Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


Women in prison

Having spent a year in prison already, 25-year-old Rahima still cannot reconcile with her living conditions. ‘The air, the walls, the people, the place- all of it has been a shock for me,’ she says. She struggles to wear the blank and emotionless expression that the rest of her inmates wear everyday, yet every time she speaks of her experience in jail, she fights back tears.

‘It is difficult to cope with all that goes within the walls of a prison,’ she says. ‘There were times when the prison guards molested me…they do sexually abuse women,’ she says softly, hiding her face behind her white saree. As soon as the guards walk in her expression changes and she mutters, ‘we have no problems at all.’

‘How can you not love the darkness, the stench, the suffocation and the crowds?’ asks fifty-year-old Khaleda in her raw husky voice. Her big eyes and rough expressions complement her loud and dominating voice. ‘After spending twenty-five years I don’t think I would ever want to go back. I get a taste of everything here - be it having tonnes of friends or being tortured, all of it is ‘fun’, she says sarcastically.

Khaleda knows the secrets of the prison, yet she refuses to speak up. ‘You know why I came here? My husband married another woman for no reason. He brought her home with her two children. I had done nothing. But he still did that. So I ate the two kids,’ she laughs aloud. ‘And then I got involved in a trafficking case and a lot more.’

In twenty-five years, Khaleda has seen the darkest sides of the prison. She has lived inside crumbled cells with no space to even sit or breathe. ‘I don’t like the idea of being moved to this new unit of the women’s prison. I love the people there. The Dhaka Central Jail is overcrowded, stinky, a torture hole but it’s still been my home for the past so many years,’ she says.

Khaleda is one of 200 women who are waiting to be shifted to the first female jail in Kashempur that opened this month, but due to a lack of staff only 21 prisoners have so far been moved to the new prison.

‘One of the worst things that women go through while being in jail is that they do not want to come out of it,’ points out Salma Jabin of Ain-O-Salish Kendra. ‘Emotionally they are damaged and to make things worse their families and the society refuse to accept them after their release.’

There are more than 3,000 women like Rahima and Khaleda who are in jails across the country. That the jails are hugely overcrowded and inefficient has become an accepted fact, say experts. A 2005 report reveals Bangladesh’s 67 jails house more than 74,000 prisoners, including more than 3,000 female inmates. According to a survey conducted by the Dhaka-based NGO Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, as of August 2007, the Dhaka Central Jail lodges more than 9,778 inmates and among which 679 are women. The prescribed capacity for this jail is 2,682 and the capacity for the female unit is 134.

Moreover, according to an investigation by the human rights NGO Odhikar, from 12 January to 10 July, 2007 a total of 2,86,000 persons were arrested across the country. Presently the total number of prisoners in jail is around 88,000. In the 11 central jails and 55 district jails, the total capacity is only 27,291. Therefore, there are three times more prisoners than there is the official capacity to hold in jail.

‘The jails across the country are grossly overcrowded,’ says Farida Akhtar, Chief Executive of UBINIG. ‘Women in prisons in Bangladesh are deprived of almost all basic, inalienable human rights. The living conditions are pathetic - inmates are often packed so tightly into cells that they have to stand all night. The fact that they are women means that they will be deprived and tortured more.’

‘Despite the provisions of the jail code, the food is substandard and inefficient,’ says Sazzad Hussain of Odhikar. ‘There are specific provisions in Jail Code for women and the facilities that they are to receive, but they are not followed.’

An investigation carried out by him and a team of investigators in Odhikar in late 2001 reveals, various problems such as jail authorities demanding bribes from inmates, lack of medical facilities, and harassment of female prisoners.

‘One of the major problems inside the jails has been bribery and corruption,’ admits Brig Gen Mohammad Zakir Hasan, also the Inspector General of the prisons. ‘In fact, for booking a seat inside the cell, a prisoner had to pay Tk 3,000 – Tk 5,000 depending on the jailor. In order to get food and even water one had to pay for it. The situation was such that, the prisoners had to pay for almost everything. The ordinary prison guards would charge from around Tk 200 to 500 for allowing visitors to see the prisoner. So, it was sort of a deal between the jail officials and the visitors of the prisoners to pay the amount and get things done!’

Sufia Khatun (45) interviewed by the team of Odhikar investigators after she was released on bail said in just two months that she spent in jail, her husband had to pay about Tk 20,000 in bribes. According to human rights NGOs, such activities still continue in the country’s prison system.

However, Zakir is confident that 90 per cent of such corruption has been reduced in the Dhaka Central Jail due to the recent steps taken by him and a group of intelligence officials. ‘I agree that in the rest of the jails perhaps 40 per cent of such corruption does exist but we are working continually to combat these. I have personally taken up the task of employing intelligence to find out the corrupt officials and report against them.’

‘Most of the women are in jail for trading drugs or prostitution,’ says Alena Khan of BSEHR. ‘The rest are mostly from poor families living in slums, and have been indicted for a range of offences, like theft, kidnapping, murder, child abuse. There are also a great number of Nepali women.’

In her capacity as a non-government jail visitor, Alena has witnessed the state of women in prison. ‘There are very few social workers who actually focus or work individually on women prisoners, which made it all the more difficult to combat the problems they faced.’

Another problem highlighted by the officials at Ain-O-Salish Kendra was that although the Jail Code states very clearly that the female unit must be looked after by female guards, this is not followed. There is an acute shortage of female police officers.

‘The rule that a female detainee or prisoner will be overseen by female officials is violated. The result is that they are subjected to abuse and maltreatment,’ points out Akhtar.

According to international conventions, there are specific standards and provisions that recognize the special needs and circumstances of female prisoners. For example, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment recognises the need for specific measures to protect the rights and special status of women, especially pregnant women and nursing mothers. ‘Issues such as these are not recognized let alone implemented,’ adds Akhtar.

Although, women’s organisations consistently stress the issue of abuse and harassment, Zakir denies such allegation and assures that the state of women in jail has improved dramatically. ‘There could be exceptions but we have ensured higher security and protection for women. In fact we have extended various facilities like sewing, beauty treatment training and packet making to ensure they feel at home.’

According to Alena, the Dhaka Central Jail has a separate unit for women, but they are still vulnerable because despite the division, men keep an eye on them and jump on any opportunity. Hence, shifting women to a separate jail altogether, seems to be the only way out.’

‘If the plan of the female jail is well implemented, it will make a huge difference in the state of female prisoners. We are already seeing some improvement in other jails. For example the opening of the new day care was a significant step,’ says Alena.

‘In order to ensure that improvements are actually being made, we need to be allowed to step inside the jail at any time,’ points out Akhtar. She explains that the cumbersome process and the reluctance of the officials make it impossible for most NGOs and workers to investigate the current conditions inside these prisons.

Despite the improvements and challenges, the one thing that remains unchanged is the social attitudes towards women in prison. ‘If a male prisoners faces obstacles settling back to normal life, for female prisoners it is worse,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘They become the victim of this vicious cycle. Once inside the jail, they are harassed and outside the jail they are not accepted and looked down upon?’

‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her’ wrote Chris Tchaikovsky, a former prisoner and the founder of the international forum, Women in Prison.

‘The psychological trauma that these women go through is unimaginable. In fact, a majority of the times, it is seen that these women who are behind the bars, have their own story of abuse, torture or helplessness,’ says Salma Jabin.

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Yasmin’s legacy

On August 24, 1995 a fourteen-year-old girl was on her way to her mother’s house. It was a quiet evening in Dinajpur, when a group of police officers picked her up and assured her that they would drop her home safely.

A day later, her dead body was found at the roadside and the entire district of Dinajpur rose up in arms against the police and the local administration, forcing the government to take note of this incident.

Yasmin Akhter’s case represents one of the most shameful moments in Bangladesh’s history. The public protests ignited by Yasmin’s rape and murder made her a symbol of violence against women, of the violence of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless. But at the same time, public protest and women’s movement in reaction to Yasmin’s murder also became a means of social resistance to such violence.

Following strong judicial inquiry and police investigations, the three officers were finally arrested in 1997. Two out of three policemen convicted in Yasmin rape and murder case were hanged in Rangpur jail after midnight, nine years later on September 1, 2004.

The executed convicts were assistant sub-inspector of police Moinul Haque and constable Abdus Sattar. Their last appeal for life, the presidential clemency, was rejected. This was often termed as a beacon of justice served in a short time, the duration being almost ten years. Yet, the third constable Amritlal Saha, years later is still absconding.

Yasmin’s murder led to widespread protests in Rangpur – one police station was besieged by a crowd for two days. In the ensuing riot, officers fired on the protesters. Six people were killed and there were calls for the government to stand down.

‘An administrative flaw and our failure are visible when we see that we have not really done anything in case of those who were killed,’ says Farida Akhter, executive director and founder of UBINIG, a human-rights organisation.

For the longest period of time, the local police force tried to block the investigation in an attempt to protect their colleagues. Activists and lawyer continued to hammer on the case, until the officers were executed. ‘The lone fact that police officials actually tried to block the investigation and at several times created barriers for this justice to be served, is again a powerful indicator of how our society has been shaped,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad.

‘The departed soul of my daughter will now rest in peace,’ Yasmin’s mother Sharifa Begum had said to the media, on the day the two police officers were hanged. ‘I pray to almighty Allah to save all other girls from predators, including police.’

Thirteen years on, nearly two months back, August 24 marked exactly thirteen years since that fateful incident took place. Social and women activists strongly point out that, legally and socially Yasmin’s justice has not been served. Yet this year in Dhaka, National Forum to Resist Repression on Women was perhaps the lone organisation which observed the day with a public function. The press and civil society seemed largely to ignore the day’s significance.

‘Yasmin’s case was one of the most symbolic cases,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Yet, on a day such as this, there was very little done from the society or the press for that matter. Yasmin’s perpetrator is still around free and this fact represents the weak and ineffective judicial system in our country that failed to serve justice of this case even after so many years.’

Yasmin’s case remains to be symbolic and representative in several ways. For one, it was a case where those ought to preserve the security of citizens- the police officers were the perpetrators, secondly, the case also represented, as Ayesha points out, the weak and flawed judicial system.

