Women in Bangladesh are no-longer solely homemakers. They are also significant contributors to the GDP growth of our country. Every year we celebrate International Women's Day as we did on March 8 this year. But, what is this day for? Is it just about celebration or it is about: unity, celebration, reflection, advocacy, and action aiming to establish a more gender-equal Bangladesh? Sadly, but surely, incidents of inequality and violence against women are widely experienced but a less-expressed issue in Bangladesh.
Women appear to encounter considerable discrimination when it comes to the workplace. There are several types of harassment that women face in their work environments. These include: sexual, physical, verbal, psychological, and non-verbal harassment – which greatly affect their performance at work. According to UN Women, 54.2 percent women in Bangladesh suffer a lifetime of physical or sexual violence.
According to a media report, Bangladesh sees 13 rapes per day. Sexual harassment by male supervisors in many manufacturing sectors in Bangladesh is very common, but not well-reported in the media.
On top of that, domestic violence is one of the severe problems experienced by the women of Bangladesh. Joint research by Action Aid Bangladesh and Jatiyo Nari Nirjaton Protirodh forum, reveals that two thirds of women in Bangladesh – around 66 percent – have been victims of domestic violence, and 72 percent of them have never disclosed it.
It is often asserted that dowries are no longer required in Bangladesh. But a bride's parents still feel obliged to provide one to the family of the groom. Brides often suffer discriminatory behavior from the in-laws when they are not provided with what the groom's family expects. They are either verbally assaulted or psychologically assaulted; it sometimes causes such despair that they attempt suicide.
In addition to this, women's lives are full of restrictions once they get married. In order to win the heart of the husband, the first thing that a newly-married girl needs to do is win the heart of their in-laws. Women in their in-laws are often prohibited from accepting employment. This is solely because their husbands want them to stay home and look after their parents. This is psychological torture – preventing the wife from doing what she finds rejoicing.
Even more regretful is that there is much unfounded prejudice towards single mothers in our society. Although they always strive for a better life, our society puts them down. While separation is rarely solely a woman's fault, the majority of the people of our country blame just the women as the reason for it.
Astonishingly, the way their families treat the women once they are separated is far too depressing. Families tend to consider them a burden. Moreover, the amount of criticism they digest from their surroundings is beyond imagination. Single mothers and separated women are often undermined by our society. As Bangladesh is one of the least developed countries in the world and its estimated rate of violence against women is extremely high, it, in turn, is a further obstacle to the atonement of equality, development and peace.
Given such a picture of exploitations above, have you ever thought of the contribution women make towards the development of our country? Women's leadership roles in sports, political, educational and development spheres are undeniable today. If you are considering the highest revenue making sector of the country, RMG, you'll see that almost half of the manufacturing labourers there are women. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) shows 46.18% employees are female in the RMG sector. Hence much of national economic growth is driven by women.
Look at Shuma Biswas, Mehnaz Akter and Beauty Roy, Sushmita Banik and Eti Khatun clinched gold medals in the South Asian games; and led their country to achieve the most number of gold medals ever in the 13th SA games held in Nepal (19). Consider the most popular game in Bangladesh, cricket, it is the women who won the ICC trophy for the first time.
When you take the political sector into account, you will be amazed to realize that many top positions are occupied by the females. Along with the prime minister, opposition leader, speaker of the parliament and education minister, there are more than 50 female parliament members. They are evidently contributing to flourishing the country. Thus they have been outperforming their male counterparts in many sectors. Perhaps that is why Hillary Clinton once said, "Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world."
Does this not imply that women possess great potential to take over vital roles in corporate sectors? If yes, then can we have a progressive shift in our mindset for the betterment of our society? It is, in fact, essential for us to act as unison to ensure the safety and security of the women. As long as women are prone to inequality, our society will remain in darkness as a whole. So reshaping our stereotyped thoughts could be the first steps towards making the world a better place to live. We have to instill the belief that together we can do more.
The kind of environment that makes women feel welcome, safe and appreciated is not often on display in contemporary Bangladesh. Tanzina Rahman Shanta, an employee of the British Council Bangladesh stated, "I do not exist in this world to impress, I exist to live a life in a way how I will feel secure and comfortable." It is true that women are still embarrassed by the way some colleagues and people behave.
However, things could turn around – provided we all make a prodigious effort. The government, alone, can do little in this respect unless we play a pivotal role. Change, however, is not just headline moments, legal victories and international agreements: the way we talk, think and act every day can create a ripple effect that benefits everyone. As we are in the new decade and aiming for progress in every aspect of our lives, it is better to incorporate a transformation in minds with a view to making an equal world.
As it now stands, to establish a prosperous world, women's participation is indispensable. Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist, once explained, "The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights." So, let us set a noble mindset that we are as strong, and as vulnerable, as our women.
Mahde Hassan is an invigilator at the British Council Bangladesh.