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OP-ED: Hope is stronger than fear

  • Published at 01:33 am December 18th, 2020
oppression of women gbv
The long fight against the oppression of women BIGSTOCK

Gender-based violence needs to be eradicated from society. But how?

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed how gender-based violence dehumanizes individuals to the extent that they are left voiceless. While the vaccine gives us hope that the pandemic will come to an end, will this curtail the prevailing shadow pandemic of gender-based violence? 

How many suicides, murders, instances of harassment and rape of women and children are required before we develop a system to control and diminish gender-based violence? 

The feminist movements of the 1970s helped stimulate a wave of research on gender and sexuality. Bangladesh is following the same pattern, but the progress could be faster in the 21st century, a knowledge-based era, where information and research are there to show the right path to creating gender equality and to eradicate such violence from our society. 

It is time for society to reinvent the wheel of change, where the private sector, academic institutions, mental health experts, artists, CSOs, and development partners work together to address the challenge.  

A fundamental human right

As gender-based violence leaves scars not only on the body but also in the mind, it needs the engagement of mental health experts to understand the victims and as well as the violent mindsets of the perpetrators. The connection between gender norms and mental health must be analyzed and properly understood. 

Psychologist Albert Bandura established the theory that human behaviour is something that is learned through conscious and subconscious observations of what is presented and subsequently repeated through a process of imitating the same observations. 

Violent behaviour is not an inherent characteristic of an individual; instead, these actions are learned through observation. 

On the other hand, exposure to abuse leads to high levels of depression. 

To change human behaviour, we need to involve experts in designing interventions and establishing systems to end gender-based violence. 

It is a long fight against the patriarchal mindset which is oftentimes present in women as well. Many women live to satisfy the expectations, conditions, and values of other people; they want to be seen as “normal” at all costs and feel terrible if rejected. 

These people label themselves as self-sacrificing and rational. The culture values these acts of self-sacrifice as virtuous which makes it harder for them to stand up for their own rights.

Despite challenges, there is a silver lining. Human development is possible in the most adverse of circumstances if they are striving to become what they want to be. In short, there is hope for change if we develop smart solutions based on science. 

In many ways, the 21st century is not different from the 13th century. Both can be recorded in history as times of unprecedented religious clashes, cultural misunderstandings, and a general sense of insecurity and social fear. 

At times like these, the need for practising compassion and love is greater than ever. 

Let’s not forget gender equality as not only a fundamental human right, but also a key determinant of our health and wellbeing. 

Teaching the right values

Values shouldn’t be left out of schools to be learned at home only. The community should be aware that child marriage and forced marriage are not a form of parents’ love but, rather, one of the worst forms of gender-based violence that cripples the mind and body for life. 

When a girl gets access to education, she gets a chance to learn about her basic human rights. Education allows a girl to realize her potential, which society oftentimes never does. She begins to question the lessons taught at home and by society. 

This year, the theme of 16-Days of Activism highlights the issue of marital rape. Millions of people still believe that marriage gives them a right over their partner’s body. Though studies show that child marriage has decreased by 90% since the 70s, still, 38 million girls were married off before the age of 18, including 13 million who were married before their 15th birthday. 

What happens when a girl becomes a victim of forced marriage or child marriage? 

For girls who are young, sexual intercourse and unavoidable sexual relations with their husbands can be traumatizing. 

This leads to greater psychological trauma such as toxic immobility, which refers to a set of involuntary motor responses elicited under conditions of extreme fear and perceived inescapability, and it is one type of pre-traumatic distress reported by survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

It is an irony that a country with such a dense population shies away from discussing the issue of sexuality. Sex education will ensure that children understand and are aware of rape and recognize it as such. 

Education is the way

It is important to understand the economic cost of increasing gender-based violence. We cannot wait any further without establishing sexual and reproductive health and rights in our country. 

A century ago, growing industries demanded public schools to generate useful “products.” Too many schools became factories and children became products instead of people. A controlled industrial model of education suppresses the release of human potential, which collides in a knowledge-based economy. 

As gender inequality has been practised in our homes for centuries, it became invisible to us. When a girl becomes a victim of child marriage, they do not have access to contraception and education and falls into the trap of lifelong poverty. The boys should be taught at school to stand up for their sisters and female friends when they are treated unfairly.

For Bangladesh, there is a hope. Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni rightfully mentioned that the quality of education should not be measured by the number of enrollment but, rather, by the quality of students. 

This is a call for educational reform, where quality education which allows students to flourish is provided. Schools should focus on how to think so that they can learn to analyze instead of memorize. We need more female leaders to take charge and redesign the education system. 

When women are missing from decision-making roles in the government, non-government, and private sectors, we are unknowingly creating a gender inequal society. We must ensure that our best and brightest women do not depart from the workforce due to fabricated social norms. 

Therefore, we must help women to rise and achieve their potential in their careers and to lower the glass ceiling.

Today, we need inspiring artists to unlock closed minds, unlearn and re-learn what is right, and say no to the harmful social norms behind gender-based violence. Research has found that art can be a powerful tool to promote gender equality for health and wellbeing and inspire cultural awareness, social connection, and change. It can help people empathize with and understand issues around gender inequality. 

The city needs filmmakers like Satyajit Ray who effortlessly showed the struggle of women and focused on toxic masculinity as a force of destruction. Rabindranath Tagore picked up the pen to write novels where women were the protagonists, openly challenging social evils like widow remarriage, untouchability, and patriarchy at large. 

We have heroes like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who fought for widow remarriage. We had Raja Ram Mohan Roy who convinced people to educate women and banned inhuman practice like sati.

Readers will most likely be reading this piece on their smartphones, a source of knowledge and opportunity in their pockets. Unfortunately, 65% of Bangladeshi women still do not have easy access to information as they do not have a phone. 

Private companies must take the lead to empower women digitally so that they have access to knowledge and information. It is important that we keep sharing stories of women and their empowerment to stop this violence and make a difference. We must remember that hope is always stronger than fear.

Zarin Zeba Khan is Deputy Director, Advocacy and Justice for Children, World Vision, Bangladesh.

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