‘After her body was found, it was easier to state that she was ‘prostitute’- reiterating the patriarchal society we live in and the narrow perceptions towards a woman’s respect and rights.’ adds Ayesha Khanam.

‘At the moment Yasmin’s case is at standstill,’ explains Advocate Zead Al-Mamun, one of the lawyers from Mahila Parishad who has been dealing with this case. ‘After the inspectors were hanged, following an appeal that was rejected, a warrant was made in Amritlal Shaha in that very year, as he had escaped. This warrant of arrest has been hanging till date- for ten years. It was the responsibility of the police to execute this, but unfortunately nothing has been done from that end.’

In addition to the fact that nothing was really done in case of the third criminal, Yasmin’s case also included the gruesome process of the police trying to hide all forms of evidences. ‘They even made sure the first autopsy report was false,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

‘The autopsy was first conducted by civil servants in Dinajpur- greatly influenced by the police, they concluded that Yasmin was not raped,’ says Advocate Zaed. ‘Later, a board was formed consisting of principals of medical colleges, it was then that her body had to be exhumed from the grave, and it was proven then that it was proven that she had been actually abused and raped.’

Further depiction of injustice in this case, was that those who had conducted the earlier autopsy and submitted a false report were not punished, rather released after trial, says Advocate Zaed.

‘We look at Yasmin’s incident from several dimensions,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘For one there was the issue of class, since Yasmin was economically at a more vulnerable position the police officers had the audacity to commit such a crime. A significant point concerning this case and in fact various others was the reflection of failed administration in our country.’

Akhter points out that the failure of Yasmin’s case has been also influenced by the ruling political parties; rather than keeping the case autonomous, as each ruling party changed, the stress and the focus changed with political interest. ‘One of the major failures for us has been the simple fact that we have not been able to keep this issue of a woman’s right irrespective of political power. In case of Yasmin and several others, the role of administrative powers – the way they looked at this issue and took it to the court was significant,’ says Akhter.

Apart from the fact that Yasmin’s justice is yet to be served, there are countless other cases of women’s rape and abuse that have not received due judgement or treatment. Even as human rights groups, over the past decade have championed the cause of helping victims of sexual assault file cases against their aggressors and the financial clout to carry cases through the courts of law, the incidence of rape seems to be phenomenally on the rise in the country.

According to statistics compiled by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, about 458 women and adolescents were raped last year while 201 were gang-raped. A total of 126 were killed after rape, 48 were burned and 125 women were victims of acid violence.

Experts point towards repeated cases such as Yasmin, where the perpetrator was again the police- those ought to ensure the security of a citizen.

On the afternoon of October 8, 1996, exactly a year after Yasmin’s case, an 18-year-old garment worker, Shima Chowdhury, was walking with her boyfriend, Abdul Hafiz towards the village of Majidapura near the city of Chittagong.

A group of police officers suddenly arrested both of them on the grounds that a woman may not walk with a man to whom she is not married. They were both taken to the nearby Moghdi police camp and kept for a day and then transferred to Raozan thana where Abdul Hafiz was sent to a cell and Shima was kept in the safe custody at the OC’s room.

Later that night, Shima was forced to drink something, after which she was raped four policemen. As Shima lay unconscious, the officer-in-charge called a doctor, after which she was transferred to the emergency ward of the Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

Following tests and dotor’s examination, it was proved that Shima had been raped which led to media and women’s rights groups attention. Shima was however kept in isolation and not allowed to meet anyone, and the officers claimed that she was a prostitute and had been raped by her own boyfriend and not by police personnel.

‘On October 15, Shima was again sent back to the ‘safe-custody’ at the Chittagong Jail,’ says advocate Alena Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights.

In January 1997, Shima’s health deteriorated and even after repeated requests by the doctors and lawyers, she was not transferred to the hospital. Soon afterwards, Shima Chowdhury died.

Shima should never have been in custody and, at the very least, she should have been released as soon as her medical condition deteriorated, says women’s right activists.

‘The case reflected the corrupt and the dirty system that so many women have been victims of,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘Once again, the whole idea of labelling her as a prostitute seemed to keep these officials away from any form of worry.’

On July 14, the trial judge set free all four policemen accused of raping Shima, as there were not sufficient evidence.

‘The irony of her case was the same as well, the police tried to save the culprit who was also a police officer. In fact the judge in the case herself stated clearly that the investigation was flawed. She also said that the accused, the witness and the culprit included only the members of the police,’ remembers Alena Khan. The case was reopened, through movements and protests. ‘Reopening the case meant running to so many places, moving through the years of procedures and so much more.’

Like Yasmin, Shima’s justice is yet to be served. ‘But, we will not lose hope,’ says Khan. ‘We have taken the case to the court and those who had been involved in this incident and had assisted the police officer have been charged and we are battling to ensure that at least they are punished. We cannot stop this fight- it is indeed a long fight, but not an impossible one.’

Indeed, the fight is a long one. Yet, as people point out the legislative, administrative and the whole social system calls for a change. ‘We have gone through more than a decade since those incidents, yet how much have we achieved in terms of a woman’s right – in terms education, economy, family and more, is a larger question,’ says Ayesha Khanam. ‘The patriarchal society that we lived in is still the same – the perceptions and the way the society has been shaped is yet to change.’

‘A woman’s right needs to be autonomous,’ Farida Akhter adds. ‘The administrative set up needs to be accountable and needs to be able to address some of the dimensions which cause the failure of such cases from being solved and also for such cases not to take place, in the first place.’

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Reeling into the cycle (with Sharmin Chowdhury)

