Violence in Bangladesh over new equality law

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Photo EPA: Protests in Bangladesh

Riots have broken out today in Bangladesh over a new law  which would give women equal property rights as men. The country, although it has a secular legal system most the time, bows to Sharia law in issues relating to inheritance, and therefore a woman only inherits half as much as her brother.

Under the National Women Development Policy, she would inherit equally.

More than 100 protestors have been taken into custody today according to police, but there is worryingly a high level of support for challenging a law like this. The Islamic Law Implementation Committee for example (not surprisingly, I suppose) saying that the protests had the support of the “people” and that they go against the Koran. In a country where 90% of the population are Muslim, a claim like that carries great power.

Women in Bangladesh are an important part of the workforce, with many working as they do in export trades such as making garments. But, women are still part of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, being judged by their family life, and their opportunities in the country tend to be markedly fewer. For example, there is a higher dropout rate from school for girls than boys, and younger children face a higher mortality rate if they are girls. Trafficking is a huge problem in Bangladesh, including kidnapping into Burma, as is domestic violence which can often pass under the averted eyes of the community.

The return of prime minister Sheik Hasina Wazed to the government in 2008 has been another positive role model for women in the country, and as a member of the Council of World Women leaders she has put rights for women high on the priority list. Nonetheless she has been locked in conflict with extremists in the country throughout her political career, and has withstood assassination attempts on her own life and the murder of many of her colleagues.

It goes without saying that this blog supports these new laws and wishes safety to those pushing them through. Until women can secure economic independence they will always be viewed as second class citizens in a country. This is another step towards independence for women in Bangladesh. I hope the government holds fast in its commitment to give women greater rights in education, employment and inheritance.

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The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.

Fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Shabnam, 17, from Kabul: Photo Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Six Afghan women are training up to attend the 2012 London Olympics to represent their war-torn country – a fact which would have been imaginable in Taliban times, when all sport for all women was banned. Several are female boxers, who train in Kabul’s main stadium, where women used to be publicly executed for adultery. In such a short space of time the symbolism of the change of use for this building cannot be exaggerated.

But, let’s not get carried away. It’s still unusual for women to take part in sport, to compete internationally in sport – and a violent sport at that.  Many rural areas in particular do not allow women the opportunity to participate in sport, even since the overthrow of the Taliban. Women are often restricted by conforming to strict rules of purdah, which means they don’t leave their homes very often.

So, victories are to be celebrated and held up as examples. Afghanistan’s first female cricket team was also formed in January, training in a park with high walls where men are banned. They know if they train in public, even covered in headscarves, somebody will disturb them and try to stop them

And it’s interesting to read of older generations of women taking an active role in promoting the younger ones. 17-year-old Shafika’s mother was the one who encouraged her to get into boxing: “When I started boxing I felt myself free and comfortable and happy. In the name of Afghanistan, we should have some women boxing and get some medals.

“We want the Afghan flag to come up at all the medal ceremonies for women boxing.”

Other sports women are hoping to compete in at the Olympics include taekwondo and judo.

For women everywhere, let’s hope these competitors get through the qualifying stages and make it to London next year, and earn the right to take some pride in their country on a global stage, after years of persecution and war.

Girls as young as 13 trafficked in Cambodia

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Girls as young as 13 are being recruited from Cambodia to work in Malaysian households with fake birth certificates, according to a UN report out today.

The girls are being confined in overcrowded and unhygienic “training centres”, with reports of several being killed or injured in desperate attempts to escape – and of course, with human trafficking, someone makes money. And not the person being abused.

In this case, brokers source the girls and get paid the fees. The recruiting companies trick illiterate village residents – more than 100 agencies are reported to exist targeting this sort of business.

The government has made some very positive noises about tackling this problem, which can only be positive, but nonetheless estimated that it will take three more years to fully tackle this problem.

MP and former minister for women’s affairs Mu Sochua has accused the government of complicity in trafficking: “The Cambodian government has effectively legalized human trafficking.” She also said the government was protecting the recruiting companies because some of its members might have financial interests in them.

These examples could be the tip of the iceberg, with the likelihood of girls also being smuggled through into Thailand.

The best way to tackle this is to improve the status of women in Cambodian society, and their rights as female workers. Make a collective decision that it is not acceptable to employ a young girl, without her passport.

