Government moves to boost women’s rights

The Bangladesh government is pushing ahead with a new National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP), despite criticism from a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic political parties.

The latter groups say equal rights for women in terms of earned property would violate Sharia law on inheritance, which stipulates that a woman should inherit only half of what her brother would get.

However, Rasheda Choudhury, an adviser to the country’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, said such criticism was misplaced: The new policy ensured equal rights of women only with regard to property they had earned themselves, not with regard to what they inherited.

Legal experts had to consider not only Muslim women but also those of other religions, Choudhury said.

“The policy has been designed to ensure equal rights for women in all spheres of national life and also to ensure safety and security for women in the national, social and family environment,” the country’s chief adviser (with the status of a prime minister) Fakhruddin Ahmed, said at the launch of the NWDP on International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Key features of the policy include reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women and their direct election, as well as new laws to ensure equal opportunity of women in terms of control of their earned property.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2007, women make up only 15 percent of parliament and have 8 percent of ministerial positions.

The NWPD envisages the empowerment of women in all political, social, administrative and economic spheres.

In February, the Election Commission (EC) set 2020 as the deadline for all political parties to have women in at least one-third of all party committee posts. Most of Bangladesh’s political parties agreed to the proposal, but suggested gradual implementation, while Islamic political groups objected.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
The NWPD aims to empower women at all political, social, administrative and economic levels

New policy

“The issues of disparity between men and women in society would be abolished by giving proper importance to socio-economic contributions of the women and giving equal opportunities to women and girl child,” the new policy stated.

The government would take measures to meet the needs of destitute women. It would also ensure the social security of widows, abandoned and unmarried women, and women having no children or no one to take care of them, the NWDP said.

“Special attention with budgetary allocations should be given for communication, sanitation, rest room, day-care centre and health care facilities at places where a large number of women and girls are engaged in work,” the policy document explained.

It also said the quota for women in entry level jobs in both government and private organisations would be increased.

“As laid out in the NWDP, the government will initiate a process to abolish all laws that discriminate against women,” Choudhury said.

Mixed reactions

Bangladesh’s estimated over 150 million inhabitants are 90 percent Muslim. The country has a secular legal system, though on issues of inheritance and marriage, Muslims follow Sharia law.

"To bring changes to the narrow political culture, 33 percent women's representation must be ensured by any means," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the National Women’s Association.

''the government will initiate a process to abolish all laws that discriminate against women''

According to Sultana Kamal, a former adviser to the government and now head of the Centre for Law and Arbitration, a legal aid non-governmental organisation (NGO), the NWDP failed to mention anything about the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the uniform family code, or the equal right of women to inherit property.

“Women in different religions get different shares of properties - equal in some religions and less in others. Our demand was to formulate a uniform family code giving women equal rights. The issue was not made clear in the policy,” Kamal said.

Farida Akhter, a leading women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantho Probortona, a national NGO, however, cautiously welcomed the new policy saying: “We will wait to see how and when the government and the political parties implement the policy.”


Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Women observe a candle light vigil on the night of International Women's Day in Dhaka

Implementation

“We will immediately initiate implementation of the short-term steps while the next government will have to take strong measures to implement the long-term policies,” said Choudhury.

The short-term programmes include raising maternity leave from four months to five months, ensuring the appointment of equally qualified women to public positions, taking steps to stop the suffering of women working abroad, as well as launching special programmes to help women in distress, like the disabled.

According to the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2006, Bangladesh ranks 137 among 177 countries on its Gender Development Index; and 67 out of 75 countries on the Gender Empowerment Measure, a measure of gender inequality in economic and political terms. The Global Gender Gap Index 2007 ranks Bangladesh 100 out of 128 countries in terms of gender equality.

Bangladesh's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper says of all the inequalities in Bangladesh, discrimination against women is the most blatant form of injustice.

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