Shoko Ishikawa
Shoko Ishikawa

Shoko Ishikawa, Country Representative, UN Women Bangladesh, in an interview with Prothom Alo speaks about women's empowerment, advancement and the recent rise in the propensity towards rape.

It has been 25 years since the Beijing women's conference and on this anniversary of the occasion, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that Bangladesh had made strides ahead in women's empowerment. As country representative of UN Women in Bangladesh, Shoko Ishikawa, shares her observations and assessment of the issue.

She said that within this long span of 25 years, Bangladesh and the rest of the world had seen significant advancement in women's development. The Bangladesh government has taken strong initiative in this regard, particularly where girls' education is concerned. The rate of girls' enrollment is almost the same as boys' enrollment at the primary school level. Various initiatives at the secondary level too have had a positive impact. However, she added, the dropout rate for girls still remains higher.

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The other sectors of advancement for women, Shoko Ishikawa said, are health and quality of life. From the year 2000 till present, maternal mortality had decreased by almost 60 per cent. Bangladesh's women have also made significant advancement in employment. In 1995, women's participation in economic activities amounted to 10 per cent. Today that stands at 36 per cent. Bangladesh is ahead of other South Asian countries in this regard, where the average rate in the region is 26 per cent. Women are the major workforce in Bangladesh's readymade garment industry. Overall, Bangladesh has made significant advancement in women's development over these 25 years.

Did this happen because of the government's efforts or did women surge ahead on the strength inherent in the society?

Replying to this question, the UN Women country representative said that the policy measures adopted by the government certainly had significant contribution. The National Women's Development Policy taken up by Bangladesh in 2011 can be seen as a detailed national version of the Beijing Platform and Action Plan taken up 25 years ago. Bangladesh has a detailed policy blueprint concerning women's empowerment, women's rights, women's equality with men, etc. Bangladesh also has an active action plan regarding domestic violence, child marriage, etc.

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She said that Bangladesh has strong policy and legal initiatives when it came to women's empowerment and development. The strong civil society of the country also acted as a pressure group on the government to this end.

In course of the interview, Prothom Alo pointed out that women's social and political empowerment had not increased in proportion to women's participation in economic activities. They remained subservient in society and at home. Male dominance suppressed advancement in gender equality.

Women were in great numbers in the informal sector of economy. They had minimum income and no social security. This was true in the case of 9 out of 10 working women.

Shoko Ishikawa agreed with these observations, saying that even though women's participation in economic activities had been taken up to 36 per cent, they still fell short when it came to empowerment. They worked for meagre wages and there were less skilled workers among women. Even in the garments industry where the main workforce was women, they remained at the bottom. There were hardly any women at the supervisor or managerial level in the industry. So it is true that women were not being adequately empowered.

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Also, she observed, women were in great numbers in the informal sector of economy. They had minimum income and no social security. This was true in the case of 9 out of 10 working women.

Research by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), indicates that where a man receives a wage of Tk 400, a women receives Tk 250 for the same work. Ishikawa agreed that this was unfortunately the way things were and pointed out further that 29 per cent women who work for family enterprises and family farms are engaged in productive work, but did not get paid.

They had no labour rights, no maternity leave, no fixed work hours and no form of social security.

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Coming to the issue of insecurity, violence against women and also about rape taking on epidemic proportions in recent times, the UN Women's Bangladesh chief said that this situation was indeed alarming in Bangladesh. Every day there were reports of rape and this was the most discussed issue at the moment.

According to NGO reports appearing in the media, from January to August this year, 889 incidents of rape took place. In 2017 the number of cases filed for rape was 3,917. BBS got these figures from the police. The rape incidents reported in the media have been much less than the cases filed in this regard as reported by BBS. In reality, the number of rapes is much higher than the police records.

The society must be free of this toxic masculinity if women were to be protected from rape, humiliation and other forms of violence against women.

Responding to an observation on the dismal state of the rape cases and punishment of the rapists, Ishikawa said in Bangladesh, the Prevention of Women and Children Tribunals are one of the most backlogged courts. Justice was not being availed in this court. Only 3 per cent of the violence against women and children cases have been convicted. There was need to look into where the problems lay, what wasn't working in the system.

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She said, I call upon the government to ensure that a thorough look be taken into every step concerning the application of the law and the trial procedures. It is necessary to look into who are conducting the rape cases, how these are being conducted, why most of the cases are not being settled. Just having one-step crisis centres and counselling centres is not enough. The rape cases must be tried and the rapists must be punished. Also, the definition of rape in the criminal code needs to be reviewed. This crime needs to be redefined so that not a single woman who is a victim of rape is deprived of justice.

Shoko Ishikawa also agreed that there was a problem in the mindset of certain members of the law enforcement who questioned the 'character' of a rape victim. She said such a mindset existed in the judicial system too. This called for training of the police members. There was need for an initiative to mobilise respect and sensitivity towards women.

Expanding on this theme, she said male attitudes towards women had to change. A study in 2011 showed that almost 30 per cent of the men who had subjected women to sexual abuse felt they had the right to treat women in such a manner. They said they had punished the women and in, doing so, had given release to their anger. They had the right to do so, they maintained.

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She also said that 77 per cent of the urban men and 81 per cent of the rural men felt that sex was the right of a man. This mindset was toxic masculinity. The society must be free of this toxic masculinity if women were to be protected from rape, humiliation and other forms of violence against women.

This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir