, and in family and marriage matters) to the Convention, which is not only hypocritical, but also makes a mockery of protecting women's rights.
There is an absence of universally applicable law regarding women's right to property in Bangladesh. Around 10 percent of the country's population is Hindu by religion, according to which women are not equally entitled to inherit family property or assets.
Muslim women are entitled to have a one-eighth share in the property of their families. They have a proportionate right to the assets of their parents, husband and male children. In practice though, women are deprived of their right through various means, including emotional blackmail, excuses and brutalities.
In recent years, the admission rate of female students in secondary education has increased to around 54 percent due to the government's facilities for girls. Dropout rates are still higher among girls though. At the same time, girls who continue their education achieve a poorer quality of education than boys, getting less attention from their family and the school due to the perception that education is not necessary for girls who will be married soon. Many families cannot afford the expense of higher/university level education for girls. There is also the notion that spending too much money for a girl's higher education will benefit the family of the girl's husband instead of supporting the parent's family in the long run (social norms dictate that whatever is earned by the wife should be spent for her husband's family; spending any money for the wife's parents is seen as 'irresponsibility').
According to a survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, women number around 60 million, making up more than half of the country's population. About 8.2 percent of women are involved in the economic sector. In whatever jobs they work however, women are struggling to ensure their rights, including decent working hours, appropriate salary, pregnancy leave, and a positive and healthy working environment.
Women are mostly compelled to work for more than eight hours in any field of work, particularly in factories, private companies and NGOs, where they have fixed starting times, but leaving time is dependent on the whim of the employers. Bangladesh has no minimum wage law, so women are deprived not only of their required salary, but also overtime payments and other service benefits. Women do not get paid pregnancy leave as established by law, unless they compromise their salary or the period of their leave. At home, women's work is never over on a daily basis, from child care, to cooking, washing, to farming and cattle nourishing, and there is no reward or acknowledgment of this work. Women face discrimination in public offices like local governmental institutions, despite the government's provision of reserving one third of public offices for women. On the basis of this provision, geographically women possess three times more authority; in reality however, male public representatives deprive women from exercising their decision making power.
Due to the absence of women's right to inherit family property the Hindu community established a culture of paying dowry to the bridegroom at the time of marriage; in other words, a woman's share in the family property ends with the payment of dowry.
The practice of paying dowry has been deeply rooted over centuries in all religious communities including the Muslim community, which has different norms in theory. Bangladesh's Dowry Prevention Act-1980 remains useless in protecting women from the curse of dowry.
Dowry is practiced as a 'gift' within the country's 'elite' and middle classes, while it is the lifeblood of the lower classes. It, partially and temporarily, establishes the bride's position in the groom's family as well as in society. There are many who are concerned only about the quantity of dowry, not the quality of the human being. Many a time, the bride's appearance, education, efficiency can be hidden by her skin color, which needs to be adjusted with the amount of the dowry, whereas the quality of the bridegroom and his family is always ignored.
The consequence of dowry is extreme amongst the poor and uneducated, where the brides' families must take on the burden of a loan to pay the dowry. This creates feelings of guilt for the woman, who finds herself in a helpless condition due to her lack of institutional education, and thus incompetence in getting a job, which could strengthen herself financially and socially. Meanwhile, she becomes a victim of dowry in her husband's family, who may continually demand more payment or emotionally (and perhaps physically) abuse her for an insufficient dowry. Due to poverty and social pressure, a married woman cannot think about going back to her parent's family. Acute depression leads many women towards suicide. Those responsible for creating an environment that forces women to end their lives walk free however, due to Bangladesh's dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Within the educated middle class society, the scenario is a little bit different. The bridegroom's family may not demand or bargain for dowry in public, but they remain prepared to welcome 'gifts' from the brides' families. The groom may not ask for anything from the girl's family, but if the wife is employed elsewhere, he will take nearly the entire amount of her salary or will expect her to spend all her income for his family. Besides her job, the wife has to take care of the household work, attend to the children's food and education, as well as the well-being of her husband. While these women know how to get legal protection and are able to take care of their own life, they remain silent regarding any sufferings, to retain their social
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