Translating awareness into action for women empowerment

Lauren Colegrove | Published: March 29, 2016 17:11:34 | Updated: October 23, 2017 03:07:41


Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS) produces books addressing violence against women, reproductive health, and gender issues for use in classrooms.
It is often seen as the responsibility of the government or large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to address societal issues that negatively affect women. After all, it is the government that sets the national legal age for marriage, and the NGOs, the non-profit organisations, have the most funding for projects regarding gender discrimination. The problem with this mindset is that while policies can be created and theoretically enforced, they will inherently be inefficient if they are not socially accepted and promoted. 
"Unless every individual or development practitioners practice the value of gender equality within themselves, it won't be possible to bring changes in society," said Habibur Rahman, Programme Head of the BRAC Gender Justice and Diversity Programme. 
For example, even though the legal marriage age in Bangladesh is 21 years for males and 18 years for women, there is still a high rate of child marriages in the country. According to an International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) analysis of Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) data, "In Bangladesh, nearly 70 per cent of girls are married before [age] 18. Although the median age of marriage for girls is 15, the incidence of child marriage spikes earlier at 13."
The issues that often arise from early marriages are disheartening: halted education, increased risk of abuse, higher possibility of pregnancy complications, and minimal legal protection. While young males can be victims of child marriages as well, the issue of societal inequality founded in traditional gender roles predominately affects women. Though these high figures of child marriage are labelled as unacceptable, there is often inaction in regards to women empowerment due to the belief that this is someone else's fight. 
 "We always want to depend on and blame other people… We ourselves do not take responsibility," said Rokeya Kabir, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS), an organisation which fights for the rights of women at both the community and national levels. 
"Even if I cannot change the world, I need to change myself. [But] that mentality is not there," Kabir said. 
According to Muzib Mehdy, editor and coordinator of BNPS, the way to make a dent in the seemingly overwhelming issue of gender inequality is by taking responsibility to address it through collective action. 
"With a supportive community, everything is possible," explained Mehdy. 
All citizens and local leaders can become involved in the promotion of women empowerment by taking practical steps. 
EMPHASISE AWARENESS AND PAIR WITH ACTION: "In Bangladesh, patriarchal norms, ideology and social institutions shape women's role and status in general," said Rahman of BRAC. "In our society, women as individuals and group lack choices, they lack voice, they lack skills, and they are marginalised and excluded."
"In this society, a major trend is women are not aware of their own rights… This is the antithesis of women empowerment, not being aware of the rights that you have," Mehdy added.  
Rahman explained how once these limitations and awareness gaps are understood, the women can begin to identify and prioritise issues for action. Men as well as women need to be aware of the existing gender power structure. Rahman elaborated: once women are mobilised, the acquire a voice and claim their rights and entitlements, challenging and transforming not only gender inequality but all other unjust and exploitative hierarchies.  
RECOGNISE THAT THIS IS NOT JUST A "WOMEN ISSUE": It is important to understand that there are tangible benefits from empowering women and that this has direct economic and social effects on all members of the community. 
"Empowerment is a process that benefits the whole society and ensures sustainable development of a country," said Rahman. 
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), "Greater gender equality in economic opportunities contributes to stronger and more sustainable economic growth… it increases labour productivity and the available talent pool, which provides businesses with greater opportunities to expand, innovate and compete." 
Confining women to the household limits the possibility for them to be productive members of society, and creates financial dependency. Aiming to close the gender gap in the workplace and promote fair wages for women labour force participation in safe conditions provides an opportunity for economic advancement -- in households, businesses, and the nation as a whole. 
Rahman said that true empowerment of women requires the transformation of both informal and formal institutions, at the family, grassroots, national, and global levels.  
"We have some connections with community people, such as school teachers, business people, religious leaders, etc. … We express our intent with them," Mehdy explained. "We want to know their and the women's economic status… What is their daily life, how they manage."
These conversations are crucial for the successful engagement of the wider community, to ensure organisations and individuals have the support of the local leaders before bringing in a larger network of support. 
"There are many ways to change the mindset of the people, [but] sending messages will not work," said Kabir. "You have to engineer it in a way that the suggestion relates to his or her actual practical situation, so they themselves can realise the benefit. Then they will change." 
So connect with the community and listen to various opinions and potential solutions. Group discussions can be held that address the unique challenges and opportunities that are specific to that community, and questions (such as what positive changes could there be if men and women shared household and business responsibilities) can be posed to look at the issue from different perspectives. Creative engagement strategies that make sense for the particular environment can also be used; for example, holding debate contests, role-play theatre, and using folk songs to encourage dialogue.  
"Individual and group social communication can break the culture of silence, gender barriers and social taboo," said Rahman. 
LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Mehdy believes it is important to be aware of how your attitude and actions influence others, and to take advantage of opportunities to stand up for your beliefs. 
For example, Kabir explained how after she had established BNPS, she visited her home community shortly after her first husband died. She said that while many women offered their sympathies, others asked her what she would do now that she was "helpless."  
"I told them maybe my husband is not there, but I am working with an organisation and a support system," Kabir said. "I will not be as vulnerable." 
Kabir said that through her own personal example, she was able to communicate the message, "Whether you are man or woman, you need to be self-sustaining." 
DEMAND PURPOSEFUL EDUCATION THAT ADDRESSES GENDER CHALLENGES: Education is a powerful tool to combat misconceptions about women. Mehdy referred to a mistaken belief that women should be blamed for the sex of the child they give birth to. But this is actually a result of natural combination of chromosomes of the father and mother. 
In the school setting, parents can advocate for gender sensitivity workshops. They can discuss the obstacles women face because of inherent biases that are not directly addressed in the standard education system and explain how bringing social awareness to the classroom benefits all of society.  
Instead of gender segregation in the classroom, teachers can encourage positive male and women student friendships based on mutual respect, and give opportunities for them to work together to discuss and present solutions to problems. 
Through youth platforms, students can be "considered as active change agents who will take the responsibility for equality and justice as future citizens," said Rahman.  
UNDERSTAND THAT CHANGE TAKES TIME, BUT DON'T LOSE HOPE: Kabir explained that while social movements do not happen overnight, she is motivated by the incremental results she does witness. She described how she is able to take advantage of freedoms not afforded to her mother and mother-in-law, and believes that her daughter will have even more opportunities in the future than she herself ever had.
Kabir thinks that though awareness campaigns and availability of data regarding violence against women have increased over the past few years, there is still much work to be done in translating awareness into action.  
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