The UN’s SDG 5 leaves too much unsaid -- especially for women in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, women’s empowerment as a concept is widely understood and has been used as policy slogan among NGO’s, political parties and development partners since the 1990s.
However, gender equality and “gender mainstreaming” are terms not widely understood within state and society. This is the fourth article in the “SDG Reality Check” series, which asks a) whether the UN’s guidelines towards gender equality and women’s empowerment are appropriate for Bangladesh, and b) to what extent common “real” concerns have been left out.
At the national policy level -- and across nations in Asia -- “gender” is often seen as a women’s issue, when in practice it concerns boys and men equally.
Theoretically, “gender” questions the presumed naturalness of the masculine and the feminine. This sort of questioning can be traced to Margaret Mead’s research in the mid 1920’s, which showed that our modern conceptions of what being a man or woman implies are more socially and culturally constructed than biologically determined.
A century later, we can say that “sex” refers to the clinical definition with emphasis on genotype and phenotype, whereas “gender” refers to the roles we assume as boys, girls, men and women -- and shaped by social norms.
Syeda Lasna Kabir of Dhaka University says: “The very mention of the words sex and gender is still problematic at the national policy level,” reflecting on missions of advocating gender awareness with government officials.
The typical avoidance of the subject matter, she means, “makes mainstreaming gender a tough challenge.” This is nonetheless urgently required across the entire civil service sector with the aim of improving wellbeing for families, “including boys and men.”
By the inclusion of boys and men, it follows that women’s empowerment and gender equality are two distinct policy ideas -- the former women-specific and the latter more family/society-oriented.
But SDG-5 does little to inform us of the distinction. For better or worse, it combines the two in one overarching goal: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” by 2030.
Here it may be mentioned that the SDGs are no more than guidelines, and Bangladesh reserves the right to implement policy towards gender mainstreaming, positive discrimination and protection against violence, in separation.
But as the government and development partners prepare the 8th five-year plan, the SDG agenda is being integrated and budgeted for.
And while the UN secretary general is being criticized in New York for not doing enough in terms of gender reform, it is a good time to look at the language of SDG-5, including its measures of progress.
Unfortunately, the proposed indicators for achieving the overall goal do not actually address gender equality or women’s empowerment directly.
Instead, they do so indirectly, by looking mainly at the incidence of violence against women and girls. Consider the following excerpt, from the UN, which introduces SDG-5:
“Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
“Unfortunately, at the current time, one in five women and girls between the ages of 15-49 have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period, and 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence ... ”
Based on the concerns above, the UN seems to suggest that we use violence against women as a sort of “proxy indicator” for gender equality and women’s empowerment. This seems ill advised.
Can we not work towards elimination of violence against women and girls and still advocate and plan for gender awareness and women’s empowerment, as conceived in the past two decades?
Crucially we ask, where are the indicators for “voice” -- platforms for the expression of speech -- within the SDG agenda? And can we imagine any real progress in regulating discrimination and sex crimes if we ignore the culture of silence?
Contesting the patriarchal mindset
Arguably, viewing action to eliminate violence against women as a “proxy” for gender equality and women’s empowerment reflects a critical, timely, but too narrow a view of a grand social problem.
And even if we show -- by means of statistical investigation -- that violence against women and girls has come to an end, it doesn’t mean that gender equality has been achieved or that it would empower all women and girls in Bangladesh.
This is obvious given the patriarchal nature of our nations and societies that has been institutionalized over millennia by means of religion, society and later, in modern family law.
The power that men exercise over women typically presents itself “silently,” and such silent problems go unnoticed in the public domain until violence erupts among loveless marriages, arranged for the financial benefit of the collective.
In large parts of the country, it is as if women are still property of their fathers, later to be transferred to that of a husband. This mindset is psychologically harmful to girls and boys, leads to false hope, sorrow, conflict, and sexual violence in the home and community.
