True empowerment for women not possible without systemic change
INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, themed this year on empowerment of rural women to end hunger and poverty, was observed in Bangladesh as elsewhere in the world on Thursday. In his message, the secretary general of the United Nations, which started celebration of the day on March 8 from 1975, pointed out that ‘there is a long way to go before women and girls can be said to enjoy the fundamental rights, freedom and dignity that are their birth right and that will guarantee their well-being.’ He also observed that rural women ‘make up one quarter of the global population, yet routinely figure at the bottom of every economic, social and political indicator, from education to health to participation in decision-making.’ A closer look at the state and status of women in Bangladesh — both in rural and urban areas — would certainly justify his observation and conclusion. Let alone empowerment, social, political or economic, the state and society have not been able, if not willing, to ensure even safety and security for women. Women continue to be victims of violence, at home and outside. According to the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, as quoted in a report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, in 2011 alone, more than 6,600 women were subjected to violence; 800 of them were raped, including 96 who were murdered afterwards, 287 sexually harassed, 330 killed in dowry-related incidents.
Indeed, as the state minister for women and children affairs Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, told New Age in an exclusive interview published on Thursday, ‘political and legal empowerment is interlinked with economic empowerment.’ However, for women to be economically empowered, they need to have access to income generation — be it through employment or entrepreneurship. By being the majority of the workforce in the readymade garment industry, women have proved beyond doubt that they are ready to work if work is available. While the state may not itself provide them with employment, it can surely facilitate creation of employment opportunities for women. Regrettably, however, not only has the state done precious little to create economic opportunities for women, it has in some cases allowed constriction of access for women to decision making. A glaring example would be marginalisation of elected women representatives on local government institutions in decision making by their male colleagues.
It all boils down to patriarchy so deeply entrenched in the state and society. When the system is so inexorably biased against women, having women as prime minister, opposition leader, foreign minister, home minister, etc points more to cosmetic, as opposed to systemic, progress, and, in the final analysis, serve the patriarchal order. Hence, the fight needs to be against the patriarchal order in the state and society.
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