In reflecting on International Women's Day and the women's rights movements across Asia in the past year, I am reminded of a trip to Bangladesh I took in November. My trip coincided with discussions that were happening in the government on draft legislation that would allow child marriage in "special circumstances," such as accidental or unlawful pregnancy, without setting a minimum age for such marriages.
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the highest rate in Asia. Fifty-two percent of girls marry before the age of 18, and 18 percent are married before they turn 15. This results in girls being denied an education and usually getting pregnant soon after being married with some dying in childbirth and others, together with their babies, facing severe health issues.
In 2014, Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, pledged to end child marriage, committing to enact a tougher law that included severe punishment for child marriage, development of a national action plan to end child marriage under age 15 by 2021, and an end to all marriage before age 18 by 2041. Since then, no national action plan has emerged, and the Bangladesh Parliament passed the law, despite protests by rights groups, on February 27.
Against this backdrop is the work The Asia Foundation is leading in Bangladesh, which includes addressing challenges that prevent women from becoming politically and economically empowered. Women currently occupy 20 percent of seats in the Bangladesh Parliament (in what are mostly unelected, reserved seats). In March 2016, The Asia Foundation released a survey on "Bangladesh's Democracy: According to its People." A large majority of Bangladeshis who responded to this survey (62%) said Parliament should have only or mostly male representatives, an opinion shared by both men (69%) and women (55%). The most commonly given reasons relate to perceptions that men are intellectually superior to women (men know more, more intelligent, understand politics, better educated). Although the majority say the National Parliament should have only or mostly male representatives, a strong majority (71%) support reserved seats for women.
Countering these attitudes and beliefs is critical, as is advancing policies and laws designed to increase women's participation as voters and candidates. With the next parliamentary elections due by early January 2019, shifting power and resources in support of women's voice and participation is crucial.
Supporting women's leadership in the labor force is also critical. For instance, Bangladesh is the 10th largest tea producing country in the world and has 172 tea gardens with over 140,000 workers, 75 percent of whom are women, although few occupy leadership roles. These workers earn very little, suffer poor nutrition, and lack the knowledge and ability to exercise their rights. The Asia Foundation is working to increase understanding about labor rights and responsibilities among the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, the only labor union representing tea workers, tea garden owners, and government representatives through training and other awareness-raising forums.
I had the opportunity to travel to northern Bangladesh to meet with imams (Muslim religious leaders) and imams' wives who are committed to ending violence against women. In discussions with imams' wives and other women from the communities, they shared stories of women wanting to earn an income, such as being able to access funds to support small enterprises managed from their homes, or to make garments or produce for a business or company. An example: providing sewing machines, seeds, and poultry and linking this work directly to markets. Many of these women are looking for opportunities to work from home and on their land, but need access to buyers and markets, and in this way, they will have the income to support their children's education and health as well as their own needs. The women spoke of being conscious of local community attitudes-neighbors will criticize their engagement outside the home and husbands may get angry if their wives seek to work, so the outreach we are supporting to husbands is essential.
The Asia Foundation has also been supporting district-based Women Chambers of Commerce, including women entrepreneurs seeking to use technology for online buyer platforms, and a mobile network as a peer-to-peer system for advice and support. These Chambers of Commerce are a key network supporting women to start and sustain their own businesses, and they are also working to get banks to lend to women without collateral, so that women have the opportunity to access capital. Members of these chambers work across Bangladesh to increase women's engagement in the economic sphere from the current level of 34 percent participation.
One story that inspired me was that of a woman who dreamed of returning to get a college education. At home, every time she talked about it her husband got angry and humiliated her in a myriad of ways. Then, an imam who had participated in one of our programs began calling at their home and having a series of quiet conversations with her husband. Slowly the woman noticed a change in her husband as he became less physically and verbally violent. Finally, he agreed that she could return to study and later he would speak proudly of the fact that she had returned to college. Now upon graduation, she is planning to secure employment that will support her family as well as help her to reach her own potential.
"This is the change that is possible with such interventions," the woman said. There are still so many challenges that women face to realizing their rights and achieving their full potential, but there is also great hope, energy, and activism and I look forward to continuing to advance women's right and gender equality in this coming year. The writer is director of The Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment Program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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