Equal rights for women and affirmative action for promoting gender equality are guaranteed in the Constitution of Bangladesh. According to the Constitution, all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law (Article 27). According to Article 28(1), the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 28(2) stipulates that women have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and public life. And Article 28(4) says that nothing shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or for the advancement of any backward section of the population. The constitution also incorporates the principle of endeavours by the State to ensure equality of opportunity and participation of women in all spheres of national life (Article 19). In line with this provision, three women members are elected to the Union Councils and Municipal Councils of the country. A Constitutional provision has also been incorporated to reserve fifty seats for women in Parliament (Article 65).
The womenfolk of Bangladesh have played a glorious role in all national movements including the Language Movement of 1952, the mass upsurge of 1969 and the liberation war of 1971. Their advance has however been most visible since the 1990s. One of the biggest contributing factors for such progress has been the rule of democratically elected governments since 1991 headed by female prime ministers. Diverse pictures of women's progress have been observed during this period. These include the flourishing of micro-credit programmes with women as the main partners-cum-driving force and stakeholders. This has led to the gradual uplift of women's status in the rural areas, which ultimately brought the Nobel Peace Prize for its pioneers.
While speaking about women's advancement, the issue of female education, particularly of girl-child, naturally comes up. The country's girls have now achieved parity with boys in primary education. The girls are also making rapid progress at the secondary level and there has been a notable increase in the proportion of female teachers at the primary and secondary levels. Many women are also participating now in educational administration.
The role of mothers has been laudable in reducing the maternal mortality rate in the country. Constructive and positive policies of the government have been helpful in achieving this success. The mothers have been spontaneously participating in the immunisation programmes for infants and children, which have attracted global attention and became role models for developing countries of the world.
The womenfolk have also come forward in non-traditional areas. Their successes range from conquering the Mount Everest of the Himalayas to participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Alongside their earlier roles as medical professionals in the military, their expertise have now expanded to those of commandoes, paratroopers and even pilots in the army, navy and air force. For the first time in the country's history, a female officer has recently been promoted to the rank of Major General in Bangladesh Army.
Women have traditionally played a significant role in the country's agriculture. Among the 21 tasks performed for producing crops, as many as 17 are executed by the womenfolk. The female workers are also playing a big role in the foreign exchange earning sectors of the country, including that of readymade garments. Besides, their presence is quite noticeable as well as substantial in sectors like tea, leather, pharmaceutical, small and medium enterprises. They are also bringing laurels for the country in popular sports like Football, Cricket and Swimming, as well as non-traditional sports like shooting and weightlifting.
Apart from the country's prime minister, the female legislators have also been elected to vital positions in parliament including the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition. The female justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court, and many of them have now been elected MPs through direct voting in addition to filling up quotas for women through indirect voting. Women are making their presence felt as secretaries in the administration, high-level officials in police administration, leading roles in films, theatres, photography, art and painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature and many other fields in the social and cultural arenas. They are also maintaining a sizeable presence in the local government bodies including the municipalities.
However, although the womenfolk have made visible progress in all areas including social, political and administrative ones, their partnership role still needs to be enhanced and strengthened. The political parties have failed till now to nominate one-third female candidates in committees and elections. The active participation of women is also not observed at different levels of decision making among the political parties. Women's leaders have been demanding direct elections instead of nominations for parliamentary seats reserved for women. But that is yet to materialise. Dominated by money and muscle-power, women in Bangladesh have also not succeeded yet in carving out a noticeable space for themselves in Bangladesh politics.
The contributions of women in small enterprises of Bangladesh have gradually become visible over the past few decades. There are over 300 thousand small female entrepreneurs in the country. Alongside generating employment opportunities, status of their families is also on the ascendancy as a result.
However, despite supportive policies in the public sector and diverse initiatives in the private and non-governmental organisation (NGO) domains, women still face various obstacles in their professional and social lives. Social outlook and family attitude have a large part to play in this. Women are still looked at as individuals vested with the responsibility of household chores. Due to this dual pressure at offices and homes, they have to cope with different kinds of unwanted pressures. While discharging these dual responsibilities, they have to endure many physical and mental torments. Therefore, grooming a mentality for sharing burdens at offices and homes with female partners is a big challenge for our patriarchal society.
Statistics show that unsafe roads, hostile work-environment, and transportation problems are routine challenges that bedevil the working women on a day-to-day basis. The scale of harassment faced by women, especially in public transports, is still quite horrifying. People in general also do not appear to be disposed to combating these menaces head-on. Especially the harassments faced by female labourers, as regularly reported in newspapers, are quite horrendous.
The Bangladeshi families usually tend to spend less on girls due to socio-economic reasons. Although the participation of women is rising in education, the rate of child marriage is not decreasing proportionately. The parents are marrying off their daughters before they attain the legally prescribed age out of a sense of insecurity. Besides, repression of women is mostly taking place inside their homes. These tortures mainly take place due to viewing women by males as subservient entities. Although there are government instructions, the banks hesitate to extend loans to female entrepreneurs. Women also have to face many hassles for getting various financial and administrative services.
The culture of impunity in our legal-cum-judicial system is a big challenge for the womenfolk. But it is a matter of satisfaction and encouragement that verdicts in some women repression cases have been delivered swiftly in recent times.
The government has undertaken many initiatives, and formulated numerous policies, laws, rules and regulations for the empowerment and progress of women. But multifarious challenges exist on the path of women's advancement. These must be identified first and remedial measures taken accordingly if this forward march is to be sustained in the short, medium and longer terms. Proper implementation of legal and policy regimes and adoption of appropriate strategies, techniques, projects and programmes is essential for ensuring future successes in women's empowerment.
In this 21st century, women are not merely mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. They are equal partners and stakeholders in the relentless pursuit for socio-economic growth, progress, prosperity and development. This must be acknowledged by all, including the males of our society, if the country is to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) as well as the status of a developed country in the not too distant a future.
Although mainstreaming of women in the development process is a key strategy of the government, the goal of achieving gender equality cannot be achieved by government efforts alone. The government, however, does have a vital role to play and it is crucial that all GOB (Government of Bangladesh) sectors are equally involved in the integration of gender concerns, needs and interests in their policies, plans and programmes.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of the Government of Bangladesh.
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