Saturday, September 12

Nari Khomotaeon

This entry is long overdue but I had difficulty deciding what to say.  The title of this entry in Bangla means “women empowerment.”  It’s a topic often forgotten, usually lost and sometimes thought unnecessary and discriminatory.  It is too deep a topic to dive into for one journal entry – but it is my life’s work.  It is still an issue in every country, including America – but for now I will focus on Bangladesh.

First, I want to share some statistics and stories of women’s reality here in Bangladesh:

- On the Gender Development Index, Bangladesh was ranked 120 out of 154 in 2007

-       BD is one of the top ranked countries that seclude and restrict its women (HRW)

-       The average age of marriage is younger 20 years, most likely not by choice but by parents, mainly father’s, choice ( )

-       50% of women have said they have experienced physical abuse by male partner.  In 2002, 68% of Bangladesh women never spoke to family or officials about their abuse (WHO, HRW, AI)  Only about 4,100 rapes are reported each year – this might be due to the silencing of women, as well as the fact that there is no law acknowledging marital rape. (WHO, UNIFEM)

-       Honor killings regularly occur, and 50% of all murders in Bangladesh are of women by their husbands (US Dept of Justice, HRW)

-       Because sons are still strongly preferred than daughters, 1.6 million girls are missing (missing means that by average, there would be more daughters in families if this discrimination didn’t exist.  Instead, they are missing, meaning killed, aborted, sold or not given proper medical attention or food.) (UN, US Census Bureau) 

-        85% of assembly line workers are women.  Factories demand unskilled labor at miniscule salaries – girls are less likely to have an education so they provide the unskilled labor for little pay.

-       More than 25% of young girls don’t finish their primary school education compared to the 10% of boys.   In universities, only about 35% of students are female.  And only 15% of primary school teachers are women. 59% of women are illiterate compared to men’s 46% (UNESCO)

-       Less than 5% of land owners are women due to widespread discrimination against women inheriting, owning or controlling property (ICRW)

Depressed enough?  Hold your hats, I haven’t even dove into the stats of trafficking yet.  But we’ll wait on that for another day.

In my two months here, I have met some amazing women.  When selling Iftar on the street, no exaggeration, 99% of the customers were men.  One women came to the table with a private car and beautiful purple sari.  Striking a conversation with her, she revealed to me that she had three jobs: professor of psychology at Dhaka University, private practice in psychology, and a writer for a children’s television program (the Bangla version of Sesame Street!).  I went to a lecture on Gender and Development at Dhaka University, the lecturer standing up there, confident and proud, arguing in favor of positive discrimination to a room full of men, with her daughter sitting on the side because no one was home to watch her.  Enormous strides have been made in women’s rights, including the passing of an act to reserve seats for women in Parliament, more women are attending school and working alongside their husbands.  Even one man proudly said, "Women can drive now!"

But, I have yet to see a woman driving here.  Laws are changing, but cultural practices are deeply embedded and are slow moving.  Empowerment is defined has the ability to make a choice, controlling life decisions and claiming rights.  By law, women are claiming more rights, but on the street and in the villages, too many social pressures exist that keep women inside, silenced and devalued.  Often, law enforcement official do not value or practice these laws.

But I will share one story that gave me hope:  at the lecture on Gender and Development, the woman lecturer was stating that positive discrimination was needed to raise women to the power level of men.  One example is on the crowded streets and buses that should reserve seats for women because men push women out of the way to get on the bus, and if she gets onto the bus, she is likely to be touched.  One man argued against this, saying, "Of course on a crowded bus you will be accidently bumped.  There's no need for special treatment."

Across the conference table, one of the 7 women in the room, wearing an hijab and quiet most of the night, leaned across the table and said, "I know the different between an accidental bump and a hand down my dress."

He shut up.

Women are speaking up.  Voice is the first step towards empowerment: vocalizing your situation, hearing stories to organize and create real change.  Just because Bangladesh has a woman Prime Minister, doesn't mean that governmental and structural changes reach the women who need it.  These cultural changes have to start with the women themselves.

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