In a talk with The Business Standard, Shoko Ishikawa, country representative of UN Women Bangladesh expressed her views on the progress Bangladesh has made in the gender parity front, and the things that need to be done to fill in the gaps that still remain
The Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing in 1995.
An unprecedented 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists showed up in the Chinese capital to push for gender equality and the empowerment of all women living anywhere in the world.
After two weeks of intense debate, representatives of 189 countries signed a historic document- the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
Bangladesh was among them.
25 years after signing the declaration, when the country is rocked by a series of gang-rape and subsequent protests, what is the status of women's rights in the country?
TBS: 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Being one of the signatories to this declaration, what progress do you think Bangladesh has made so far?
Shoko Ishikawa: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted by 189 UN Member States at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
It is considered the most comprehensive and progressive blueprint for advancing women's rights to date.
Bangladesh was one of the 189 countries that participated in producing this document of agreed written targets towards achieving gender equality.
Over the 25 years, Bangladesh has made significant efforts to improve the lives of women and girls.
One of the most notable achievements is girls' education where in addition to gender parity in primary education, thanks to a coordinated effort to increase girls' enrolment in secondary schools such as through stipends and tuition waivers, secondary school enrolment for girls rose from 39 per cent in 1998 to 67 per cent in 2017.
If we look at women's health, maternal mortality ratio has decreased by over 60 per cent since 2000, from 424 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 172 in 2017.
Women's economic opportunities have also expanded over the decades and female labour force participation has increased from around 10 per cent in 1995 to 36 per cent in 2019.
This is above the regional average which stands at around 23.6 per cent.
Policy level interventions have been crucial for accelerating the progress.
The Women Development Policy of 2011 translated the Beijing Platform for Action into national policy and provides a comprehensive framework for women's empowerment and gender equality in Bangladesh.
The Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act (2010) and the National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Children, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 and its National Action Plan, the Dowry Prohibition Act 2018 are all fundamental for protecting women from vulnerability and gender-based violence.
TBS: Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in achieving MDG targets like attaining gender parity at primary and secondary education. But in terms of overall progress of women in our country, what are the gaps that still remain?
SI: Progress has been slow globally despite all the achievements and the picture is similar in Bangladesh.
In terms of women's labour force participation, Bangladesh is still significantly below the global average of 47 per cent, and 9 out of 10 women are engaged in informal work which provides them minimal income and social security.
As high as 29 per cent of employed women compared to 4.2 per cent of men are also unpaid family workers, meaning they are engaged in productive activities such as family farms and family enterprises but do not get any monetary compensation.
This does not give any economic autonomy to women.
Violence against women is also a significant problem that holds back women in Bangladesh from being able to feel safe and secure.
From domestic violence to sexual violence and rape, the prevalence is high in Bangladesh.
There are gaps in laws related to violence against women, and capacity to support to victims and ensure justice to the survivors is also low.
The tribunals that handle women and children cases are under-resourced and conviction rate for violence against women and children cases have only been 3 per cent in some districts.
Bangladesh is unfortunately still within the top 10 countries globally when it comes to child marriage.
According to 2019 MICS (Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey), 51.4 per cent of women aged 20-24 years first married before their 18th birthday, and 15.5 per cent of women first married before their 15th birthday.
This is all despite specific laws and action plans being in place to address these issues.
TBS: To minimise these gaps, how should Bangladesh proceed?
SI: We need to focus on implementation of the policy and laws that are in place and strengthen the capacity and accountability of institutions to promote gender equality including access to justice and public services.
We need to build capacity across the government to mainstream a gender perspective in the sectoral plans and annual performance plans of each and every ministry and government agency to ensure that the ambitious Women Development Policy is translated into the day to day work of the different ministries.
The Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs should also be given the level of authority and resources that it requires to effectively advise and coordinate other ministries on gender equality and women's empowerment which is a responsibility of the whole of government.
The commitments to gender equality also need to be matched with adequate financing.
UN Women is supporting the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to review the effectiveness of the gender responsive budgeting policy that has been in place for the past decade.
In some cases, we do still need to focus on the laws.
For example, a recent case of violence against women has brought to attention the gaps that exist in the Penal Code on the definition of rape which may prevent women from receiving fair justice.
UN Women is also advocating for adoption of a sexual harassment law together with many others.
Bangladesh also continues to have reservations against the article on equality in marriage in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that it ratified in 1984 and allows for discrimination against women on their rights to property and inheritance based on religion.
As the CEDAW Committee has recommended a number of times, the government of Bangladesh has to remove the reservation and ensure equal rights of men and women regardless of their religion.
The discriminatory gender social norms and gender stereotypes deeply ingrained in society and people's attitudes and behaviours also need to continue to be challenged.
They are at the root of anything from discriminatory employment practices, limited number of women in senior and management positions or science and technology careers, violence against women and child marriage, to the disproportionate burden of domestic work and family care work falling on women and limiting their ability to participate in the economy.
In addition to strengthening policy measures to eliminate the structural barriers for women, media should also play a role in dismantling the stereotypes through more positive and diverse representation of women.
We need more men and boys to condemn discrimination and violence against women, and support the achievement of gender equality as strategic partners and allies, as well as agents and beneficiaries of change.
TBS: Has Covid-19 impacted the overall progress of the lives of girls and women of our country?
SI: Crises are never gender-neutral, and Covid-19 is no exception.
The impact of Covid-19 has been more severely felt by women and girls because they were already in a disadvantaged position in terms of access to information, income and resources, services, decision-making power, etc.
Women are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors including the informal sector.
The impacts are not just economic.
Lack of access to basic services like health care, less access to social protection, and the unequal unpaid care and domestic work burden from closure of schools and workplaces have made women more adversely affected than men.
We have also seen a staggering increase in gender-based violence (GBV) as per some recent rapid assessments which revealed that 49.2 per cent of women and girls felt that safety and security was an issue during the lockdown.
Many women had to stay at home with the perpetrators and were not able to access outside support.
Even after the movement restrictions being ended, escalating tensions triggered by looming financial insolvency, job insecurity, health scares have unleashed violent abuse either by the family or by the partner.
We are calling this alarming increase in domestic violence in the midst of the Covid-19 health crisis a shadow pandemic.
TBS: How can the adverse impact of this pandemic on the progress of gender equality be addressed?
SI: As the honourable prime minister of Bangladesh said in her speech at the UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women on 1st October, the Covid-19 pandemic has particularly aggravated the vulnerability of women.
We need to urgently address the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives and well-being of women and girls everywhere so that the hard-earned achievements in women empowerment are not reversed.
UN Women strongly urges to prioritise prevention and redress of violence against women and girls in Covid-19 responses.
Services for survivors must be deemed essential services and remain accessible and adequately funded.
We also call for funding to women's organisations that provide many of the critical services to women who face violence or are at risk of violence.
Economic support packages for vulnerable women needs to be further expanded, and eligibility needs to be redefined beyond widowed and destitute women and pregnant and lactating mothers.
If we are to address the pandemic's economic impacts and the devastation of jobs and livelihoods and achieve 50:50 gender parity in women's labour force participation by 2041 as pledged by the honourable prime minister last week, eliminating inequality in the labour market, including by addressing occupational segregation, gender pay gaps and inadequate access to affordable childcare, is more urgent than ever.