Women in Chattogram district are seriously lagging behind in the right to freedom of expression, participation in politics, the mainstream labour force and overseas employment – the key factors of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a survey.
The survey, jointly conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Oxfam, the European Union and Society for Development Initiative (SDI) in 2019, pointing to the geographical location of the district, held poor transportation networks responsible for Chattogram's worrisome performance in the SDG parameters.
Chattogram female professionals said their conservative social system is another major issue that hinders gender equality.
The survey report said 15 upazilas of Chattogram do not have a single female public representative directly elected to the offices of upazila chairman and vice-chairman. Besides, women's participation in the labour force in the district is around 32%, while the figure is only 36.2% for young girls aged about 15 to 29.
According to the report, the employment rate for young girls stands at 36.4% as the unemployment rate of this segment is above 5%. Overseas employment of Chattogram women highlights a grim picture as only 2.5% of them were found working abroad.
"The main obstacle to women's participation in politics is the patriarchal attitude and the mental poverty of our society," said Rehana Begum Ranu, a former councillor of the Chattogram City Corporation.
Political activist Ranu believes people are now more socially progressive, but they are not able to be open in their homes.
Advocate Jinat Sohana Chowdhury, Chattogram divisional coordinator of Suchinta Foundation, said, "Basically, there is not much scope for a woman to highlight herself after taking care of her husband and children. On top of this, women in Chattogram are less likely to choose a challenging career due to the dominant conservative mentality."
Sohana said Chattogram women, however, are ahead in entrepreneurship, and in other "less challenging" professions.
Abida Mostafa, vice-chairman of Chattogram Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, "Despite a rise in girls' education, Chattogram women are lagging behind in jobs both at home and abroad due to social stigma attached to such work by women. But women in this district are doing well in business."
The survey reveals that Chattogram is not on track in terms of women's right to freedom of expression and political participation towards attaining SDGs.
It emphasised"more efforts" for women to create a skilled workforce for overseas job markets.
Poor transportation pulls them back
The survey report focused on the ordeals of women living in remote areas of the district and said pregnant mothers and children in those areas are facing several health risks due to a poor transport network.
For instance, pregnant mothers in Sandwip have to come to Chattogram after a three-hour sea journey for a caesarean section (C-section) as the island with around a population of 2.78 lakh has just one private clinic. Owing to inflated medical costs, most middle and lower-class Sandwip people do not have access to healthcare facilities.
The island does not have any family planning office, and the lack of awareness about adolescent reproductive health is severe there.
The rate of women who experienced physical torture or sexual abuse in Sandwip in 2019 is around 22%, but most of the women are not aware of such means of remedy as the "109 national helpline" to prevent violence against women and children.
Apart from the island, other upazilas face a manpower crisis at family planning offices in delivering sexual and reproductive health services. There is a lack of coordination among family planning staff and health directorate field level employees, noted the survey report.
The rate of child marriage before a girl turns 18 is still worrying, though the rate with the 15-year threshold has declined.
Former Chattogram City councilor Ranu– who has been fighting the child marriage menace for 22 years – said, "Some special provisions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act-2017 allow parents to marry a girl off if she is 15 – leading to the rise of child marriage below 18 but above 15 years."
The overall picture of reproductive health and maternal mortality in Chattogram was found upsetting as the report said 137 pregnant mothers per 1 lakh live births die during childbirth. In the district, 9.3% of women get pregnant before they become physically ready to be mothers.
The study said neonatal mortality in Chattogram rate is 19.9%.
According to the survey, the pre-primary girls' education rate is 67.9%, while the dropout rate is 16.7%.
"There has been a considerable shortfall in supervising student stipends to prevent female student dropouts," said the report. It highlighted the low coverage of skill training programmes, lack of coordination among government and non-government organisations (NGOs), and no follow up on women who complete the training.
To ensure gender equality, the report put forward a seven-point recommendation, including strengthening the outreach of national hotline support, stepping up government-NGO cooperation, and ensuring strong supervision to maintain a proper distribution of student stipends.
Disclaimer: This article has been produced in collaboration with Oxfam.