Sara Hossain is a lawyer in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and honorary executive director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST). This year, she was given the International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. We speak to Hossain about BLAST’s work with the Rana Plaza tragedy and greater trends in human rights law.
Post-Rana Plaza tragedy, have there been positive steps in making firms more accountable? In terms of change in the industry, positive steps have been taken including setting up the Rana Plaza Trust Fund which put money in the hands of victims. Internationally, there are still efforts to get compensation from some brands and from the companies that did compliance audits to ensure accountability. In Bangladesh, the High Court has frozen accounts of the factory owners and the building owner, and is also holding the property itself. These are important and unusual steps that can contribute funds for compensation. There is also the question of who authorised the building itself, and approved the safety plans, Rajuk or the Savar authorities, and it’s important to know what the government position on this will be. We have a strong building law and a national building code, but unfortunately it is taking years to set up the national building authority who will actually enforce this code. So honestly if there was another Rana Plaza tomorrow, we’d more or less be in the same position in terms of not knowing who failed to ensure building safety. In terms of dealing with safety and other infrastructure, measures have been taken, new inspectors are to be recruited for example, but there are urgent outstanding issues. It’s important to recognise that a lot of what has happened is because of the globalised nature of the industry. This includes positive developments, such as companies being held to account by international consumer conscience, and therefore by the market. The rights of workers in other sectors – purely domestically regulated - are recognised far less than in this one.
Do you think the Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act 2000, has been effective in upholding women’s rights? Is there a gap between what is set in law and social practices? This law recognises various forms of violence acid attacks, rape, custodial rape, trafficking, among others and resulted from the women’s movement’s activism. It reflected a recognition that the legal system wasn’t functioning properly due to delays, and complex processes. It dealt with a lot of procedural issues and enables quicker trial and also provides protection to victims to varying degrees. The Government has also brought in important institutional changes such as the one-stop crisis centre, police-run victim support centres, and the national hotline on violence against women (anyone can call 10921 – 24 hours a day). The women’s movement also played a crucial role in bringing about the Domestic Violence Act 2010, which criminalises domestic abuse and is a big step forward in ensuring women’s and children’s rights in the family. There is obviously strong political commitment at the highest levels to dealing with violence against women, but it doesn’t necessarily translate further down the line in the absence of enabling conditions. For example almost 80-90% of cases at BLAST involve women in family disputes and include violence, but women tend to come to us for maintenance claims to survive, not for punishment or protection. Unless there is an extreme form of violence, people tend to push it to the back and focus on getting on with their lives. Part of the reason is social, but because there is not sufficient state protection involved, the social taboos remains intact. The law has set out these excellent progressive measures, but how do you reach a shelter from a remote area? How do you ensure the police cooperate in every case? How does a woman survive and provide for her children without greater social security? There are measures in place, but more needs to be done to ensure a holistic response, making it possible for women to not just seek but secure justice. Too often we will hear - “should you really end a marriage because of such an incident?” or “the man is so nice and has a brilliant career. How can she leave?” This is embedded right across our society - social attitudes on marriage, family, career prospects and most importantly, the ‘shame’ and stigma ascribed to women facing abuse, coupled with lack of economic alternatives, means that many women can’t determine their own fate. The cases that are filed also tend to go on for so long that it becomes very difficult to stay the course without proper support.
Is child marriage another issue where the law is being modified due to social pressure? Whatever’s happening with the debate still raging around the minimum age, 16 or 18, there is already a strong political message out there - child marriage is being seen as a wrong, and the law is starting to be enforced, people are being arrested for being involved. Obviously this hasn’t been enough and shouldn’t be the only approach; we need to provide incentives in education and employment opportunities as alternatives to marriage for young girls. We also need to have more open conversations about women’s safety and sexuality, and focus on the issues centering around consent. Many people fear that if their daughters aren’t married, they will be raped or assaulted on the way to school/college, although the reality is that once she is married, if it is without her consent and she is in fact below the age of consent, then she will be raped on the marriage bed instead, but we don’t think that’s a problem so long as there is a blue marriage paper in between. This mindset has to change.
Do you think South Asia is ready to decriminalise LGBT rights? How do you think other minorities fare in Bangladesh? This is less a discussion about law and more a discussion about lives as they are lived. I certainly think that all across South Asia, there are thousands of people who are not heterosexual, live with their families/friends and are accepted by them. But it is difficult for them to be public because of the law that criminalises homosexuality. What’s interesting is that this isn’t even an indigenous law, but a colonial legacy and that too of Victorian England, which had strict rules of sexual behaviour and didn’t even allow women to divorce if they were abused. When I first started my career, in the late 80s/early 90s, the big battles were about the kind of government we should have and military rule. There are still of course very strong debates on democracy and its forms, but in the last 20 years, a change that we have seen is that all kinds of identities have been expressed in Bangladesh, and there is a critical space to talk about these issues, whether it is the rights of indigenous people or people with disabilities. As Bangladeshis, we have multiple identities and there is a tradition of acceptance in our part of the world - we have multiple religions, ethnicities, languages and abilities, and multiple identities in terms of how we live our lives. There are strands in our society who fight against that. As far as the law goes, I think we should be clear that the criminalisation you are talking about is a colonial legacy, from before the constitution, and not something that we have decided upon after independence.
How do we deal with the gender gap in the legal profession? It’s worrying that while many women are qualifying in law schools and universities, there is a terrible dropout rate. Women often don’t survive in the profession because of the unfriendly working hours and difficulties in having a work/family balance. Because women are still perceived as traditionally as caregivers and homemakers, the burden falls disproportionately on them. To change it, we need to have a more disciplined court environment, efficient processes in chamber practices, and concentrated efforts in dealing with harassment at work. More importantly, we need men to take up some of these burdens also. Women are now easily included in the labour force, but men have not been incorporated into responsibilities of the home to the same extent. Until that happens, you have to be a superwoman who does everything – juggles family, children, work, social life, social commitments. Women from our parents’ generation did it – I would prefer a different less exhausting approach.
Are you worried that certain human rights are being sacrificed in the name of greater security and development? I think the best thing on this issue was said recently by Sultana Kamal - “‘what is the point of development if we do not have safety and security?” The things that are happening now are making us question the assumption that economic development will make everything better. It’s quite obvious we have to fight for the rule of law as well. People are struggling to establish their rights, identities and entitlements and are increasingly conscious of them. But we are also in an environment where people are stopped from speaking out of fear. Fear of terrorists and extremists of course, but also fear rising from how political authorities respond. The extreme conflict between different political beliefs, and the threats by extremists, alongside the increasingly repressive attitude by people in power to any form of critique or dissent are the biggest obstacles to furthering people’s rights.