There is a damp and bleak air within the hall that houses hundreds of female students at the Dhaka University. The long corridors lead to a row of rooms – each about 22 square metres in size and four seated. Apart from four beds the rooms are equipped with four desks and four closets. Most of the rooms are overcrowded, scantily furnished and damp. Outside, female students laze around at the open space throughout the afternoon some chatting away about the recent fashion and films, some hide themselves within the textbooks, and others chat on their cell phone. Inside the hall, at the far end of the corridor, is the room where about three months ago, a student hanged herself from the ceiling fan. ‘It’s still difficult to walk past that room where Sandhya hung herself,’ says a student. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with the feeling that something that might have subjected her to take away her own life will spare me or so many of us around. When I take a step forward, my body seems to stand still and invade me with these sinking thoughts.’ While University authorities have rested on the recent appointment of four counsellors to help these students- the students and teachers seem to be still reeling in the aftermath of what appears to be the fourth student suicide in about eighteen months at Dhaka University female halls. ‘Even though months have passed by, its still gives me nightmares,’ says a student of Rokeya hall, one of the four female hostels at Dhaka University. The suicides of these girls continue to haunt their room-mates and after every suicide the rooms are usually abandoned and then re-allotted to new students who have no connection with the incidents. ‘That is exactly how life revolves around the suicide incidents in the halls of DU,’ she adds. On April 15 this year, Sandhya Rani Sarker hung herself from a ceiling fan inside her room at the Begum Rokeya Hall. She was a fourth year student of the Institute of Education and Research (IER). ‘She was so bright and wonderful, I do not know where she went wrong,’ says her friend, still disoriented. Sandhya, who hailed from Khulna, was found hanging from the ceiling fan at 2:30pm inside her room No 80 of the extension building of Rokeya hall. According to her friends, the door of the room was locked from inside and the reasons for her death was unknown and till date a mystery. Following her death, on June 25, Zohra Khan Progya, also a resident of Rokeya Hall, committed suicide. She was a second year student of law at the university. She was the daughter of Nazimuddin Khan, a teacher of Berua Alia Madrassah and resident of Azmatpur village in Kaliganj upazila of Gazipur, hall authorities said. Reports suggest that Zohra had a brilliant academic record with GPA 5 in both SSC and HSC examinations. A number of residents of the dormitory said that she was quiet and unassuming and did not exhibit any troubles. They said she used to talk a lot over the cell phone with someone for some days and suspected that she might have a love affair with a Hindu boy and troubles with that affair may have led her to suicide. ‘She returned to the dormitory from home on Saturday and was looking normal and the next morning she was found dead,’ whispers one of the students. The trend of suicides has been alarmingly on the rise specifically among Dhaka University students, the largest and the top public university in the country that houses more than 32,000 students. The impact of such frequent deaths has been felt deeply by the students and staff members. In the past five year, reports suggest that more than 11 students have committed suicide, nine of whom where women. This past month, following the suicide of four Dhaka University students in the Rokeya hall in just one and a half year, the University authorities stepped up to take a much needed and long overdue step – appointing psychiatric consultants to each of the four female dormitories of the university to counsel the students. According to the university vice-chancellor, SMA Faiz, the increasing cases of such suicides among the Dhaka University students, especially female students, had prompted them to appoint psychologists in the dormitories. ‘Considering the gravity of the situation, we needed to take immediate action and appoint psychologists in dormitories,’ said Prof SMA Faiz. ‘Usually any form of appointment requires approval from the University Grants Commission, but in this case we did not wait for the approval. We have already posted advertisement while the commission is working on the approval.’ Nine psychologists will be appointed for five residential halls, two each at Rokeya Hall, Shamsunnahar Hall, Kuwait Maitree Hall, Fazilatunnisa Mujib Hall – and one in Nawab Faizunnisa Hall. Over the past years, for these students, there has been only one psychologist working at the students counselling and guidance centre of the university. Recent steps suggest that there will regular counselling undertaken by peer groups trained by the team of counsellors. The university walls are now pasted with adverts and notices concerning this new initiation that is hoped to reduce the alarming rates of suicides in the recent years. While, this remains to be an issue of much discussion and anticipation, many doubt the effectiveness of such a step. ‘There are many dimensions to counselling,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, professor, department of sociology. ‘For one this sessions need to be effective and each student need to be given separate time and attention. To what extent can peer groups really make a difference in such cases is a major question.’ The environment and ambience of the hall itself has a major role to play in the well-being of these women, adds Hannan. Professor Nazma Shaheen, shares her experience of the first suicide case she handled as a house-tutor of Rokeya Hall of the university. ‘The first suicide case I handled was, most probably, two and a half years ago, during the month of Ramadan. A female student committed suicide by taking Marshal, an insecticide. She was admitted to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). I and the provost rushed there immediately and the doctors said that they wanted to shift her in ventilation. We were trying to arrange everything but by the time I returned, she had died.’ Professor Nazma Shaheen has seen some more deaths like this which have left her upset and disturbed. She points out one of the factors for such occurrences as the way in which a woman is reared since childhood in Bangladeshi society. ‘So far, I observed most of the families rear their female children in a way that their main aim is to get an established or wealthy husband. But there is a lack of proper guidance. Most of the female students don’t know how to handle the relations with their boyfriends; they give away everything and continue to do so before getting betrayed. Finally, they become so emotional that they think their life is finished; they don’t even share their problems with any one, and get into depression and end up committing suicide.’ ‘Most young women in Bangladesh suffer from low self-esteem. From childhood they are brought up in such a way that they become dependent on others,’ says Prof Shaheen Islam of DU psychology department and director of the Students Counselling and Guidance Centre. ‘So, when a relationship breaks, they feel ignored and insignificant. They take desperate action thinking that they have no other purpose in life. Other young people with similar problems often imitate such action leading to a suicidal tendency.’ Mehtab Khanam, professor, department of psychology, University of Dhaka thinks that the majority of the cases involve relationship issues, which seem to affect these students tremendously. She says, ‘One of the major problems with these cases is that they get involved in undefined relationships meaning they seem to confuse their needs. They hardly give any thought as to whether they can actually afford it in the long run. So, on one hand one partner gets deeply involved and the other backs of, it hits them. They cannot seem to accept such betrayal and chose to commit suicide as they see it as the end of their life.’ In August 2007, Sabera Yasmin Papri committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in less than two months after another suicide incident. She was a third year student of the Institute of Fine Art and a resident of room no 112 of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, who died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. According to the provost of the dormitory, Professor Tahmina Akter, she had found out from her friends that Papri had phoned one of her friends from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) campus at around 1:30pm, requesting her to save her life as she had swallowed more than 50 sleeping pills. Following this phone call, her friends rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was washed, a few minutes after which she died. According to her friends, Papri was in love with an MBA marketing student of the university and their relationship was getting bad for a few days. The incidents leave a detrimental impact on the other residents of the hall. The friends and neighbours fail to believe that their friends have taken their own lives. Dipa, a friend of Sandhya Rani Sarker, said Shandhya died the day after Pahela Boishakh, ‘she wore a saree on April 14 and looked happy all day during the celebration, it was so shocking for us when we heard she was no more the very next day.’ There is also the problem of adjusting to a new environment; as the residents of halls do not belong to the city, they find it very strange here and fail to adjust. At home they are under strict monitoring, which is not possible here, so they do whatever they want and get into trouble, points out a house tutor. Getting into wired relationships is seen as a major reason of girl’s suffering from depression. ‘Since the girls stay away from their families they do not get proper guidance, they end up having wired relationships, like Hindu girl with Muslim boy, rich with poor, young with old, and then start having problems in their families, and finding nowhere to go they become frustrated and commit suicide,’ says Mosammet Asma Jahan, part-time house tutor, Rokeya hall, DU. While majority of the cases, do point towards failure in relationships and being cheated by boyfriends as one of the prime reason for such suicide incidents, many also point towards the setting of the halls and the University itself. Over the years, there have been countless cases, where students had committed suicide due to academic reasons, financial problems and often unknown depression. For some, a part of the reason comes from the fact that being a student of Dhaka University means that the students take up their academic achievement way seriously. ‘Being a part of the top university means that you are one of the thousands who had strived to be a part of it and when you fail to live up to the expectations and standards its depressing,’ says a student of Department of Economics. On June 4, a Masters student of Economics Antu hanged herself in their residence in Paribagh after she failed to get a first class for four marks. ‘She had been extremely depressed over this issue and repeatedly mentioned how we would never understand why it meant so much to her.’ Sometimes, financial problems also lead the students towards frustration. Khadija, a resident of Rokeya hall hung herself supposedly because of financial crisis. She had an affair with a private university student; her family did not accept it and stopped supporting her financially. She then started doing tuitions. For some reason she could not continue her job and was suffering from financial problems. It is suspected that money-crisis led her towards frustration and committing suicide. ‘The setting of the university halls is also an important factor. The halls need to be improved environment and hygiene is a major issue to be considered,’ says Ferdous Hannan. There are also stringent rules in the halls. The gates open at 6 am and close at 9.30 at most. If someone has to come late, she needs to have late permission, if someone wants to stay out she needs to inform beforehand, but it is not very effective as there are too many students in the halls. The house tutors time to time counsel the students if they find them upset or see anything wrong. They have observed that the group counselling has not been very fruitful as it does not reach the students on an individual level. Recently, they have brought in Prof Sadeka Halim, Dr Mehtab Khanam, Dr Shaheen Islam (counsellor) and many more to have discussions with the students. Most of the suicides seem to have taken place in Rokeya hall. Being the largest one with around 1500 students this hall has more risk of such mishaps than other halls. Though according to other hall’s residents this is the hall with all facilities; there are single beds, attached baths and individual lockers, students of this hall has a greater tendency to commit suicide. ‘Maybe it is because of the influences of other suicide incidents that happened around them,’ says a tutor of Moitree Hall. ‘The mental wellbeing of these students can be greatly ensured through the improvements made in the hall and identifying the problems that they go through- independent lifestyle, politics, academic pressure, family problems and much more,’ says Hannan. Many feel that the sudden freedom that these women get is also a major factor. It is understood that the innocent village girls struggle to cope with the city life here, sometimes get entangled in problems, make mistakes and do not share and this in turn push them to harm themselves at the end of the day. ‘Communicating, with friends and family no matter where you live is very important,’ says a student. The students also think that it is important to have control over your desires. Imu a resident of Shamsunnahar hall said, ‘Friendship is something that can help you out of all sorts of trouble. If we see any of our friends upset, we’ll make her smile by hook or crook, but those who stay aloof, cannot really fight with the odds around here.’ Dipa said, ‘A father whose daughter committed suicide after being pregnant wrote a letter to us saying that her daughter could have shared that with her parents, because she meant a lot to them, but his daughter did not dare to share her mistake since she thought she made the ultimate mistake of her life. Her father also suggested us not to do any of the stuff like his daughter did.’ Whatever the issues maybe, the situation calls for desperate help. While counselling is a step forward to improving the situation there is also a need for proper examination, individual attention given in making psychological well-being a part of the over all system.

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Walking the talk on gender parity

There have been major turns of the table this past month. On the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8, when the military-controlled interim government tabled the National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) 2008, it may have seemed to be a timely and appropriate step to some. But, the mention of the contents of the policy triggered a sequence of events which have had a counter-productive effect. For one, the legitimacy of the incumbents in introducing such a policy has been questioned. According to the constitution, an unelected interim government can not introduce any such policy, experts point out.

Moreover, important questions have been raised as to why the content of the policy had omissions and lacked clear and detailed issues that needed to be considered. Above that, the recent outrage of religious clerics and different Islamist radical groups, have given rise to suspicions of political machinations, say some women rights activists.

The state’s reaction to these objections raised by the Islamist factions on the top of that, especially the four advisers’ visit to the Islamic Foundation, to apologise and attempt to set up a ‘review committee’ have further raised questions about the credibility and focus of incumbents and the objective of such a policy.

In the past three weeks, the policy has been attacked in processions and protests by a section of the Islamist groups. Several thousand activists of different Islamist outfits staged demonstrations protesting the policy and demanding its immediate withdrawal. Last month, demanding rights of women as ordained by the Quran, the protesters demanded the interim government to do away with the policy or face tougher action, including rallies across the country. They also called upon ‘Muslims all over the country’ to prepare themselves for a civil war against the bid to implement the NWDP-2008.

‘The policy brings to life some of actions and beliefs of the State,’ points out Farida Akhter. ‘When we had protests on the streets by women, police chose to hit women and stop them. Yet when other groups, who are undoubtedly anti-women rights, came on the streets giving religious excuses, we saw the State defending itself, justifying its steps, giving explanations to anti-women rights groups. What does that reflect?’ asks Farida, a women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantha Prabartana, a Dhaka-based NGO.

The Policy

‘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,’ announced Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser on March 8, this year.

The National Women’s Development Policy dates back to 1997, which was the result of long struggle of women’s movement in Bangladesh which indicated equal status and sharing of power for women in written document. ‘It was one of the major successes of our time, to introduce such a policy where major issues such as women’s reproductive rights and equal inheritance rights and more were included,’ points out Dipu Moni, Secretary, Women’s Affairs, Awami League and also a lawyer and public health expert.

Bangladesh, a country that is structured on and characterised by patriarchy till date, where despite all the progress of the past century, women continue to struggle for their basic minimum rights, a national policy is expected to look at some of the fundamental issues such as discriminatory laws, right to decision making, reproductive health rights and more. In the last one decade, there has been the constant struggle of women right’s groups to voice these very rights that are still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses.

Although the movement has made great strides in several ways, in adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality, they continue to struggle on certain issues. Despite all that has been achieved, gender parity is still a distant milepost, because of a specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day—which is a narrow and regressive, say experts. An example of this very narrow agenda has been reflected yet again in the way that the latest debate on the women’s development policy has been handled, say women’s groups.

A good example can also be cited from the undemocratic manner in which the whole NPWD, 1997, was changed in 2004. ‘It points out very clearly the difference between government rhetoric on women’s’ empowerment and the actual practice,’ says Ayesha Khanam, general secretary, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.

‘The omissions snatched away some of the fundamental rights of women, negating the role played by the movement,’ says Dipu Moni. ‘The same thing has been done this time and the fact that major issues such as inheritance rights have been omitted shows the political support of this caretaker for certain groups.’

