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Constitutional, legal provisions not enough to ensure women’s emancipation

by Shahidul Islam Chowdhury

Shirin Sharmin ChowdhuryShirin Sharmin Chowdhury

CONSTITUTIONAL and legal provisions are not enough to remove obstacles to women’s emancipation in general, and contain violence and discrimination against women in particular, says the state minister for women and children affairs, Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury.  
‘The legal framework to protect women from violence is in place. We have enough laws. Even then there are incidents of violence. It is not only the law that can change the situation. But there is a need to change the mindset and stereotype about “respect for women within” the families and society,’ she said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
‘Obstacles have always been there. Despite the obstacles women have been able to come far and will go further,’ said Shirin, also a member of the parliament.
Excerpt:

The constitution says that ‘The State shall endeavour to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens.’ Do you think that women have been really enjoying equal opportunities in the present political, economic and social framework?
One of the very important fundamental rights, enshrined in the 1972 constitution, is that man and woman will enjoy equal rights in all domain of public life. This constitutional provision actually creates a platform for achieving equality in all spheres of life.
In reality, attaining gender equality has been successful though we have not been able to achieve it in all its totality and entirety. But it has actually paved the way for the women to establish their rights in all domains.

Politicians and policymakers in almost all sections of society often use the phrase ‘women empowerment’. Don’t you think that women in poor families remain deprived of equal rights for lack of real empowerment?
When we talk about women empowerment, we talk in a holistic sense that denotes economic empowerment, social empowerment, political empowerment and legal empowerment. So we need to see women empowerment in all these dimensions.
The government is working to ensure economic empowerment, which would actually make other empowerments to follow.
The political and legal empowerment is interlinked with economic empowerment. If a woman has a source of income for her livelihood, in whatever way it may be, from entrepreneurship or job, she would be in a better position in the decision-making process. She can get her voice heard if she has an economic footing.
Empowerment, in that sense, is her ability to decide and to have voice in the decisions which actually enable her to exercise her rights in a fundamental way.
From that perspective, yes, women in our country are gradually getting empowered. They are now visible in different professions as well as in different economic activities. They have a better position in the decision-making process in the family and outside.

The Awami League, in its election manifesto, made many pledges including special mentions about taking ‘strictest legal measures’ to stop oppression against women.’ Many discriminatory laws are yet to be rectified, let alone implemented. What is your evaluation on this?
The government is administering a whole range of measures for ensuring a holistic approach to welfare of women with intense focus on eradication of poverty and in that process, eradication of feminisation of poverty.
In addressing feminisation of poverty, gender focus within the social safety net programmes is also there to bring women out of the poverty cycle through support to widow and destitute women, vulnerable group development programme, maternity programmes in the rural villages, support to lactating mothers in the garment sector, though it is a private sector,
In addition, women are given skill training for income generation to enable them to find good employment opportunities.
The government for the first time established a sales centre called Joyeeta at Rapa Plaza at Dhanmondi in Dhaka to facilitate access of products of small and medium women entrepreneurs to the market.
Maternity leave has been extended up to six months with pay for the women government employees.
The number of reserved seats for women in parliament has also been increased from 45 to 50.
All these steps have been taken for empowerment of women.
Violence against women is on the rise within and outside home across the country. Do you think the government’s measures against violence women are working?
We have zero tolerance on violence against women. Women now get necessary support including police service, legal service, health, shelter, etc from one-stop centres. There are victims support centre in every divisional headquarters. There is a trauma centre to provide support to women victims of violence.
A lot of awareness campaigns are underway to make the community more aware about the rights of women, the risks of violence against women and how to prevent it.

The High Court has given a directive to stop violence and workplace harassment against women. How much progress has the government made in its implementation?
The High Court guideline on sexual and other harassment against women is strictly followed by us.
We have conveyed instructions to all ministries and divisions of different ministries to form committees to look into allegations of sexual harassments. In many places, these committees have been put in place.
The legal framework to protect women from violence is in place. We have enough laws. Even then there are incidents of violence. It is not only the law that can change the situation; there is a need to change the mindset and stereotype about ‘respect for women within’ the families and society.

