‘Gender parity can be achieved through change of mindset’

Rabiul Islam | Update:

ayesha banuDespite the steady advancement of women, violence against women and girls (VAW/G) remains a crucial challenge that needs to be addressed in order to reap benefit from the development that has been achieved so far, said Ayesha Banu, professor at the women and gender studies department of Dhaka University.

She also said the most important challenge is to change the mindset of both men and women who have internalised patriarchal values where public-private dichotomy is seen as natural and as an acceptable norm.

“Women have made the greatest move to step outside their private arena and are engaging in public in increasing rates but the men have remained ‘caged’ in their so called ‘public’ role and are rarely getting involved in household chores of cleaning, cooking, child and elderly care work,” she told Prothom Alo in an exclusive interview.

Full text of the interview is given below:

Prothom Alo: How do you view the current state of women?
Ayesha Banu: Despite many loopholes and challenges the current situation of women is gradually improving.

Prothom Alo: Do you see any difference over the last two decades? If so, what are these differences?
Ayesha Banu: As I just mentioned, the situation of women has improved. The last two decades were very crucial for women in Bangladesh in particular. Immense progress and success have been achieved in terms of reducing poverty, maternal mortality rate, child mortality rate, increasing rate of female participation in wage work both at global and local arena, increased political participation and female leadership. All these indicators have helped Bangladesh to secure the highest rank in South Asia in Global Gender Gap Index. Women have come out; they are now visible in every sector of both public and private life.

Prothom Alo: Despite various initiatives, violence against women continues. Why?
Ayesha Banu: In spite of many achievements there are cracks and crevices tainting the successes and progress. Violence against women and girls (VAW/G), child marriage, school dropout rates, are few of those. In fact VAW/G is the most crucial challenge that we need to address in order to reap the benefit of all the developments that have been achieved till today.

We have many laws and initiatives to combat VAW/G but have failed to implement the existing laws and legal sanctions are one of the major challenges.

Apart from this, the more systemic and structural hindrances are related to the overarching and ever pervasive phenomenon of patriarchy, which encompasses both material and non-material factors.

All our measures and initiatives are actually shaped by our perception around women and upon their material and actual condition to fight back VAW/G. All will depend on how we perceive women, how do we like to define violence, what are the ways we perceive women’s body and sexuality, where do we want to see our women— how far and up in the ladder, in what ways do we want to define women’s boundary in terms of addressing their agency, options and choice – these are extremely critical issues in relation to VAW/G. Radical changes in our mind set and interventions are necessary to address the VAW/G issues in contemporary Bangladesh. Multi-sectoral approaches to combat VAW/G, One-Stop Crisis Center, abolition of two finger tests, domestic violence prevention act, etc. are few of the positive initiatives by the government to combat VAW/G.

Prothom Alo: How do you view the allegations that women are paid lower than men?
Ayesha Banu: The unequal pay is actually more visible and prominent in the informal sector. Most of the formal sectors in Bangladesh are now following the equal pay policy. However the challenges in the formal or informal sector are concentrated in other areas, such as, unequal recruitment policy, lack of maternity leave, absence of child care system, lack of toilets and other gender sensitive space management in the work place, absolute blind eye towards women workers’ reproductive role and unpaid care work and reproductive health issues and rights, transport and security, sexual harassment and abuse in work place and public arena etc. In fact these are the more endemic issues which are creating barriers to women’s access and retention to paid work.

Prothom Alo: A large number of female workers are sexually and physically abused abroad especially Saudi Arabia. Yet the government still sends workers abroad! How can we protect our female workers?
Ayesha Banu: Sexual harassment and abuse are two major concerns for women workers. Inter-ministerial interventions in terms of research and investigation, identifying loopholes are critical.

International standards are to be applied while signing up of any MoU with Saudi Arabia or any other receiving countries. International and national conventions and charters can be of help while diplomatic bargaining powers are to be enhanced in order to address the issue of sexual harassment and abuse.

Prothom Alo: Feminists maintain that women's emancipation would come through financial independence. But in reality, working women face the double burden of domesticity and outside work. How can this be resolved?
Ayesha Banu: Financial independence and economic emancipation are crucial to women’s progress and development but these are not an end in itself. In order to address the issue of double burden, there has to be both formal and informal intervention. Paternity leave in addition to maternity leave, gender quota, flexible working hours, shifting duties and group responsibilities, day care centre at the work place to women are quite a few of the global measures can be taken up.

The most important challenge is to change the mind set of both men and women who have both internalised the patriarchal values where public-private dichotomy is seen as natural and as an acceptable norm. Women have made the greatest move to step outside their private arena and are engaging in public in increasing rates but the men have remained ‘caged’ in their so called ‘public’ role and are rarely getting involved in the private or in reproductive work like house hold chores of cleaning, cooking, child and elderly care work etc.

If we are to achieve 50:50 by 2030 then it’s of utmost importance to change and shift our mind set, the way we define ‘work’, roles and activities towards equal participation of men and women both in public and private arena – ‘private’ can’t be defined solely and naturally as an appropriate space for women only. Men are to take up the burden of reproductive work too.

In the process of this transformation we are to ‘think smart’ and ‘be innovative’ in making room for women in public and accommodate men in private domain of everyday life and care work. This means women are to come out and claim their legitimate spaces in the world while men are to leave and make room for women ensuring equality and justice to all.

Prothom Alo: How can the overall advancement of women be ensured?
Ayesha Banu: There is no blue print. Each and every country has to design and plan according to their context and history. There is no single remedy as the problem is multifaceted and multi-pronged interventions are necessary to ensure the advancement of women. Overall advancement of women will naturally depend on multiple factors including the overall improvement of the country.

However, literacy, education, skill development, training and awareness raising programmes, media advertisement, utilising social media and digital apps, budgetary allocation, gender sensitive policy input, enactment of legal frameworks and its implementation, role of active women’s movement, making use of global and local conventions and sanctions to ensure a women friendly milieu can be mentioned here.

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