Women's empowerment and search for ambience

A few days ago, Samia Sultana (pseudonym), a teacher at a private university, approached the university’s Vice Chancellor with a request to open a daycare centre on campus. This gesture of goodwill from the authorities would be a great help to working mothers, faculty members and non-faculty employees alike, those with small children. This facility would help the woman teachers focus on teaching and other tasks on campus without any anxiety or tension, knowing that their children are being taken care of well and they could be there at any moment, if necessary, she told the VC. Out of her desperation, she even said they are ready to bear the expenses, the university authorities would just have to provide a space, maybe a room.

The Vice Chancellor, however, said that is not possible. He said the chairman (actually owner by dint of inheritance) of the university would not agree to that proposal. When soft and persuading words fail, Samia reminded the VC of the Bangladesh Labour Law, 2006, that said any establishment with 40 or more female workers must provide and maintain a suitable room or rooms for the use of children under the age of six years. To this the VC’s reply was rather astounding. He said, “We will not recruit the women who would need this facility.”

A Vice Chancellor of a university could utter such words when, crossing countless hurdles along the way, the society has reached at a point where most of the people have been talking about women empowerment! Empowerment is not only about empowering some people at all. Rather, this ensures legal rights, human dignity, and advancement of a society as a whole.

When we talk about women empowerment, it does not only mean education and jobs or taking their advice on any important matter or any other issues in a compartmentalised manner. It’s about creating an ambience, an uninterrupted continuous flow of attitudes, where the women would not have to face and worry about even any small incidents that seem apparently negligible. Those negligible incidents actually create a snowball effect. The final outcome of that effect could be something unwanted and detestable. For example, even if a woman with a child could get a good and reliable caregiver, can we say that that would be sufficient for the mother and the child?

We must never forget there is an emotional bonding between them. She could need to breastfeed the child, or just need to play with the child, who has been weaned, taking break from work for just 10 minutes. If a woman does not get the scope, she might me mentally down which would affect her performance at office. In the long run, repetition of such incidents will make a competent person question her own competence. At some point she might resign, completely defeated and depressed.

Samia Sultana has a three-year-old daughter, who implores every morning, “Mom, please don’t go to office today” while the driver of the university’s transport honks the horn below her apartment. When I was talking to her a few days ago, she said probably she will have to resign. I asked how she had continued over the last three years. She said she worked from home due to Covid-19 in the first two years of her daughter. “My daughter had been imploring to me every morning for more than six months. Then she went to her maternal grandmother’s home in Rajshahi. My mother can’t come to my place in Dhaka as my father is very sick,” she said.

Whereas, a woman would be a victim of a system and a certain type of male chauvinist thinking, her competitors would say it is proved she was not so qualified. Some would take another step to say, “Women can study but should not join any job, instead should remain at home”. After all, men need an educated bride to satisfy their ego and other darker psychological needs.

Only talking does not ensure women's empowerment and our policymakers should realise this. They should also work to implement the laws. But laws alone cannot ensure everything.

The state of advancement of any society can be measured by observing its attitude towards women, children and elderly people. Even after attaining education the current Bangladeshi society at large, it seems, is going backwards. The image of a Vice Chancellor is such that among other things, he is supposed to nurture liberal views, talk about making laws more humane and lead the society towards greater emancipation and gender parity in every sector. But that person has been talking about restricting rights that have already been achieved after a long fight. What should be the take from this?