Women often do not get recognition for work at home and workplaces, especially in rural areas. What should be the role of the government and society in this regard?
It is an important issue which is debated worldwide. We strongly believe women in rural areas are, actually, agents of economic and social transformation. They have a great role to play in agriculture and food security issues.
We feel it is very important to empower the rural women with appropriate response in the policies. The government is mindful about that and taking steps.

The National Women Development Policy talks about gender-responsive budgeting. Have you seen such efforts by the government in budget making?
Incorporation of provisions to make budge gender-responsive is a big achievement of the government of Sheikh Hasina. About 50 ministries and divisions of the government prepare their budget proposals keeping gender issues in considerations now.
Specific allocations have been made to different ministries to deal with women issues. There are also monitoring mechanisms to evaluate this process through midterm budgetary framework.

Are the poor getting the benefits of gender-responsive budgeting?
Sure.

Has there been political empowerment of women in the real sense of the term? Allegations are there that the women representatives in local governments as well as women members in parliament cannot play their due role for lack of political empowerment?
Political empowerment is a very important dimension. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken significant steps, during both her previous and current tenures, to politically empower women.
The number of reserve seats in parliament has been increased from 45 to 50. We have 19 directly elected women members in parliament. Altogether we have 59 women MPs in the 350-member parliament. It is a big success in the regional context.
Sheikh Hasina introduced provision for reserved membership for women in union parishad in 1997. It has actually created scope for political empowerment of women at the grassroots. There are about 12,828 elected women members now. But participation of women, in the whole process, including contesting polls and others, is much larger. It really created a political empowerment surge at the grassroots.
Now we have also one women vice-chairman in every upazila.  
We have also women serving in the highest tiers of administration and judiciary. Now we have women working in the army, the navy, the air force, the UN peacekeeping force and the police. Sixty per cent quota of primary teachers is kept reserved for women now.
All these provisions have made a good impact in enhancing political empowerment of women.
Now the question that you raised with regard to how far the women in different position are actually being able to exert and administer their responsibilities freely. It is an important question. I should say once they are there, it is a great achievement.  
It is the second step forward as they would create their own space at respective places. In a patriarchal society, people will get more used to working with women colleagues on equal footings. Slowly, there will be accommodation and cooperation from men also.
I do not think it is a big challenge.
Obstacles have always been there. Despite the obstacles women have been able to come far and will go further.

Women are often one of the victims of global financial, food and climate crises. What role can the government play in this regard?
Women are the sufferers in any crisis situation. That’s why they need gender-responsive solution to any crisis. The government has developed a mechanism to help women in different crisis — natural and otherwise. The shelter homes have been built with a gender dimension. A space with attached toilet is allocated for women to meet their special need.

How do you see the prospect of women’s emancipation in repressive power structures, public and private?
Situation is changing with both men and women getting more educated.

Elderly women and women with disabilities always remain the worst victims…
They require special provisions and assurance from the government, society and the families.

Criminalisation of irregular migration is a new phenomenon that often creates a threat to women migrant workers, who allegedly do not get support from Bangladesh embassies abroad…
The government has started taking measures including constituting a joint taskforce to stop trafficking. However, society as a whole also needs to remain alert to stop trafficking.

Bangladesh is far short of achieving several targets of the Millennium Development Goals, including women’s participation in the labour force, which is only 29 per cent.
We are in the process of increasing women’s participation in both formal and informal sectors in both urban and rural areas.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911. Now after 101 years, would only celebrating the day on March 8 and remaining gender unresponsive for the rest of the year help change the fate of women in general, poor women in particular?
Celebrating the day for 101 years has made us stronger. However, there are challenges. We need to face these challenges together for the welfare of both men and women.




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Constitutional, legal provisions not enough to ensure women’s emancipation

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