We can now acknowledge such practices as “anti-social” -- standing contra to wellbeing. So it is with good reason that the UN emphasizes sex-crimes and abuse of women and girls. However, whether the UN rhetoric will extend into policy and practice is uncertain.
In short, the UN’s focus on violence against women and girls is justified, as is the idea that domestic abuse should be considered violation of citizens’ rights.
But how would we regulate against it? And we may wonder, given Dr Kabir’s observations, whether members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system are ready to acknowledge that such behaviour constitutes serious crimes.
Numerous Bangladeshi writers highlighted the severe deficiency in our criminal justice system on International Women’s Day.
While laws designed to protect women from violence were enacted in 2010, these are still not in full effect, pending request for amendment with the law ministry, a newspaper reports.
In essence, in the past nine years, justice delayed has translated to justice denied, while we are still debating on definitions and appropriate legal terms for sexual harassment. More generally, if our government bodies fail to defend women’s rights, how would we imagine progress towards ending sex-crimes as well as reaching gender equality and empowerment in practice?
Violence against women and girls
Current barriers to women empowerment are deeply rooted. The presumed naturalness of “male-dominant” and “female-submissive” behavior permeates mindsets in all spheres of private and public life -- reflected in our laws and representatives of state. So, as a nation, how will we collectively move the immovable patriarchy, achieve gender mainstreaming, and put a stop to domestic abuse and underage marriages?
By means of advocacy and parliamentary debate, judicial review, or perhaps by upgrading our social services? Shall we again look to the NGOs and CBOs for action -- now comparatively subdued into roles of service delivery compared to past decades?
And in recent years, as press freedom is under threat, how can we imagine social dialogue in the name of gender mainstreaming? One thing we know for certain: Free and fair elections in Bangladesh once every five years won’t make a difference.
History suggests that equal rights must be claimed, and some sudden benevolence of the patriarchy cannot be expected. Further, our legal framework promises equal rights to freedom of expression and individual speech to all.
But, in reality, the constitution guarantees very little. “Guaranteeing” rights normally imply the correlative duty of the state to administer punishment upon violators in public -- and consistently over time.
Our constitution currently limits speech and expression to conform to “moral decency” and “interests of the state,” but who decides what’s decent and what is in the national interest?
As for gender equality, gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment, SDG 5 leaves too much unsaid. It largely ignores non-violent forms of discrimination and existing disparities in opportunities for women and girls.
It ignores a) unfair wage gaps for similar work, b) planning for universal child-care, c) parental leave, d) social services to help victims of abuse, e) opportunities to collectively organize “voice” for empowerment, and finally f) protecting individual rights to freedoms of expression.
Allowing for collective forms of voice, and guaranteeing the right to individual forms of speech and expression are critical to fostering citizenship-type legal culture.
We need these social “checks and balances” to be demonstrated in public, since our government bodies reflect the patriarchal mindset and is -- as if blindly -- perpetuating grave social injustices against women and girls. In global news coverage, the case of Nusrat Jahan Rafi is perhaps the most well known example of the fact that reporting sexual abuse to the authorities can lead to unspeakable tragedies.
Nusrat publicly reported sexual abuse to the police only to be threatened by the perpetrators, and finally be burned to death in 2019 on the campus of her school. She attempted to exercise her right to speak up against sexual harassment and was murdered as a result.
With this in mind, it is hoped that policy-makers make concerted efforts to contest the wider problem of the unquestioned patriarchy.
In Bangladesh, underage marriage remains a common practice and is currently emphasized (see sdg.gov.bd) by our government as a priority goal for 2030, next to the female participation rate in formal sector employment.
Policy-makers should disentangle gender-based discrimination, sexual violence, freedom of speech, and access to protection and justice.
In practice this means planning and budgeting for activities that make it so. Mere advocacy and awareness will not make women and girls equal citizens of the republic.
Jens Stanislawski, in collaboration with Mobina Islam Aishi, is a Senior Researcher and Consultant at Social Resources Management.