‘We were not at all consulted,’ says Selima Rahman a former minister from the past BNP-Jamaat coalition government. ‘The policy needed to be prepared following discussions with the political parties and it reflects the many gaps in decision making. A sensitive issue such as this certainly required more detailed focus, consultation and engagement of everyone.’

The new policy has however, upgraded on issues such as education, a major tool through which patriarchy can be offset, says Ayesha Khanam. ‘We settle for less, because we cannot wait for the time when we will have a completely fair policy. We must settle with something. Moreover, the policy may not be radical as such, but it has shown significant progress and has been prepared in light of CEDAW (an international women’s rights treaty), of which Bangladesh is a signatory.’

The goals of the policy are social, political and economic empowerment of women who account for more than half of the country’s population. While much of the policy is similar to that of 1997 and 2004, the policy has a few highlights and also omissions on important phrases.

The latest policy suggests one-third representation of women in parliament- that is a proposal for a proportionate increase of the number of reserved seats and direct election to the seats reserved for women. ‘The parliament representation has been a major struggle for us and this provision for direct election of reserved seats for women is certainly a major improvement,’ says Ayesha.

‘What our policy had was the provision of monitoring and action,’ argues Dipu Moni. ‘Giving 33 per cent seats is putting a limit to women’s rights.’

The policy also states that the quota for women in entry level jobs in both government and private organisations would be increased. ‘Why did not we the see the employment of women this time when there was so much reshuffling and appointment of officials at the government level?’ questions Dipu Moni.

The preamble of the policy underscored the need for ensuring more involvement of the women in nation-building, especially facilitating them to contribute to policy matters. The objectives include ensuring equity between the men and women in every sphere of national life, women’s security at national, social and family level, and their empowerment in the political, social and economic fronts.

‘The policy also advocates the establishment of women’s human rights, elimination of discrimination against girls, ensuring adequate nutrition for them and providing enough support to help their aptitudes and talents to bloom,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

According to Sultana Kamal, former caretaker adviser and head of the Centre for Law and Arbitration, a legal aid NGO, the NWDP failed to mention anything about the UN CEDAW, the uniform family code, or the equal right of women to inherit property.

Unlike the 1997 policy, the present policy has omitted the word ‘inheritance’ completely. ‘This reflects the government’s standing and also justifies the fact that this policy is anti-women,’ says Farida. ‘The policy also overlooks the major issues concerning law, privacy of women and their minimum rights.’

‘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,’ Sultana Kamal has said in press interviews.

Indeed, the policy also lacks clear specifications of the uniform family code- through which women have equal rights in decision making, marriage, divorce, guardianship, reproductive health and property. ‘We asked for a woman’s right as a citizen and it was not against any religion,’ says Ayesha. ‘We demanded an equal platform for women as much as men, which is the fundamental right of any citizen in a country.’

‘Eleven years later, you would expect a much more progressive policy that incorporates stronger issues and that has not been reflected in this policy,’ says Dipu Moni. ‘There is nothing new in the policy itself, and, in fact, these commitments had been made earlier in the Constitution, in CEDAW, in the Beijing Plan of Action, the MDG and NSRP. For one, this government had no authority to even introduce a policy, and when it did it failed to do any form of justice to women’s rights and movement of several years.’

The protests, the content and the reaction

In the wake of the recent protests, many continue to question how the religious clerics were threatening street action, even before the policy had been made public. ‘Their claim was that the policy provided equal rights to inheritance, and thus violated religious norms and codes, even though the policy has not mentioned it at all,’ says Farida.

In section 9.13 of the policy states that it shall ensure equal rights to and control over all moveable and immoveable property acquired through the market. ‘This is a statement of the constitution of Bangladesh is not a re-statement of it or any advance. The constitution of Bangladesh cannot be changed by anyone group that does not meet the legal requirement in parliament,’ says Ayesha.

‘What else does moveable and immoveable property or resources received through market even mean?’ questions Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant general secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘The phrase “Bazar babosther maddomeh” is just a conspiracy against Islam. They just wanted to use a different phrase instead of equal inheritance right, the method to acquire wealth, which contradicts Islamic ideology and values. We are not going to stand any form of change in the inheritance laws stated by the Holy Quran.’

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 19, Equality of opportunity, subclause 2, it is stated clearly that ‘The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between man and man and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic’.

‘For one the policy does not even mention inheritance and even if it does, every religion supports equality. Personal values in religions are always applicable, but that does not mean that we cannot have a state policy that supports equality in all spheres,’ states Ayesha.

‘Through this new law they want to teach us what we know and practice before them,’ says Kamaruzzaman. ‘Is there equality between man to man in the society? Some men are rich and some have nothing, so where is equality? The idea of equality is vague, what we can do is to reduce the existing difference between man and woman. This step has been against Islam and all of the recent actions show that politically the state wants to show that we are not for women’s right but the truth is Islam does ensure women’s rights.’

According to some, such protests in the name of religion need to be ignored. Rasheda K Choudhury, the adviser on Women and Children’s Affairs, says 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,’ she said to the press, after protest. Legal experts had to consider not only Muslim women but also those of other religions, Choudhury said.

Why did the government even need to justify its actions, ask Farida, Dipu Moni and a host of other women groups, researchers, intellectuals and citizens. The four advisors visit to the Islamic Foundation, to apologise and attempt to set up a ‘review committee’ only raises further questions on the validity of decision-making of the government and more than anything else, it’s stand on women’s development. ‘We are to see what happens and when implementation of this policy does begin,’ says Selima. ‘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 to the press.

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Less than nothing (with Dyuti Monashita)

‘People have long forgotten that we are human too — with emotions and feelings,’ she whispers. Ten years ago, Towhida (not her real name) would have burst into tears, thrown her hands up in the air, but now she has accepted this as a way of her life.

As the days turn into nights, Towhida walks through the dark alleys of Mohammadpur, Shangshad Bhaban, Ramna Park and beyond — these areas are her source of livelihood. ‘Some days are rough. They tell you they will pay you for sleeping with one man, and when you turn up, you see more than one, sometimes ten, even thirty. There is no running away, no pleading, no escape,’ she says.

‘Even if I cannot take it anymore, I am beaten up and forced into it. But if I am forced into it, it won’t be rape because I am a prostitute — a commodity that has no right,’ she says, looking away.

Towhida has spent almost the whole of her childhood in the streets, often being molested and mistreated by the police, guards and all of the men supposed to provide security.

‘When I was raped by a man who took me to a dark corner in Ramna Park, I did not even know what it meant. I was barely eight. I did not even know it was rape. I just knew I did not want it and it hurt me a lot. I spent years in fear, and years in denying to be treated this way, but I was not spared,’ she says. ‘In the end, I just took it up as a trade — a trade that is created by society, the very trade that is denied by them. They deny us of the basic minimum right to be recognised.’

When Towhida rushes into Durjoy Nari Shangha, a sex workers’ association where they also provide a children’s day care centre supported by CARE Bangladesh, she is no longer a sex worker. Her six-year-old daughter rushes to her calling ‘Ma’.

Towhida’s eyes soften upon hearing that word. ‘I do not have an identity, I do not even exist. But at least I have this name.’

But like others, Towhida’s six year old daughter is an outcast, because she does not have a father. ‘Í do not even know what to tell her when she asks me about her father. How can I tell her that I am a sex worker and I do not even know who her father is?’

‘When she grows up and learns about my work, she might hate me and say that I am bad. Yes, I am bad, but at least unlike that man who left the seeds in my womb, I did not leave her. Maybe she will understand that. Maybe not.’

Towhida is one out of the countless women who go through this cycle every day.

Not a citizen, not a human

Based on the survey and research conducted by the government of Bangladesh and several NGOs recently, there are approximately one lakh sex workers all over the country. Yet not one of them have been included in the recent registration of voter ID cards for the upcoming elections. ‘Are they not the citizens of this country? If so then, go and ask them if they have been able to register,’ says Sultana Kamal, executive director, Ain O Shalish Kendra and former advisor, lawyer and human rights activist.

‘This once again proves that we have been denied of our basic rights, even the right to citizenship to your own country,’ says Hazera Begum, the vice president of Durjoy Nari Shangha and a sex worker who now works to help sex workers’ children to get into school. ‘We have not been able to register, because we do not have permanent address to give, a father or husband’s name to give. Was it not the state’s responsibility to ensure we are given that minimum right?’

According to Aparajoy Bangladesh, there are roughly around 15-20 licensed brothels in the country but the numbers of floating sex workers are alarmingly high. That segment is more vulnerable to violence and risk. A number of reports suggest that thousands of sex workers are killed every year in the world and even more are raped and beaten. ‘But in many ways, we find freedom as a floating sex worker. We are not subject to as much injustice as in brothels. There, money is taken away by the masters; we can never refuse on a day when we are not well enough. There is hardly any escape. Outside, had only the law enforcers themselves spared us, it would have been easier,’ says Hazera.

‘Not only are they not recognized, but also never offered the economic, psychological and social services they need. The criminal justice system only exacerbates the problem and violates the civil and human rights of sex workers in the process,’ points out Firdous Azim, member of Naripokkho and professor, BRAC University.

‘Sex workers are entitled to all rights that a woman has, or a citizen has, but in the law, there is no mention of the term or their legal protection and this is the root problem,’ says Sultana Kamal. ‘It is due to this that they are so vulnerable and their right to protection is violated severely.’

‘Instead of protecting the safety of sex workers, laws and law enforcement agencies are more often the tools of persecution. Social discrimination is also a kind of violence against sex workers, because it marginalises them and renders them isolated and defenceless,’ points out Azim. ‘The social view towards these women only makes it a harder problem.’

Legally trapped

The Constitution of Bangladesh declares that the state shall adopt effective measures to prevent ‘prostitution’ as a fundamental state policy, and there are various restrictive laws. ‘An adult woman can enter sex work by making an affidavit with a first class magistrate’s court or with a notary public that she is above 18, the legal age of maturity, and doing it willingly and consciously,’ Azim says. ‘But they have no right to solicit and ironically that is a punishable offence. How can they work?’

