Bangladesh along with many other countries of the world is chasing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is set to be achieved by 2030. There are 17 goals set in the SDGs. One of the most important is the goal 5 commonly known as SDG 5. It emphasizes elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and girls, elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls, and elimination of harmful practices affecting child and women. This goal is titled as ‘Gender Equality’, referring to same rights to men and women in different contexts. Bangladesh has achieved tremendous progress in this area, especially during the last decade and still has lot to do. But to attain full success in reaching this goal required focus on few critical factors demanding a huge change in our mindset.
Significant progress was achieved during the 2000-2019 period in achieving gender equality worldwide. Girls’ enrolment into schools expanded significantly and many countries achieved gender parity in primary as well as secondary education. Women participation in the labour force outside agriculture increased noticeably. Despite such progress gender inequality persists in various forms depriving women and girls of their basic rights and opportunities.
The situation of women empowerment and gender equality appears promising from different perspectives. Bangladesh was aware of the existence of gender differences in the nation and the importance of addressing this issue for women development since independence of the country. The commitment of the nation to address this issue was enshrined in the country’s constitution.
The father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understood the importance of gender equality from the inception of Bangladesh. Many of his decisions reflected his focus on this area. But after his brutal killing in 1975, this country seemed to have lost its focus on women empowerment. Though in 1991, Bangladesh received its first female prime minister, the fate of the women of Bangladesh did not change much. The women of this nation mostly started getting government support under the leadership of current prime minister and Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, who especially during the last 12 years has turned Bangladesh into a role model to the whole world for the achievement of SDG 5 considering the economic constraints that Bangladesh is facing throughout.
Bangladesh has been a signatory to several important international conventions and agreements on women’s and girls’ rights and development. It ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, endorsed the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) in 1995, and committed itself to the MDGs in 2000 and SDGs in 2015.The Government has adopted several legal and policy measures to uphold the rights of women in the country. Laws formulated include the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, and the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Rules 2013, Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012, Hindu Marriage Registration Act 2012, National Acid Crime Prevention Act (amended) 2010 and the Pornography Control Act 2012, National Children Policy 201I, Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, DNA Act 2014 and Dowry Prohibition Bill 2018. Other laws addressing national and sectoral issues also paid sufficient attention to women’s rights wherever relevant. A notable action of the Government was the adoption of National Women Development Policy 2011 and the Action Plan to implement the policy.
The government has also taken huge actions to improve women’s human capabilities. This area deals with women’s and girls’ access to health care, life expectancy, nutrition, reproductive health, education, information, training, and other services that enable women to achieve better health and educational outcomes. This also includes women’s freedom from violence and coercion. Increasing women’s economic benefits is another area where Bangladesh has made significant improvements.
Creating a facilitating environment for women’s advancement was the greatest focus in the government’s strategy. The socio-political environment, legal and policy support and congenial social norms are significant in this area. The Government has taken steps to incorporate gender dimensions in the formal budgeting process. In 2005, the government introduced Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in an effort to mainstream gender issues in all policies and decision making. A set of guidelines has also been issued to ensure development projects are prepared and reviewed in a gender sensitive way. The number of Ministries undergoing GRB has increased to 43 in FY 2019 from 4 in FY 2010. The share of expenditure on women development as proportion of total budget increased to 29.65 per cent in FY 2019 which constitutes 5.43 per cent of GDP from 24.65 per cent in FY 2010.
There are many challenges in achieving SDG 5 in Bangladesh like eradicating violence and discrimination against women. Despite many initiatives of the government, few scenarios are not encouraging. During the recent Dhaka City Corporations Elections, other than the 48 reserved seats for women combined in DNCC and DSCC, only 1 woman were elected among the 128 councillors. There was no women candidate for mayor position. Moreover, women councillor candidates were attacked, obstructed, harassed and violated at different places. Moreover, brutal incidents like, rape, murder and torturing are becoming more horrific in recent days. This does not reflect a safe environment for women in the politics and society of Bangladesh.
