Equality of women in paid work has been a long-standing demand of the women's movement and is one of the primary focuses in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. The SDG 5, one of the 17 goals of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, is about empowering women and promoting gender equality.
Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls is a basic human right and a pre-condition for achieving overall sustainable development. Like in other countries, in Bangladesh patriarchal social, economic and cultural factors contribute to the unequal and discriminatory position of women in society, particularly reflected in the paid works.
Global concerns such as the health hazards of tobacco consumption are well-acknowledged. It is a cause of non-communicable diseases and preventable deaths.
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) has been in force since 2004 and is applied in many countries of the world through formulation of respective national laws. However, FCTC focus has been centered on the demand side and controlling smoking.
But unlike in the developed countries, women in the South East Asian region are facing the threat from the supply side i.e. tobacco cultivation as well as high users of smokeless tobacco.
Women's involvement in various stages of tobacco cultivation and processing has remained out of sight of the policy makers at the government and also at the international organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Tobacco leaf cultivation started in Bangladesh in the 1960s, much before the adoption of FCTC, controlled directly by the British American Tobacco Company with, Burley, Flue-Cured Virginia (FCV) – Nicotiana Tabacum, suitable for premium brands of cigarettes.
In the last two decades, tobacco cultivation increased more rapidly because major tobacco industries have shifted from the high-income countries (HICs) to lower-middle Income countries (LMICs) for lower cost production environments. The WHO FCTC addresses the need for discouraging tobacco cultivation and support for shifting out of tobacco to alternative crops, in the Articles 17 and 18. This has led to high production cost in the HICs with withdrawal of subsidies to tobacco leaf cultivation.
Bangladesh is among the few Asian countries that have high concentration of tobacco cultivation. With fertile land around the major rivers Teesta and Padma and the forest areas of the Hill Tracts and availability of cheap and unpaid family labour, tobacco is grown in more than 50,000 acres of land under the direct sponsorship of local and multinational tobacco companies. The land is used for producing tobacco leaves for smoked tobacco products such as cigarettes, bidi and smokeless tobacco such as zarda and sadapata used with betel quid and gul applied on the gums. .
In Bangladesh, the number of smokers is lower than the number of smokeless tobacco products users. One in five adult people (22 million) uses smokeless tobacco. Among adult women, the rate of smokeless tobacco use is 24.8%, while the smoking rate is less than 1%. In contrast, the rate of smokeless tobacco use among adult men is 16.2%, while the smoking rate is 36.2%. Overall, among some 37.8 million tobacco users in the country, smokeless tobacco use is higher (20.6%) than smoking 18%. The statistics were revealed in Global Adult Tobacco Survey GATS, 2017.
Tobacco leaf variety Motihari tobacco (Nicotiana-Rustica) is used for producing smokeless tobacco. Motihari leaves are also exported to several European countries through Indian and European business portals.
Tobacco is not only harmful for its users it also poses a threat to those involved with its cultivation.
The economic assessment of the so-called "profitable" tobacco cultivation fails to show the hidden cost of unpaid family labour. These unpaid family labour include wife and young children mostly girls in tobacco farmers' families.
In a UBINIG research on tobacco cultivation during 2009 to 2012, the unpaid family labour was found to be one-third of the human labour used in the process. Women and children were also hired as labour at a discriminatory wage rate with harder work and longer working hours.
As family labourers, women tend to be more responsible for tobacco work at different stages of cultivation, particularly after harvesting of the leaves; they have to work round the clock. Hired male laborers are paid more than hired female labours for an equal number of working hours. For example, in Kushtia, a woman received two-third of a man's wage for post harvesting leaf curing works – Tk500 ($6) for men and Tk300 ($4) for women per day.
For processing of Motihari tobacco, women are engaged as unpaid family labour and low wage hired labour at a discriminatory wage rate of Tk150 (less than $2) for women against Tk300 ($4) for men for sun curing of the leaves.
More importantly, as unpaid family labour, women are exploited more without considering the working hours, health impacts on women in reproductive age and aged women for occupational hazards and violation of the rights of the young girls for education.
The concern is that this sector remains out of policy decisions on the questions of equality of women. The focus is more on discrimination in domestic work, agricultural and non-agricultural works, but ignores tobacco production as a sector involving women.
Tobacco consumption as a public health and cultivation as an environmental concern have been well-acknowledged but tobacco production as a barrier to achieving equality of women in paid work remains unaddressed in the assessment of performance of the SDG 5. It must be acknowledged.
It may be noted that the theme for World No Tobacco Day 2017 was "Tobacco - a threat to development". This theme was set to encourage countries to include tobacco control in their national responses to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Unfortunately, the countries in looking at tobacco as a barrier to achieving the goals of SDGs, highlighting different aspects of tobacco control and opposing tobacco industry interferences, did not focus on the SDG 5 i.e. on gender equality.
Tobacco not only poses a threat to development but also creates obstacles to achieving gender equality.
Farida Akhter, is Executive Director of UBINIG and Convener of Alliance of Women in Tobacco (Tamak Birodhi Nari Jote)