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‘More young women should feel comfortable calling themselves feminists’

  • Published at 12:15 am July 21st, 2019
Shoko Ishikawa, the country representative of UN Women in Bangladesh-Mahmud Hossain Opu-Dhaka Tribune
Shoko Ishikawa, the country representative of UN Women in Bangladesh Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune's Kohinur Khyum Tithila, Shoko Ishikawa talks about: feminism, the MeToo movement, child marriage, and unpaid domestic work in Bangladesh

Shoko Ishikawa, the country representative of UN Women in Bangladesh, says the MeToo movement has made it more acceptable for women to say that they are feminists; therefore, more young women need to feel comfortable in referring to themselves as feminists.

How would you evaluate the condition of women in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh has come a long way. There have been significant strides in women’s participation in education, the labour force—driven by the garment sector—,maternal health, etc. Yet, if you look at the Gender Inequality Index—which measures gender equality differently than the Gender Gap Index of World Economic Forum—you will notice that the gaps are still high. 

Women’s economic empowerment—particularly in terms of expanding employment opportunities for women and improving working conditions in the informal sector—is an area that still needs a lot of attention. Violence against women is also endemic and it will be difficult for Bangladesh to prosper if decisive measures are not taken to address these issues.

Do you think the government’s decision to lower the age of marriage to 16—under special circumstances—is a good move?

When you create an exception, people will misuse it. In that aspect, it wasn’t the best of decisions and we advised against it based on commitments that Bangladesh's government has made to adhere to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now that we have the law, the procedures to allow exceptions need to be very stringent in the future—with the best interests of the child at heart—so that there are hardly, or no, cases of children below 18 getting married.

What are the objectives of UN Women in Bangladesh?

UN Women focuses on gender equality. We work for women and their access to rights. Our work addresses issues such as: women’s rights, decision making and leadership, strengthening women’s participation in the economy, ending violence against women, and—most importantly—working on government policies that remove discrimination and promote gender equality.

Does UN Women in Bangladesh have a new project coming up?

We have a program on ending violence against women by focusing on the prevention of violence against women. We are working to stop sexual harassment at universities and workplaces—including in some of the garment factories and government offices—by supporting the development of policies, plus prevention and response mechanisms. 

Because of Nusrat’s case, more attention has been drawn towards the 2009 High Court Directive on Sexual Harassment—that requires public institutions, including universities, to have a committee that works to end sexual harassment—and the need to implement this directive. We need all institutions to take action. We have been working with the University Grants Commission already for more than four years and have developed standard operating procedures for these committees, along with a monitoring and reporting system.

A big part of our work involves changing social norms and people’s attitudes towards sexual harassment and violence against women. We have to change the mindset that this is just “men being men” and nothing unusual, when it comes to sexual assault. We need changes in parenting practices, school curriculums, media portrayals of women, plus community and institutional responses. The government needs to address the attitude of law enforcement officers and gender bias in the justice delivery system.

Women are often left behind to take care of their house and belongings when there is a disaster. How do you see this concept that a women's life is worth less than that of a family's belongings?

It’s disappointing. When you think about child marriage, it is mostly because of the low worth given to the female child. The fact that they [the girls] need the opportunity to be educated or have a different future is dismissed. It is again an issue of social norms and it’s not discussed enough. The work that women are doing in the RMG sector—despite contributing so much to the economy—is also undervalued. 

It is short-sighted as it has been proven that if you allow women to thrive, your economy is going to be much stronger. In 2017, the World Bank said if you can increase women’s labour force participation to 45% by 2020, your GDP will actually be 1% higher. Investing in women is really going to be the key for Bangladesh to continue to grow.

UN Women’s main focus is women, gender equality, and gender parity. What about trans women?

Trans women are also women. We also work with them in our violence against women program. We do not have a specific project but they are an important stakeholder group. They are as discriminated against—or perhaps even more discriminated against—because they are not the sort of ‘normal’ women. And, being a feminist is about fighting the discrimination that everybody faces.

How do we break out from the social stigma attached to the word feminism?

I think the term, in itself, is often misunderstood. But, things are getting better as worldwide events, such as the MeToo movement, have made it much more acceptable for women to say that they are feminists. We need a lot more younger women to become comfortable in saying that they are feminists.

It is a good sign that people are discussing unpaid domestic work by women. How do you see it?

Thanks to a few NGOs that have been highlighting this issue—and now the Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality which includes a target about reducing unpaid care work—the importance of this issue is being recognized. From women who are parliament members, to women in rural villages, they all face the same challenge; balancing social expectations and the responsibility of taking care of their family with opportunities to realize their full potential. 

Women have to forgo opportunities—such as continuing their education, working, and getting promoted to higher positions—because they are expected to put their family first. There is a lot that the government could be doing in this regard—such as making time-saving technology and affordable social services like child care available—so that the time burden on women is reduced.

The HeForShe campaign is a solidarity campaign for men to advance gender equality. Do you think including men in a UN Women campaign is as crucial as empowering women?

It is necessary that we work on gender equality together with men. We need men to use their dominant voice to be vocal when women are mistreated and harassed, and let it be known that it is not OK. HeForShe is a platform for men who care about women’s rights and gender equality to express their solidarity with women.

Social media platforms and forums have become new platforms from which to victimize women. What is your take on this?

Social media can be both a positive and negative force. For example, the MeToo movement was very much built up on social media. But, in Bangladesh, it seems the backlash for speaking up in the social media space in support of women’s rights is quite strong, and it is still an uphill battle to build positive momentum for women in social media. 

The digital space needs to be closely monitored to ensure that women’s rights are protected and women are not harassed and stalked through social media. At the same time the use of the Digital Security Act needs to be closely regulated so that the Act is not misused by perpetrators – in an attempt to silence victims, who have had the courage to speak up.

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