Public opinion for women’s rights and empowerment needs to be created to discourage and eventually eliminate outrageous activities against women. Creation of community awareness and motivation, enactment of laws to address sexual harassment, full prosecution of violence committed in public spheres and publicizing the punishment are some of the areas of action to improve workplace and public place environment. The gender digital divide is still an important challenge, with women facing challenges in accessing information and technologies, which affects their educational and employment opportunities.
The commitment to address the issue of gender differences is embedded in the country’s constitution. But to ensure an enabling and supporting for women will require a non-secular leadership. For a long time secular leadership did prevail in Bangladesh and the condition of women did not improve much during that time. Now that a non-secular leadership is in power, we are chasing SDG 5 in a much faster pace.
In this connection it may be interesting to present the position of Bangladesh in comparison with other South Asian countries in terms of women empowerment. Bangladesh secured 47th position among 144 countries in 2017 as per the Global Gender Gap Report while India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan remain at 108, 109, 111, 124 and 143 positions respectively. As Pakistan could not come out of secular leadership till now, they are standing at the bottom in ensuring gender equality as well as women empowerment.
Bangladesh could have been on the same spot as Pakistan if non-secular leadership was not restored. This country was praised worldwide for its non-secular and non-communal stature worldwide. Despite being a Muslim majorty country, Bangladesh never hosted fundamentalism under the current government. Whenever, terrorism and fundamentalism tried to set roots in this country, the Sheikh Hasina-led government eliminated that with utmost priority. This is why, Bangladesh is moving fast in attaining SDG 5. This mindset is a must to attain not only SDG 5 but also other SDGs as well as to ensure the overall development and progress of the country. If we cannot hold non-secular ideologies in our national strategy in any time of the future, Bangladesh will start moving backwards.
Another important fact is we often identify Islamic beliefs against women empowerment. It is not at all true as Islam also wants to ensure safety and empowerment of women. It requires women to adopt the concept of ‘Parda’ while interacting with outsiders. It is a natural phenomenon that men might get attracted to the opposite gender. But with an open mind, if we adopt Islamic lifestyle, then it will be easier to set control over the undue urges and hence violence. Islam is never against women empowerment rather it protects the rights of women. It is actually the best religion in ensuring women’s rights. If we adopt Islamic cultures and even the social norms, then we may hope for reduction of violence against women in our society.
It is unfortunate that, drugs and alcohol is widespread in our society. At least alcohol is quite acceptable at the upper class society of Bangladesh including intellectuals, top officials, creative personalities and almost all respected groups. Along with that, spread of drugs at every tier of the society is hurting the moral and values of Bangladeshi people. Drugs and alcohol is directly contributing against the empowerment of women while igniting violence against them.
PM Sheikh Hasina already declared war against drugs and illegal alcohol but the drive requires more participation from all segments of the country. Like; we, including the government, should never promote a person to important position if he is drug addict or alcohol consumer as no women in his office can feel safe. Moreover, no such person should be provided and government and non-government award. If not directly, this criterion should be on mind indirectly while awarding or rewarding or promoting a person. Moral values should be promoted from different angles to instill gender equality in Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wanted to build a non-communal country with secular ideals, equality and women empowerment. Along with the government, a bold and positive role of the media can lead to change the existing mindset to ensure the rights, dignity and safety of women. It requires commitment from the government, society, media and people itself to support the implementation of gender equality to ensure women empowerment and to stop violence against women.
We hope to strengthen the hands of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in ensuring achievement of SDG 5 while eradication drugs, corruption and terrorism. We are on the right track under her leadership. We hope ‘Mujib Year’ will be remembered for significant development regarding achievement of SDG 5. We want all Bangladeshi women to feel safe in chasing their dreams as only then we can attain Bangabadhu’s dream of ‘Golden Bangla’.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)