‘Sex work occupies an ambivalent position in our legal framework, where soliciting and pimping are considered criminal offences, but sex work within brothels by adult women is not considered illegal,’ says Shireen Huq, member of Naripokkho and human rights activist.

‘By not giving sex workers legal protection, the whole country is being subjected to health hazards and exposure of the sex workers to inhumane and degrading treatments,’ says Barrister Khaled Hamid Chowdhury, advocate, Supreme Court and head of law, London College of Legal Studies. ‘If you have laws, there will be stringent requirements. There will be more scrutiny, practice of safe sex, sex workers’ children will be looked after, the government will acquire tax, and activities and the health of the sex workers will be monitored properly. This will also lead to solving the issues of underage girls forced into the trade, women and children trafficking, underage pregnancy, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.’

Scattered, unvoiced, unprotected

According to A S M Enamul Huq, adviser for Durjoy Nari Shangha and a researcher in this area since 1995, there are currently 12 red light areas in the whole of Bangladesh. Ten brothels are located in Magura, Khulna, Bagherhat, Mongla, Jessore, Tangail, Jamalpur, Patuakhali, Douladia and Faridpur. ‘There have been interventions by various organizations to improve the state but the brothels in Patuakhali, Magura, Douladia and Faridpur are in very bad conditions because they are located in very remote areas, making intervention more difficult,’ says Huq.

Huq is the first person to work with sex workers in Bangladesh and has witnessed tremendous amount of improvement among sex workers regarding the use of condoms and hygiene. ‘A baseline survey revealed that the use of condoms by sex workers in brothels in 1995, the statistical number was 2 to 3 percent, but now, after intensive training and building awareness among them, the statistical number has gone up to 80 percent,’ he says.

‘The problem with Dhaka is that after all the brothels have been evicted, sex workers are scattered all over the city and most of them stay hidden in fear of the police and gangsters. Due to this, they are very hard to reach and as a result, are not exposed to any of the programmes or projects that are conducted. Thus the statistical number of the sex workers in Dhaka city has becoming increasingly difficult to find out,’ says Enamul Huq.

Sex work has always been a major industry in the country and the violations have been old age phenomenon. The eviction of the Kandupatti brothel led to a movement by Naripokkho, a historical extensive drive against Tanbazar was perhaps the beginning of a vocalised protest. But it was not the first case of eviction. Narayanganj’s cluster of brothels, the largest in Bangladesh, faced eviction in 1999. Nearly two thousand women with their children were forcibly taken to government run ‘vagrant homes’ where they were confined, while most managed to escape.

‘Our earlier association with sex workers in the Kandupatti brothel in Dhaka, which had been evicted a couple of years before, had led to the formation of Ulka, the first sex workers organisation in Bangladesh. Upon receiving the news of the Tanbazar eviction Ulka members rushed to the Naripokkho office. Before we knew it the Naripokkho office was transformed in to an impromptu shelter with over 40 women sleeping there, and a few more in our homes,’ recalls Shireen Huq.

Following this, over 80 NGOs and associations joined Naripokkho forming an alliance in support of the rights of sex workers. ‘For the next five weeks it turned into a 24 hour operation. We were together, strategising, mobilising, facing journalists, holding street protests, demonstrating in front of different government offices including that of the inspector general of police, meeting UN officials and handing over a formal communication for the high commissioner for human rights,’ says Huq.

‘It was a very challenging task to get everyone together and form a strong network. We are now a collective force of 29 separate networks of sex workers. Our objective from the very beginning was to deal with burning issues such as rights, particularly the right to vote and be recognized as the citizens of Bangladesh. Also to stop deprivation and bring an end to physical and mental abuse that sex workers are subjected to by police and gangsters,’ says Momtaz, the first sex worker to have protested and formed an association in Bangladesh.

Like others, Momtaz has her own share of hardships. ‘I had three sisters, one of whom has passed away. When we were little, my mother was driven into the arms of a very bad man by the torments of my stepmother. The man promised my mother a good job so that she could support herself and her four daughters. Instead, she was tricked and sold to a brothel in Shonagachhi.’

‘When our father found out, he rescued my mother and the four of us. But the fellow villagers would not let us stay. They forced us out. Our father took us to our maternal uncle’s house but they threw us out as well. Not having anywhere else to go, our father took us to a brothel in Jessore and all five of us, including our mother became sex workers.’

‘Once you are in this trade, there is no way out,’ says Hazera. ‘If I walk away from this trade, will the society accept me? Will anyone marry me, will they let me survive?’

But the challenges are many and achievements very few. ‘Their profession needs to be legalised first,’ says Sultana Kamal.

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Where is a woman’s right?

RAMSEY Clark, a former US attorney general, once said: ‘A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.’ On International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to women and their struggle for their basic human rights, Clark’s statement seems to fall apart. The Bengali society, in our country today, is structured on and characterised by patriarchy, where despite all the progress of the past century, the ‘king’ – be it the head of the family or group or even symbolically the state – can do no wrong, and women continue to struggle for their basic minimum rights. Women’s Day is till date a singular attempt to recognise the fundamental right of a woman and the need for change in our inherent social norms that further isolate a woman from her right to protection, freedom and decision making.

In Bangladesh, it is no small feat that women’s rights organisations are putting up a fight and their efforts have brought many changes in the last decade. But it is also a fact that in certain aspects of public and private life a woman is still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses.

This very week, 16-year-old Rozina from Mahimaganj of Gaibandha was raped and burnt in her house by the man she addressed as Nana. She later died of her burn injuries at Gaibandha Sadar Hospital. Thousands of cases like Rozina’s raise the important question of why, despite repeated attempts, women are still unsafe, equally, whether on the streets or at home. According to statistics compiled by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, about 458 women and adolescents were raped last year while 201 were gang-raped. A total of 126 were killed after rape, 48 were burned and 125 women were victims of acid violence.

They say education begins at home. And yet, despite the lack of concrete statistics, there is a great body of empirical evidence in each of our lives that suggests that it is at home that most women’s basic rights are violated and, even worse: it is at home that women’s right to security is violated. More than anything the problem seems to stem more from our social operation rather than the legal aspect.

It is also ironic that the actions and reactions of the state – which makes ambitious and high sounding claims of gender neutrality – mirrors the way the household operates. The state is patriarchal as is the family. The lawmakers are men, and the decision-makers in the household are men. Badhon, who was molested after she had gone to enjoy the new year celebrations in 2000 wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes ‘late’ at night, was accused by the legislative and the executive of having called the violence upon herself. When a woman is molested or sexually abused by her closest family members such as an uncle – and there are enough studies to suggest this is common – she is asked to remain silent or, worse still, blamed because it ‘must’ be invariably her fault.

From a woman’s birth, our society moulds her with these very beliefs and values – that no matter how progressive a society may become it is the woman who must compromise, step aside, remain silent, burdened by clichéd concepts like ‘honour’ and ‘respect’ of the family and the state. When a woman in Bangladesh is deprived of simple, civilised prerogatives such as privacy in personal decision-making and even her own reproductive health, it is rather a tall order to try to achieve larger goals like property or political rights at this point. It is, therefore, not an understatement, to say that across the social strata, women struggle every day for their basic rights – their social, economic and legal rights are still distant mileposts.

Ironically, even when women are in strong positions, such as in politics with two women leading the country’s two major political parties for over fifteen years, women have had to put up a strong and enduring fight to retain their position. In the 2001 elections, for example, only 6 of the 300 elected members of parliament were women. The number was dramatically lower than that of the previous parliament in which women had held 30 seats. Ahead of the elections, we are yet again asking the same questions, demanding our ages-old share of state-level decision-making power, denied by the same arguments and same constraints.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly which almost one hundred nations including Bangladesh have agreed to be go by, explicitly acknowledges that ‘extensive discrimination against women continues to exist’, and emphasises that such discrimination violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity.

The convention gives positive affirmation to the principle of equality by requiring state parties to take ‘all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men (Article 3).’

In Bangladesh violence against women has, historically, been a focal point of the feminist movement. Violent crimes against countless women and girls have fuelled determination and faith in the international women’s movement that came into prominence at the beginning of the 20th century with the political activism of the suffragettes. Yet, according to Human Development report, among South Asian nations, Bangladesh has the worst record of rape in South Asia, with one in every thousand women having been raped. Cultural backwardness and severe poverty are cited as contributing factors.

It is important not only to mark this day with celebrations, but also to remember that the celebrations belie a thousand tragedies that take place through the rest of the year.

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Married to fate

‘She had told me so many times,’ mutters the woman in her early 60s. There is barely any expression of pain on Hazera’s face or in her voice. Often she repeats the same things about her daughter and at other times, she chants, ‘She had told me so many times: “Ma, he never looks at my face. Ever since we got married, he has never looked at me. It is as if I were a curse — as if I were wrong.” I just thought everything would be fine.’

In 2001, when Hazera’s twenty-six year old daughter, Shahida Sultana Lovely was taken to the USA by her older sister, her mother had thought it would change their lives for good and also give her daughter a wealth of happiness —marriage with a green card holder, an apartment, a settled life in the US and financial support.

‘We had gone through so much. My husband is dead and my sons are all settled, I had put all my hopes on Shahida supporting me,’ says her mother. ‘She had told me, she was beaten up by her husband. She had told me that whenever she spoke of getting the citizenship papers signed, he would hit her and create chaos. I thought she would pull through and be fine. But I was wrong.’

A few days before her murder, Shahida had called home for the last time. ‘Ma, I need to speak to you and you need to listen to me for once,’ she had said in low whispering voice.

‘It was Eid day,’ remembers Hazera. ‘I needed to pray; she promised she would call me back and tell me what was wrong, but she never did. And the next time I got a call from the US, it was tell me that my young daughter had died.’

Almost a month after the brutal murder of her daughter by her husband Solaiman, Hazera Khatun is yet to find that the feelings of loss and guilt have sunk in. ‘I do not know why she was killed. I do not know why this happened.’

