It all started on March 8, 1857, on the streets of New York when 15,000 women from various factories of the city chose to challenge the centuries-old deprivation and discrimination.
They poured in with one united cry in their roaring voices - flaring banners, festoons and placards in their valiant hands - staging a protest over poor working conditions, gender exclusion and exploitation.
Today, 164 years later, the global community - women and men alike - reiterates the vow once again commemorating the International Women's Day 2021 (IWS'21) with the call: Let us all choose to challenge.
This year, as the world is devastated by the aftermath of a global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, the IWD'21 is built upon the thematic statement of 'Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world'.
IWD is an UN-recognised annual event to recognise and celebrate women's social, economic, political and cultural achievements over the past years, albeit through spells of multifaceted constraints, hindrances and resistance.
The idea of the day originated in a proposal made by Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist theorist and an advocate for women's rights, at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910.
IWD'21 is technically the 110th celebration of the day as the first formal celebration was in 1911 in few Central European countries, while the UN officially recognised the day in 1975.
The on-going pandemic that has brought all spheres of life to a total stalemate for almost a year - from social and economic activities to academic pursuits and livelihood options - has been described as "the worst global crisis since World War II" (ILO, 2020).
Globally, the crisis is having a devastating effect on employment with more than one billion workers at risk of a pay cut or losing their jobs.
In the social sector, there have been widespread incidents of xenophobia, discrimination and exploitation based on race, religion, gender, age or illness.
As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Bangladesh faces significant challenges in combating Covid-19.
The brunt of the pandemic is largely borne by women - be it in the employment wreckage, economic repercussions or social deterioration.
Another area of grave concern that emanates from the on-going crises relates to increased numbers and gravity of violence against women and girls as well as their access to justice and support or remedial services.
With women making up about 49% of its population, Bangladesh is one of only seven countries in the world where women are outnumbered by men.
At the same time, women bear a disproportionately greater share of the country's poverty and hold a much lower status than men in every sphere of life.
Repressive, age-old traditions and community mindsets, unquestioned social norms, unchallenged economic dependence and financial insecurity, high illiteracy, ignorance and the invisibility of women in private and public life keep women out of an equal position within the family, society, and the overall development process of the country.
This is apparent in a range of socio-economic inequalities, including discrimination in terms of food intake, access to education, health, employment, political participation, decision making including choice of marriage, divorce, reproductive rights, rights to inheritance and sharing of assets and resource distribution.
Bangladesh, often cited as a model of progress in achieving the United Nations MDGs as well as the current SDGs, appears to be sliding backwards when it comes to dealing with gender-based violence (GBV).
While violence against women and children (VAWC) is already widespread, the risk of abuse has been considerably aggravated with Covid-19.
GBV is perpetrated within the family and society in many forms. While the physical dimensions of GBV may be the most readily identifiable, psychological abuse, deprivation and seclusion are also important factors contributing to the process of degradation and socio-economic disempowerment of women.
Factors that particularly contribute to increasing GBV in Bangladesh include-among others- birth registration; marriage registration; dowry; early or child marriage: sexual and fatal violence (rape, incest, murder, suicide); domestic violence (physical, psychological, economic and sexual); trafficking in women and children; forced prostitution; acid violence; fatwa (Islamic religious edict); hilla marriage; zinah (adultery); and exploited community mediation (shalish).
Contemporary and comparative data and facts emerging from several recent studies and research depict the gravity, magnitude and consequences of these instances.
In combating VAW/GBV in Bangladesh, and bridging the policy-action divide that escalates such violence, public and private sector agencies need to focus on need-based, lessons learnt approaches and initiatives that must be developed within a regulatory and implementation framework with a human rights-based approach.
These include, among others, launching awareness building, networking, partnership and advocacy drives aimed at appropriate institutional, regulatory and social reforms and their effective enforcement; mobilising civil society groups to conduct a vigorous campaign against the problems identified; establish an information system that would contribute to having this matter brought to much broader public scrutiny; targeted sensitisation and capacity building of key-actors; appropriate legal, medical and other emergency services; developing and applying communication tools and strategies; effective enforcement of legal and social safeguards including prevention, interception, rescue, repatriation, recovery and integration; focusing on dominating poverty issues and addressing the factors that lead to social marginalisation, gender gaps, and family and community disintegration.
In terms of enhancing access to justice and remedial services, empowering women against GBV requires promoting basic legal literacy, alternative legal support (pro bono services, legal aid, counselling), endowing community-based justice systems in terms of their statutory and social obligations of settling disputes in equal, equitable, and gender-sensitive manner.
To conclude, with all the efforts and initiatives stated above, it is the reformative thinking going beyond the age-old patriarchal capitalism and male-dominated mind-set, new values, broader projection and positive outlook with determined action that can achieve meaningful and sustained results in combating VAW/GBV in any society, including Bangladesh.
Collectively, these are the preconditions for promoting women's leadership in achieving an inclusive, equal future in a Covid-19 world.
The author is a former governance, justice and human rights expert within the UN System. He is currently serving as a faculty at the department of law, school of liberal arts and Social Sciences, Independent University, Bangladesh.
The writer is a Faculty at Independent University, Bangladesh
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.