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Rhetoric and reality

  • Published at 03:46 pm October 12th, 2018
Girl child day
Phjoto: Syed Zakir Hossain

Empowerment of girls in Bangladesh over the last decade

As recently as a week ago, Saidur Rahman Bablu a teacher at Bindu Basini Government Girl's High School in Tangail  was thrashed by students and their guardians, arrested and charged with solicitation and sexual harassment of female students. A mobile court subsequently found him guilty and sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment.

Prior to his incarceration, the students had made repeated complaints to Mamun Talukder, the headmaster of the school, who chose to turn a blind eye to the issue and even threatened to expel the students for their allegations. 

“Saidur Rahman had been making a lot of illicit suggestions to many of them for a long time. Even after informing the school head master repeatedly, no action was taken against him,” the victim said. 

This is, by no means, an isolated case of school girls being sexually harassed by teachers; rather this is the reality for many young girls in Bangladesh. Alongside the government and NGO reports which routinely show impressive numbers in various indices of female empowerment in the country, lie the stories of sexual harassment or rape of girls, a significant number of cases often going unreported owing to the social stigmas attached to these forms of violence against women and girls.  

Help is on the way

As a symbol of its commitment to securing a better life for women and girls, Bangladesh has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action and MDGs in conformity with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Bangladesh Constitution. To ensure sustainable development of women and girls, Bangladesh also adopted the National Policy for Women’s Advancement in 2011.  

Meanwhile, ‘empowerment of women and girls’ has become an omnipresent buzzword, occupying much of the government and NGO discourse from the outset of the current millennium. From politicians to micro-credit organizations to social media celebrities, this buzzword has become an essential game changer for many, including women and girls, although its success is limited.

Silver linings

It would be, nonetheless, woefully remiss not to mention the exemplary progress that the country has made so far in procuring a better life for women and girls. According to World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Bangladesh ranks 47th among 144 countries in Global gender Gap index, making an upward shift of 25 notches within a year. Bangladesh now leads among the South-Asian countries in gender gap index 2017. However, there’s also the old saying- “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics” and third kind of lie is apparently more of the case for Bangladesh when it comes to women and girls’ empowerment.       

For Bangladesh, increasing the per capita income by more than 130 percent, cutting poverty by more than half, achieving gender ‘parity’ in primary and secondary education and/or most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), per se, are good reasons to boast about its remarkably swift socio-economic progress and minimized gender gap and inequalities. How much of this progress has translated into the lives of women and girls, nonetheless, is debatable, as there remains a discernible ground to be skeptical about development that is predominantly portrayed through numbers. 

If we look at the Global Gender Gap Report, it ranks countries by calculating gender gap between men and women in specific four key areas: political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment and health and survival. And Bangladesh has progressed in every key area of gender gap index over the last few decades. But how much does the index reflect actual gender disparities in Bangladesh?

Behind the numbers

The Index shows that Bangladesh has achieved parity in gross enrolment rate between boys and girls in primary and secondary education, but isn’t indicative of the declining trend in girls enrolment rate compared to boys in primary and secondary education in recent years. (Girls enrolment rate increased from 112.4 percent to 113.4 percent during 2010-2015. On the other hand, for boys it increased from 103.2 percent to 105.0 percent). Neither does it address that after adding the girl dropouts to the number of girls who have never enrolled; there are still approximately 1.5 million primary school age girls out of school. 

The Index reflects the minimized gaps in women’s participation in politics in the country considering the ratio of women to men in ministerial positions, the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions, and the ratio of women to men in terms of years in executive office (prime minister or president) to finally rank Bangladesh at number 7 in the world. But what could the growing number of women politician in parliament possibly mean for a country, where a large portion of these representatives are selected and used as political tokens? This is where the call for qualitative analysis comes in action. Numbers only depict the tangible aspects of development, shadowing the meaningfulness and quality. 

While the rhetoric of numbers is able to create a rosy image of women and girls’ empowerment in Bangladesh, numerous qualitative studies show how the gender imbalance in the country has increased over the years as result of violence against women, lack of meaningful political and economic participation, high rate of drop-out in secondary and higher secondary levels. 

Besides, the poor quality of education, as studies show, results in low achievement levels for girls and boys, and limited options for girls and women within the greater society exacerbate the problems of inadequate schooling for girls. In tertiary education, there are only six girls for every ten boys, well below the Millennium Development Goal target of full equality, yet the huge gap is often eclipsed under the lucrative enrolment numbers in primary and secondary education. 

Wealth, but not health

Undoubtedly, there have been commendable gains in health outcomes in the recent years, but gross inequity remains in terms of gender and social class, particularly jeopardizing the lives of poor rural young girls, who still constitute the larger share of the underweight children. According to a World Health Organization report, adolescence stunting is still 36% in girls and body mass index (BMI) is 50%. Rate of anemia among adolescent girls is 25–27% and iron deficiency in the age group of 14–18 years is 30%.

Young girls continue to be more vulnerable to poor health, as they suffer from higher rates of malnutrition, early marriage, and pregnancy. The adolescent birth rate, for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years is 118 per 1000 women which is again the highest rate in the South Asian region, a World Bank Report states.   

A recent study conducted in southern Bangladesh described how child marriage results in early, mistimed pregnancies because young girls lack power and agency. Inadequate information coupled with the traditional and conservative norms of Bangladeshi society, place adolescents, especially girls, at greater risk for unwanted pregnancies and increased vulnerability for STIs and HIV/AIDS.

It’s a cruel world out there

While we are busy celebrating the fractional success in women and girls empowerment, perpetrators keep haunting women and young girls in their homes, on streets, in schools. A recent report from Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), a network of child rights organization in Bangladesh, revealed that a number of 593 children were raped in the year 2017, 33 percent more than the previous year. More worrying is that the comparative analysis of the situation also found an increase in the number of murder after rape- 44 children have been killed after rape until this August, while the cumulative number of similar cases was half in 2017. 

Nowhere is safe enough for them and no legislative action can apparently ensure the security for women and girls in their daily lives in Bangladesh, unless a social transformation takes place in terms of perception and attitude towards women and girls. Even today, many women and young girl continue to be denied their agency as potential human resources and restricted to the domestic spheres. 

I do, but I don’t

Despite the signs of progress in reducing child marriage in the numbers, Bangladesh continues to have one of the highest child marriage rates worldwide and the highest rate of marriage involving girls under 15. 52% of girls are married by their 18th birthday, and 18% by the age of 15, according to Girls Not Brides. Child marriage is more prevalent in rural areas where 71% of girls are married before the age of 18, compared to 54% in urban areas. Legally, the minimum legal age is 18 for marriage of women. However, there’s also a loophole in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 where a court can allow child marriage in dubious “special cases.” 

The real tragedy of the rhetoric of numbers lies in distracting from the fact that ensuring the barest minimum of basic rights like health, safety and education is now being equated with “empowerment” while the glass ceiling remains firmly in place.  

As we leap forward to graduating from the LDC status, it is now imperative for Bangladesh not to look at the lives of women and girls through numbers, rather through the quality of their lives. Because numbers won’t save them from the perennial tyranny of the patriarchal socio-political setup, something that a comprehensive and qualitative empowerment agenda might do.