Women in Cambodia were denied the right to hold a rally for International Women’s Day this month. Bizarre rules around Cambodian women marrying foreigners are also intended to target trafficking but could easily also be seen as a way of restricting a woman’s human right to marry who she wishes. Domestic violence is largely seen as a matter to be left between husband and wife, even though one-in-four women have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse from their husbands

Give women equal status, equal standing in society, make them financially independent and this sort of abuse will be whittled away to a memory.

The women of Afghanistan – wives of the warriors

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

An interesting video from wisemanproductions here, with some fairly rare footage of women in Afghanistan talking about the situation in their lives, the history of women’s rights, and attacks against women in the country. Although it’s only recently uploaded, I think it might be older than that, but still well worth a watch to help tell these stories. Be warned though, some of the pictures in it are shocking.

Also helping to highlight life for women in Afghanistan is a new exhibition opening in the House of Commons in London this week with some beautiful photos and inspiring stories – you can take an online tour here.

Girl flogged to death for “affair” at fourteen

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

A fourteen year old girl has died in Bangladesh after being lashed 100 times on the orders of a village cleric.

Mosammet Hena was beaten with a bamboo cane for allegedly having an affair with a married cousin. Four people have been arrested and another fourteen people who are accused of taking part in the lashing are being hunted by police.

That means at least twenty people were directly involved in this young girl’s murder – probably more. Her body was covered in bruises and bite marks.

Punishments in the name of fatwa were outlawed in Bangladesh since last year, but old habits can die hard. This case is a shocking, repellant example of how cruel a system can be – and the dangers of mob actions.  A complaint was made by the man’s wife, she was “sentenced” by “senior community members” – all men, I presume – and so justice was deemed to be done.

Even if you accept the ridiculous precedent that adultery is a crime worthy of flogging to death, what has happened to the man she is meant to have had an affair with? 

Delve a little into reports of her alleged crime and the case against her becomes even more ridiculous. The man’s wife said “she had seen Mosammet speaking to her husband near their home” according to reports. Hardly a conclusive case.

Less impossible to believe – a few reports say Mosammet was raped by the man, and this was a desperate attempt to quiet her. We will never know exactly what happened here, but in Bangladesh it was fairly common for rape victims to be flogged for being “complicit” in their assault – one well publicised horrific case that was focussed on includes a woman being flogged after she was raped and became pregnant – her rapist was pardoned.

Since Mosammet’s death lawyers have filed a case against the government at the court, and a team of investigators from a human rights organisation has travelled to the village.

Director of investigations there, Nur Khan Liton, said: “This is an absolutely horrific crime. It shows that despite court judgments banning punishments in the name of fatwa, an aggressively religious group who are capable of committing such barbaric crimes of torture against women are still present in our society.”

The Bangladesh High Court has now taken up the case. I hope they will make an example of this case, rise the profile of this young girl’s murder and try and use her sad death to save this happening again for another innocent woman.

Dedicated to the gods, abused by men

February 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

 A post here dedicated to the misogynistic and dangerous practice of Devadasi. If you haven’t heard of it, it is an ancient Indian custom that has been used in more recent times as an excuse for the abuse and rape of vulnerable young girls.

The ancient tradition saw a girl ceremoniously dedicated or married to a deity or temple, in order to serve the goddess Yellamma – it was once a high-status role, if a dubious honour.

The practice has now been made illegal in law, but it still goes on, with the added exploitation that sees young girls, once they reach puberty, forced to have sexual relations with the men in their community in order to better serve the goddess.

No, I don’t understand the logic either.

I only learn of this practice recently, and the more I learn the more I am horrified. The women targeted are typically from lower castes – and in India that still tends to mean they are less educated, poorer and more vulnerable (the attitude persists in the country that rape is more acceptable in lower caste women, because it protects those higher up the social ladder)

And I cannot emphasise enough – this is not a small problem. There are 50,000 Devadasi in southern India.

Particularly sad is the overwhelming poverty that can leave families with seemingly little option but to give a child to the corrupt Devadasi system – and children of Devadasi are often dedicated into the system themselves.

An excellent BBC programme  aired in January highlights the Devadasi system. Also, visit EveryChild’s website   – they are a inspirational international charity working on the ground to urgently protect girls from being sexually exploited.  Measures include trying desperately to keep girls with their family, helping to increase opportunity for girls in low-caste groups, running workshops, setting up credit societies for women-only to help raise the status of women in society, and helping with the work of Child Rights Protection Committees being run at village level to intervene on behalf of children at risk. The last one in particular is a great idea, working with the only people who really have the ability to challenge the system: the people of India.

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