Once called 'a basket case,' Bangladesh has come a long way since the early hours of 26 March 1971 - when the declaration of independence reverberated across the nation through the radio waves.
Today marks 51 years of independence, and we have several indicators at our disposal that reflect the country's progress and development such as a thriving economy, expansion of healthcare, our climb up in the Human Development Index, digital inclusion among other things.
However, gender inequality and gender-based violence remain rampant, despite the strides we have made for women's rights in the country. After five decades, now the question is - how independent are our women?
While women's rights, empowerment, feminism still remain mostly limited to the confines of the urban population, we must not forget that rural women are the majority with 61.82 percent of the country's population residing in rural areas.
STEM, education and the gender-based setbacks
According to the 2019 study titled "Barriers to STEM education for rural girls: A missing link to innovation for a better Bangladesh," by age 15, girls begin to lose confidence in STEM subjects, unlike boys. The reason is stereotyping STEM as masculine subjects and preconceived social norms - enforced by parents and schools - about what girls can and should do.
It is commonplace, even today, to see households encourage and prioritise education for male children over female children. Poverty, social stigma, religious misinterpretation, safety concerns pertaining to girl children result in substantial school dropout rates.
After finishing schooling, rural women's mobility is more restricted due to social norms of "marrying off the daughter at the right time" or the stigma of "working women are characterless."
Before Covid-19, the organisation I work for wanted to initiate a project primarily based on "Self Defence" training for girl students of rural schools. Schools highly appreciated the proposal as parents understood the necessity of self-protection.
They need solutions to their fear of letting their daughters leave the house alone. The fear stems from news of assault, rape and murder of women, which, in the reported cases, largely occur outside the house.
Unfortunately, the local influential people, neighbours of the students, governing bodies of the schools did not let it happen. They stated, "these are not for the women from good families."
Underaged and married
Child marriage has seen significant declines, statistically speaking since 1991, sure, but the findings of a 2020 UNICEF report will surprise you. It stated that Bangladesh is home to 38 million child brides, and of these, 13 million were married off before age 15.
Married girls are over four times more likely to drop out of school than unmarried girls. Nearly five in 10 child brides give birth before the age of 18.
The declining trend in child bride has been observed across wealthy groups; this means the rate of child marriage has reduced, largely, among the economically solvent groups but remained the same across other socio-economic groups.
Thus, there is a direct correlation between poverty and child marriages. Marrying off daughters at an early age is synonymous with transferring one extra stomach to feed to another house.
Women at the business frontier
In a country which invented microfinance, women are facing unreported obstacles to receiving loans. Besides high-interest rates and complex loan processes, one of the problems is the negative attitude of the local bank managers and officials towards women in business.
This issue surfaced during a research I have been conducting with Brac on CMSME policy.
The most interesting fact is, rural women are asked to "bring their husbands/fathers/male family members" to avail loans although no paper or rule dictates this.
A policy/scheme/loans made for "women entrepreneurs" where they are asked to bring males to avail accessibility to finance is ironic, to say the least. Two-thirds of Bangladeshi women are missing out on the chance to take control of their money and have a say in financial decision-making.
Decision-making is key to independence
Being able to make your own decisions is a key indicator of independence. South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (Sanem) said, based on their study findings, that women's participation in economic decision-making is still poor even though their income-generating activities have increased substantially in the last decade.
In our local governments, women still have ornamental duties.
The Local Government (Union Parishad) Second Amendment Act 1997 is a significant step towards ensuring women's equal participation in the political power structure. Yet, women members are marginalised in the major UP functions.
Words, policies and the law
The National Women Development Policy 2011 is slightly backwards from the 1997 Women Development Policy.
The recent one states that women would be given full control over the wealth that they have obtained so far through earnings, inheritance, loans, land and market management. Whereas in section 7.2 of the 1997 policy, it was stated that "Women would be given full and equal rights, and control over earnings, inheritance, wealth, loan, land and wealth earned".
The recent law does not promote equal rights for women, it only mentions women to have full control in whatever they get.
Muslim law states that a male heir will enjoy two-thirds of property against a female heir who will enjoy one-third. A wife receives one-eighth of the deceased husband's property, whereas the husband receives one-fourth of his deceased wife's property when there is a child.
Among Hindus in Bangladesh, a large number of women remain excluded from inheritance. Division of property is a game-changer as the equal property share shifts the power structure.
Perils of the virtual world
Cyberbullying and online threats cause severe mental trauma. According to the Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development (BIID)'s survey titled 'Cyberbullying against girls and women over social media' on behalf of the ICT Division - the rate of women and girls falling victim to cyberbullying is 80 percent. Cyber Crime is equally on the rise, especially during the pandemic. People filed 1,528 cases of cyberbullying amid the pandemic in 2020-2021.
I had the opportunity to interview a girl who had her social media account hacked and compromised. Personal photos were doctored and posted on her profile. She lost her job, the landowner kicked her out of her rented apartment, she had to go back to her village home where her whole family almost disowned her.
On a personal note, I would also like to share, my personal inboxes on different social media platforms including Linkedin is full of sexually explicit messages from strangers. This creates a bottleneck for women to socialise, sustain professional relationships, and have a healthy network.
This year marks Bangladesh's 51 years of independence, and I believe, it is high time that we look at the state of independence of the women in this country - at the individual/personal level, education level and business level, among other levels, and start to work effectively to repair the flawed systems that allow, breed and perpetuate gender inequality and gender-based violence.
Women have a long history of contributing to this country's advancements. However, we still have to fight against discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual violence, discriminatory views policies, restrictions on education and movement, early marriage on a daily basis.
We are celebrating independence day today, but how many stories and articles, history lessons, movies based on the Liberation War feature women, or even focus on women, have you come across? Not many I would assume.
How many of us know about Kakon Bibi who joined the Liberation War leaving her three-day-old infant at home? People hardly know about Bir Pratik Captain Dr Sitara Begum and Bir Pratik Taramon Bibi, our two brave Guerrilla fighters.
Geeta Kar was just 15 years old when she joined the war. Shirin Banu disguised herself as a boy in 1971 to fight for our liberation. Rounak Mohal Dilruba Begum was a war trainer who prepared six groups of young people.
Women role models need more of our attention and focus. National policies should be more gender-inclusive. Laws and regulations need to be free from gender biases and negative influences so that women victims get prompt and exemplary justice.
While we continue to thrive as an independent country in various indices and global platforms, independence of women from social norms, preconceived patriarchal ideologies, discriminatory policies - and much more - is yet to be attained.
Our battle for gender equality still rages on. Let us keep on fighting.