On the morning of December 22, just a few days after that conversation with her mother, Shahida was stabbed to death by her husband, while she was asleep in her apartment at Queens’ Jamaica in New York, 10,000 miles away from her mother’s house in Rajshahi. Her four-year-old daughter, Tasnia Zenifar, now under the custody of her aunt, was found sleeping peacefully beside her.

‘Shahida was always ambitious and wanted to make it big,’ says her cousin Habibur Rahman. ‘She never mentioned any problem and the death was so sudden. The last time I spoke to her she was talking about finding a job as a nurse.’

Shahida grew up in Jotgosai village in Godagari upazila, Rajshahi. After her father’s death, the family suffered financial problems. In 1996, her older sister Ferdousi Begum, moved to the USA with her husband and children.

Meanwhile, Shahida had to look after her mother, and after completing a diploma in nursing, she worked for a while at the Islami Bank Hospital.

‘Her older sister took her to the US with a visit visa and Shahida was confident that she would get a job,’ says Habibur. It was her khalu (maternal aunt’s husband) who worked as a driver in New York who suggested that Shahida should get married to Solaiman, a green-card holder, originally from Chittagong. This meant Shahida would not only have a settled life, but also acquire American citizenship. ‘Khalu organised the wedding and we hoped she would be happy.’

‘We had no idea what he did,’ says Shahida’s mother. Even after six years of marriage, Shahida did not know her husband’s occupation. ‘As she told us that he never spoke or looked at her, we just assumed that he was the conservative and silent type,’ explains Habibur. ‘Besides, she never spoke of any serious problem other than the occasional row.’

While her statements to her mother and reported comments by neighbours show that Shahida was unhappy throughout her marriage, what led to that incident that morning died with Shahida. Her husband, now in custody, admitted he had killed her but refused to give any reasons.

Needless to say: Shahida’s case is not an isolated one. Her murder once again, indicates that women like her need desperate help. Since the mid 1960s and ‘70s a significant chunk of migrants have settled in countries such as the US, the UK and other parts of Europe.

While migration is often presented as beneficial for South Asian individuals, it can pose specific problems for women, particularly uneducated women, struggling to learn a new language and adapt to a new environment. Over the years, forced marriage has become one of the most prevalent problems. Women, like Shahida, are being married off to men abroad and end up badly, isolated, tortured or dead.

Apart from forced marriage cases, there are countless cases, most of which are unreported, of not just murder and domestic violence, but also cases where women find it increasingly difficult to cope with the new surroundings. That domestic violence and torture is prevalent in Bangladesh and all across the world, is a fact. But what makes it more difficult for women like Shahida, is the fact that they are miles away from home, in a completely foreign country.

For one, most often their husbands are not supportive or are completely different than they had expected and secondly, once they are subject to any kind of abuse or are frustrated, they have no where to go or do not know how to deal with it.

‘Most Asian men marry from back home, because they need a maid or because their parents want them to,’ writes Nazia Saman, a student of law at SOAS in England.

Most reported cases, show few significant reasons- most Bangladeshi and Asian women do not know the language well and as a result, they cannot speak up or communicate in any way and seek help or even support from others. Secondly, most often, such marriages are arranged by parents, rather than the couples themselves.

‘My husband married me because his parents wanted him to,’ says twenty-six year old Tasmin Mahnaz (name changed) ruefully. ‘He also needed a maid- someone who could keep his house clean and entertain him when his white girl-friend was away.’

At twenty-two, Tasmin had dropped out of university in Dhaka and married. Her in-laws had assured her that she could complete her education abroad. ‘I had met my husband twice before marriage and he seemed to be willing to work on a marriage and be understanding and all of that was so deceiving.’

Even though Tasmin was well-educated and had good command over her English and was well aware that she cannot take the torture, it took her three years to walk out of that marriage. ‘I had always stood up against abuse and all sorts of torture inflicted upon those around me, but when it came upon me— I did not know what to do,’ she says fighting back tears. ‘He had the scariest temper and when I spoke back, he would hit me and torture me in all sorts of ways. When I wanted to walk out of the marriage, he would promise me, he would never repeat it, so that I gave him another chance.’

‘I waited for the longest time for him to change,’ says Tasnim, who left Canada a year ago and came back to Dhaka. ‘I also wanted to make sure my parents do not suffer because of me. My father is a heart patient and my mother has been ill —the last thing I wanted to do, is see them hurt and suffer. And more than anything else, I did not want a broken marriage.’

Despite such cases, there are increasing numbers of people going abroad each year and a high number of women are married off, in the hope of a good future. ‘For some reason or the other, the whole idea of getting your daughter married to a man who lives in Bidesh is the dream of every mother in Asia,’ adds Nazia.

It is no wonder that in about 100 years America’s population will climb to 600 million and the white (European Caucasian) people will be a minority. A significant number of Bangladeshis, in fact, have been migrating to Britain since the early ‘60s. According to the 2001 census there are around 282,000 Bangladeshis in Britain. Of these, 46 per cent were born in Britain and half of these migrants live in London, but there are many in the West Midlands and north-west of England. Almost 40 per cent are under 16.

There have been countless women’s campaigns, many of which have enjoyed great prominence, especially in the UK. Monica Ali’s best-selling novel, Brick Lane, which was recently adapted for the screen, is among the few attempts to show the lives of such women.

According to researchers and experts, much of this problem lies in the social structure and beliefs in countries like Bangladesh. ‘Being able to marry off a daughter to a man who has foreign citizenship and a settled life is a blessing,’ says Promila Rahman, a mother of two young girls. ‘Most often proposals such as these are hard to get and who wants to miss an opportunity like that? Going abroad and being settled is not an easy thing, is it?’

‘Points of view such as these within the social framework has been damaging,’ explains Sara Hossain, a lawyer with Dr Kamal Hossain and Associates. ‘The quality of a woman’s existence is not taken into consideration. The problem lies in the fact that there is so much control over the rights and choices of a woman. We are not against the concept of arranged marriage, but the marriage needs to take place on the basis of mutual agreement and respect. Moreover, the woman must be able to adapt herself to the new environment and for that she needs to be old enough and also facilities need to be provided for her, so that the transition is as smooth as possible.’ Sara cites international Human Rights law where ‘the Individual’s Right to Decide If, When and Whom to Marry’ is clearly stated. ‘This is not reflected in countless marriages in Bangladesh,’ she laments.

In 2006, a 22-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Musammat Mumtahana, hanged herself, 5,000 miles away in her husband’s house in Birmingham in the UK. Her final act before taking her own life was to kill her own sons — Reheem, aged two, and Nahim, aged one. According to reports, neighbours had heard her crying and screaming after rows with her husband, who often did not return home after work until the early hours of the morning. She spoke little English and seemed to have difficulty in coping with her surroundings. Her death left the British-Bangladeshi community in shock.

‘But we wanted her to live in happiness and peace, to never be poor again,’ said her mother, Mahmuda, to the Guardian newspaper, days after her death. ‘London is the kingdom of dreams —how could we know she would not find peace there?’

‘One of the major problems is the parents’ lack of awareness,’ points out Ayesha Khanam, general secretary of Mohila Parishad. ‘There are various factors that have led to such incidents —poverty, the need for security, a lack of literacy and, of course, the ownership of a woman’s decision.’

Mohila Parishad, a women’s rights organisation has about 500 legal aid cells across the country. ‘At the moment, we are focusing on increasing public awareness to change attitudes of parents and young people,’ explains Ayesha.

For centuries, arranged marriages have been a social norm in Asia especially in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Research suggests that the trend of marrying off daughters to men living abroad, despite the dangers, is on the rise.

‘It is a transnational issue,’ says Sara. ‘As soon as a woman moves abroad for marriage or otherwise, there are two states involved. It is here that we come across important issues such as language, rights extended to this person and also the question of who’s responsibility it is to ensure protection and support.’

Indeed, one of the major problems that is yet to be addressed is that of language, in cases like that Mumtahana’s, where proficiency in language or some form of assistance in communication may have helped her to solve her problems. ‘It is the responsibility of that state to ensure that translation facilities are provided, so that when such problems occur, they can speak up and also know where to go to find respite, instead of living with it or ending it right there.’

Britain’s Race Relations Act, for example, simply says that every member of the community is entitled to access the public services. The Human Rights Act only requires translation if someone is arrested or charged with a criminal offence. ‘So, what does a woman do, if she is isolated or experiencing domestic abuse? How does she communicate?’ writes Fareeha Khan, a UK resident and student of Sociology.

‘We need to not only look at marriages that are being approved but also make sure the embassies play a role in the protection of these women,’ points out Sara Hossain. ‘The British government’s policies are in line with the assistance of such women; other countries need to follow suit. Often, when a woman needs assistance, because she does not have legal citizenship, she needs the signature of her husband, in order to file a case. Policies must be such that the woman knows that this is not the end and that she can find a way out.’

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s recently formed Forced-Marriage Unit has indeed been a significant step. According to the FCO website, over 1,250 British nationals have been victims of forced marriage since 2000 and on average the FCO’s Consular staffs abroad help, rescue and repatriate around 200 people a year. The Forced Marriage Unit reportedly handled 90 immigration-related forced-marriage cases in 2006 alone. The Consular staffs of the British High Commission in Bangladesh are informed of and intervene in around one case per week of a forced marriage of a British national in Bangladesh.

Evidence suggests that these cases are also prevalent in middle-class and upper-middle-class families. More recent cases of educated women being tortured or killed by their husbands throw further light on the fact that the issue is more widespread than thought to be. ‘There are extraordinary characters, who have fought through and some who have managed to step out of the marriage, and regain their existence,’ says Sara.

Over the years, campaigns for the protection of women have gained significant momentum. Organisations such as the London-based South Hall Black Sisters have invariably stood tall and made themselves heard. Meanwhile communities in the UK struggle to ensure that they work together to prevent such issues. ‘Inside the community, more and more Bangladeshis are working on welcoming newcomers and their wives. Although most often, when there are rows or evident problems among the couple, it is normal not to get involved as it is deemed to be a ‘personal matter’. However, there are families who come forward to help resolve such issues,’ writes Aftab Hossain in an email to New Age, a student of journalism at Greenwich University, who has lived in central London for over nine years.

‘We need more visible campaigns and adverts,’ suggests Sara. There needs to be posters and adverts that brief women on what to do when such incidents occur and also how to help themselves.’

In all, the social view that a marriage abroad brings happiness is not necessarily a wise step, especially when the woman concerned has little or no idea as to how she will end up. The control over women’s decision of marriage hence needs to be reduced, if not prevented. ‘It could be that Hazera’s daughter could have been happier with someone living here but someone not all that well off. Her parent needed to look at her happiness and more than anything else, her security,’ adds Sara.

While, the issue needs to be addressed nationally and awareness needs to be widespread, there is also a need to have some form of transnational agreement, upon which, a woman or a man who migrates abroad, can expect support, protection and security, from the foreign state. So, the next time an Asian woman seeks help, she is not asked to leave the country or get her husband’s signature, as she is not a citizen. So that, the next time, another woman, does not die a lonely death.

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And the pain lingers on…

Violence against women cuts across social and economic situations and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world – so much so that millions of women consider it a way of life.

— Cate Johnson

As darkness descends and silence surfaces, she shuts every window of her room. She bolts the door from insider and switches on the light – it won’t be switched off until morning. Then she goes to the bathroom, sits on the floor and turns on the shower. As cold water pours over her body, she scrubs every part of body. ‘The smell refuses to go away,’ she mutters, as tears roll down her cheeks and mixed indiscernibly with the bathwater.

This has been the routine for Tania (not her real name) for the past two years.

The family was ecstatic. Her uncle had come to visit them after a long break.

‘He went to Sweden when I was about nine,’ recalls Tania. ‘I had vague but unpleasant memories about him. He would make me sit on his lap and kiss me whenever he got a chance. There was something about the way he would touch me that made me disgusted and frightened. Once I talked to ma [mother] about this. She slapped me and said such a though should never cross my mind. After all, he was like a father to me.’

Seven years later when he came back, Tania had grown into a beautiful young woman. ‘The moment he hugged me tight, the memories flashed back. I knew what he was after.’

However, she could not talk to anyone about her fears. Her father had left them years ago and her uncle’s visit to their house meant they might get some financial support from her paternal family. ‘Moreover, my mother had started to like him,’ Tania says.

She tried hard to avoid him but he would always find ways to hold her from behind, bump into her, caress her and sometimes force her to sit on her lap. One night, as she went to the kitchen to get some water, her uncle grabbed her from behind. ‘I just ran out of the kitchen and went straight to ma. I knew there was no point in telling her but still I hoped she would believe me this time around. She didn’t. Instead, she said I must have done something; after all, he did not touch my sister. I went back to my room thinking something might be wrong with me.’

Her fears were not unreal.

That very night, Tania woke up with a start. There was someone beside her. ‘I tried to scream but he held my mouth,’ she shudders as she recalls the dreadful night.

She was raped again and again, for hours, by her own uncle.

‘It’s not a big deal, ma says. She says every girl is subjected to one form of abuse or the other,’ Tania says disdainfully.

‘It haunts me every moment, every day. Those images keep coming back and his smell would just not go away. Sometimes I blame myself and sometimes I blame everyone for letting it happen.’

Tania is not an exception. Studies show that around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way — most often by someone she knows, including her husband or another male member of the family or a man she has been close to.

The World Health Organisation has recently surveyed 24,000 women in 10 countries, including Japan and Brazil, and Ethiopia and Bangladesh. The survey report, titled ‘Multi country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women’, said one in every six women surveyed were abused and domestic violence was more prevalent in poorer countries like Bangladesh.

The percentage of women who had been physically or sexually attacked by their partners in the preceding year was 4 in Japan and Serbia, compared with between 30 and 54 in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Tanzania.

While the survey report indicates a significant incidence of sexual abuse – within the family or outside – there are very few cases that are reported. Moreover, little has been done to prevent such incidents or support the women who have undergone such physical and mental trauma.

Experts blame such inactions on patriarchy.

‘We live in a patriarchal society,’ says Farida Akhtar, executive director of UBINIG. ‘The sources of power and authority within the family, society and the state remain in the hands of men. It’s more like the power relation that we see between a rich and a poor country. The power relation exists between men and women. Men in this case hold the power.’

It is due to the traditional setting of society that such incidents continue to occur, agrees Sultana Kamal, executive director, Ain O Salish Kendra and a former advisor to the caretaker government. ‘In a patriarchal society, rules, laws and norms are all set by the dominant group, i.e. men. Over the years, society has come to a unique understanding – that is to be in denial over such issues, shirk from such responsibilities and blame women.’

There are countless incidents that show women have been blamed and further humiliated after being sexually assaulted. ‘Badhon’s case is an example of how the state and society chose to shirk from its responsibility and impose further humiliation on women,’ says Sultana Kamal.

In 2000, Badhan, a young woman, joined others in New Year’s celebrations on the Dhaka University campus, perhaps believing she would be safe. As she reached the venue, she was greeted with obscene remarks. At one point, she was almost stripped naked and molested by a gang of men, while the police and a host of others looked on.

When the case went to the court of law, the state and society revealed their ignorance about the basic rights of women. According to a BBC report, Joynal Hazari, then a lawmaker from Feni, said the woman assaulted on New Year’s eve was herself to blame for the attack. Moreover, Badhon was blamed to have worn ‘inappropriate clothes’ and ‘being out so late at night.’

‘When you see countless incidents such as these, you better remain silent. After all, it’s the woman who has to lose everything she has,’ says Razia Sultana, a 45-year-old housewife.

‘Our society has been shaped with certain beliefs and norms from which it refuses to shift,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, who teaches sociology at Dhaka University. ‘Issues and reactions such as this stem from the culture of silence on part of women. In many ways, we can say, when a victim is being blamed like this, it is society’s attempt to deny such crude facts.’

‘Since childhood, we have been told that women have to go through one form of abuse or the other,’ says Munia, a 20-year-old garment worker. ‘It is never even considered that the abuser may be at fault. I guess it is a part of life that we have to live with.’

‘Society’s attitude towards women who have been abused is appalling,’ says Farida Akhtar. ‘Most of the time, if not always, the woman is looked down upon, as though she has called such incidents upon herself. Not only does she endure the mental trauma but she also takes on the humiliation. So, it’s not the abuser who is answerable or under question.’

Justification for violence stems from gender norms — distorted views about the roles and responsibilities of men and women in relationships, adds Farida.

It is due to this long-standing humiliation that women take the blame upon themselves and often come to justify it in their own terms, say experts.

‘In most cases, a woman who has been abused seems to believe that it is her fault and that she has brought it upon herself,’ says Dr Omar Rahman, pro-vice chancellor of the Independent University of Bangladesh and research fellow for psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

According to him, about 95 per cent of the times, cases show that the sexual assault was done by someone in the family or someone close. ‘That is exactly the reason for the silence. Because, according to the traditional norms of society, the respect for family comes first. Hence, even if a family member abuses or rapes a woman, the woman remains silent.’

Although more recent and known cases such as those of Tania, Sheema, Swapna, etc are related to poor families, experts say there are, in fact, an alarmingly high number of cases among middle-class and affluent families and in almost all the cases, the victims chose to remain silent.

‘There is a preconceived notion that such sexual assaults only happen to the poor. It is through cases and patients who come to us that we see a significant percentage of the victims are from affluent families,’ says Dr Omar. ‘The prevalence of incest is also significantly high. Often, girls are abused by their family members when they are as young as six or so.’

‘Ironically, women living in the remote villages are more vocal about such issues,’ UM Habibun Nessa, member of Nari Pokkho and also a lawyer of the Supreme Court. ‘Women in villages and poorer families have begun to speak about it and share it with others. But this is not true in case of middle-class or affluent families. They tend to remain silent so as not to embarrass the family.’

‘The middle-class women, even if they are abused and tortured by their husbands or someone close, often chose to remain silent,’ agrees Farida Akhtar. ‘This is because she feels a greater sense of insecurity than a poor woman does. She thinks she has more to lose than a poor woman.’

Many rapes go unreported because of the stigma and trauma associated with them and the lack of sympathetic treatment from the legal system, say experts.

‘In fact, we do not even see statistics or research on issues because women often refuse to speak up,’ says Ferdousi Hannan. ‘Women who have experienced violence in their life end up having all kinds of problems, physical and psychological. They generally have miscarriages and abortions. Also, many of them display suicidal tendencies.’

‘In order to prevent such incidents, we need to ensure that every educational institute and workplace, be it in rural or urban areas, has a comfort zone for women, where they may speak up and not keep it bottled up. That way, not only will the families be aware of the truth but society will also know such cases are coming to light and being accepted, instead of being rejected outright,’ says Habibun Nessa.

Many agree that there has been a significant improvement over the past one decade. ‘People do see it as a crime and they are more sensitive to such issues,’ says Habibun Nessa.

‘Women have certainly become more vocal about such issues,’ says Sultana Kamal. ‘In the past ten years, there has been a great degree of women’s movement. However, on an individual level, at the core of the social system, we have in many ways failed to bring a change. It is the state, the laws, the norms that are made from a male perspective that need to be changed. The root cause and power play of dominance need to be changed in order to break this vicious cycle.’

‘Sexual abuse is always a harsh truth to deal with. Even those hear who comes to know about one such case or the other prefer not to delve into it because of the horror associated with it. For those who go through such experiences, they are scarred for life. Most of the time, women are unable to deal with it. Very few women actually come out of it, although that incident remains with them for the rest of their lives,’ Dr Omar says.

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Not just for men

Against the odds and the social norms that women in Bangladesh face everyday, an increasing number of women are challenging some of the stereotyped perceptions about women in professions typically perceived as unconventional for women.

We spoke to three women who have not only chosen daunting professions but also excelled in them. As they take yet another leap and make themselves heard, they share their stories of joy and desperation, struggle and achievements. Most importantly, they share their womanhood, which they have learnt to be proud of despite the odds.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

Aupar Ahmed, mountain climber

Last year, when a young climber came back after completing a 180 km trek at a height of 5,645m in Nepal at the Mount Everest Base Camp, it undoubtedly marked a place for women in adventurous careers such as mountain climbing.

‘It’s a preconceived notion that women are not good enough for this kind of physically and psychologically draining activity,’ says the twenty-eight year old, Aupar Ahmed.

‘Although I have been always enthusiastic about traversing mountains and discovering new places, I realised not everyone take me seriously- the reason being that I am a woman.’

Aupar was born in a remote village near Naogan, in northern Bangladesh. ‘Struggle was always a part of life,’ she says. ‘I grew up in a remote village where even today there is no electricity or transport – a place where life revolves only around the basic necessities and has a bleak future. My father was a farmer, so in terms of money, we were always struggling to survive; living hand to mouth.’

When a missionary school was set up in their village, Aupar finally had the chance to study. According to her, the times spent in school were the best in her life as she experienced the joy of camping. ‘There visiting foreigners who would conduct seminars and arrange funds for camping trips!’ she says. There is an unmistakeable hint of excitement when she speaks of camping during childhood. ‘Those were the best times—I experienced first hand the wonder of exploring the different regions of Bangladesh and in many ways discovered things about myself I never imagined were there.’

After completing her SSC, she moved to Bogra where she continued her education while staying in a hostel. ‘Living away from home in a hostel is always difficult for girls. For some unknown reason, people tend to treat us with negative prejudice and look down on us because we are single, unattended and unprotected. People, often tend to take advantage of our vulnerability living alone.’ Despite being pushed to one side, Aupar would escape from that life during weekends and reconnoitre, walk miles and wander around the hill areas. ‘Since my father worked so hard to afford our education, my parents were against the idea of focusing on these activities,’ she remembers. ‘That’s why I struggled to ensure that I strike a balance between the two.’

Her move to Dhaka, after her HSC was a major turning point, she says. ‘While waiting for my results, I joined the Agricultural Training Centre in Dhaka, where they taught me and at the same time provided me with living costs. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about agriculture—having grown up around farmers during my childhood, this was something I found extremely interesting.’

Six months later, when the training was about to end, Aupar began to worry. ‘If it ended I would not have been able to support myself. It was then that they offered me an extended package of training and funding for my education, where I studied Alternate Medicines.’

Besides these, in the middle of the work and studies, Aupar began to adventure in the hills of Bangladesh. ‘I spent a lot of time in Bandarban and the (Chittagong) hill tracts- these are assets our country can tap and we do not even realise that,’ she says.

In 1999, Aupar left the city life for 17 days at a stretch and covered the mountains across Bandarban. Later that year, a group of four climbers who were already in training with Aupar decided to go to Bijoy Porbot. ‘It was right after the peace treaty was signed. The four men did not agree to take me because it was too dangerous.’

Aupar, however, was adamant and she decided to go alone. The challenge for her, in this case was to find the exact location and also convince the army officials to let her in.

At various times, during this expedition, Aupar was stopped by army officials. ‘I would return to the nearest town or village, take refuge in the hospitals and get out early in the morning when no one would notice me!’ she says, giggling like a little girl.

‘My parents did not like the idea of me going around and would rather have me focus on my studies.’ She began living in the Bogra hostel again and finally got a job she could comfortably live off. Later, empowered by her degree in Agriculture and Forestry in Japan, Aupar started working extensively in forest development and tree plantation.

According to Aupar, the people living the hill tracts are the ones who respect her for what she is. ‘These people have different points of view from the people I have known. They encourage women like me to do better instead of pushing them back into their cocoons.’

Although climbing is not seen as a very ‘seemly’ activity for women in Bangladesh, Aupar feels women should work in areas like this and agriculture. ‘Our country relies heavily on this sector and only if women come forward, we can make a lot of difference.’

Staying off the beaten track

Salma Khatun, Locomotive Master

The hustles and bustles of Kamalapur Railway Station slowly gains momentum as one crosses through its corridors towards the platforms. As passengers, street children, and beggars push their way through the crowd, a young woman stands by the train. Among over five hundred men working in Kamlapur Railway station, she is prominent as the only woman who works as the Assistant Locomotive Master. ‘It’s difficult, being the only woman,’ she says.

Salma’s work begins from early morning and often continues on till late at night. ‘It depends totally on the duty roster—it can summon me at any time.’

Born on June 1, 1984, Salma grew up in Tangail with her five siblings. Her father being the sole income earner and a farmer by profession it was a daily struggle. ‘Nobody encouraged me to build a promising career in medicine or something big like that,’ she remembers. ‘It was about being able to afford the mere necessities and not be a burden.’

Despite the rough childhood days that she rarely speaks of, Salma was always a good student. After completing her SSC and HSC with good results, she joined Jaganath University to graduate in Biology. ‘I wanted to study Biology and wanted to become someone great, but I have learnt that many of our aspirations tend to yield nothing,’ she laments.

In desperate need of money, Salma came across the job vacancy for an Assistant Locomotive Master (ALM) with the Bangladesh Railways. ‘The requirement was for men only, but I desperately needed a job somehow, so I applied and amazingly, I was selected. Hence started a month long training and the end of my studies,’ she adds.

It’s been about four years that Salma has been working at the rail station that is witness to the rough life of the street children who take shelter in the station live. ‘When I see these children sleeping on these dirty pavements, I feel so empty. If I were rich, perhaps I would have been able to do something to help them.’

Being a woman has always added to her problems, says Salma. ‘Here in the middle of these 500 men, it’s needless to say that it’s worse.’ The woman behind the engine likes being left alone and allowed to quietly do her own thing. All her hopes, she says, are now pinned on her younger sister who lives with her in Dhaka. ‘My dreams are gone. They were shattered long ago,’ she says.

It may be little consolation to Salma but little does she realise that for all her frustrations and disappointments with life, she remains a beacon for women who dare think differently.

Flying high

Fariel Bilkis Ahmed, the pilot

It was at the age of twenty-one that Fariel was recruited as the youngest pilot with a private airline in Bangladesh. ‘It’s still difficult to for me to believe,’ she says with a smirk. ‘Unlike others, I do not think I faced problems as a woman. And that has been only because of a supportive family.’

Born into a family where education and careers were always valued, Fariel was motivated by her brothers who were passionate pilots. ‘My brother who is a lot older than me, was always like a father guarding and guiding me all along,’ she says.

Born in Rajshahi, as a young girl she was always determined to fly a plane someday. ‘But when I joined the flying club in 2004, I realised opportunities for men and women were not equal. While a man doesn’t even have to give fifty percent effort a woman is expected to try twice that much just to prove herself.’

So began the battle for this young pilot. Fariel realized early on that women in her profession are underestimated and therefore, the instructors held them back for a longer time. ‘My aim was to break through these prejudices. The best part was perhaps, the simple fact that I enjoyed the work and always managed to have fun.’

According to Fariel the wait during those days of training was only possible because of the moral support of her two brothers who were pilots at Biman and Emirates. ‘It was also easy because of Zahid,’ she says beaming. For Fariel, her life partner Zahid Hossain, whom she met during training, came to be a tower of strength. While still taking flight lessons, there came an abrupt break in her work as the Flying Club in Dhaka was closed for over eight months. ‘Those were distressing days. But I continued studying the theories and making sure I kept my spirit high.’

Later, she continued her work and was the first to receive a private license at such a young age. ‘That opened new doors for me,’ she says excitedly. ‘There was no turning back.’

Married to Zahid for a few months now, Fariel feels she has been blessed to have received support from her in-laws and most importantly her husband. ‘I think she has the rare gift of being able to strike a balance between a wife and a skilled pilot,’ says her husband Zahid Hossain. ‘She is just perfect and the kind of effort and determination she has is something you don’t come across every day.’

At the moment, Fariel is also completing her undergraduate degree on Environmental Management. ‘It’s really difficult to keep up both the activities. My job at United Airways requires a lot of time. Nevertheless, I know I manage them well,’ she says smiling confidently.

Dressed in her uniform and pilot’s cap, she emanates control and courage. ‘While flying— I am no longer classified. I am not a man to be looked up to, or a woman to be looked down on. I am just a pilot who has the responsibility of countless lives. That’s all that matters to me.’

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‘This could be a new home’

As the dawn breaks, Halima looks through the steely bars towards the distant and unknown roads. ‘I get to see the sunlight and the sky from here, yet I miss the darkness,’ she says ruefully. As she leans towards the bars, her six year old daughter Amina jumps upon her from behind. ‘Today, we will be cooking meat in our new home,’ Halima tells her lovingly.

There is an unmistaken spark in Amina’s eyes now days. ‘It’s perhaps the light, the open air and the big place,’ her mother wonders.

Their new home stands on eight acres of land situated on the Western edge of Kashempur. About an hour away from the city, Halima’s and a number of other women’s new home is the first female prison in Bangladesh.

A total of 21 women have been shifted to this new unit that has a capacity of about 200 female prisoners. Among this 10 women have been moved from Dhaka Central Jail and 11 from Gazipur Jail.

According to Brig Gen Zakir Hasan, the female prison unit was opened with limited number of convicts since the jail authorities did not get the approval of recruiting required manpower. ‘Besides, it will take another two months to complete the unit and it would depend on the government’s decision as to how fast they will pass our plans and approve the request for appointing more female staff.’

The women prisoners unit has been built on nearly 8 acres of land with a capacity of 200 prisoners. The estimated cost for construction of the female prison has been fixed at Tk 15.30 crore. ‘The structure and the construction of the prison itself are questionable,’ says a high-official of Prisons, preferring anonymity. ‘Following pressure from outside, it was in a matter of few days that the structure was built and the credibility of it is dubious.’

The prison which was planned in the early 1995 was extended till date due to problems of funding. According to officials, a large segment of the fund was in fact, given only recently and the prison was inaugurated hurriedly.

‘Our motto is to ensure their security and guide them to the path of light,’ says Zakir. ‘We are consistently working to ensure that the concept of traditional prison is changed. I personally want to ensure that we make these prisons a source of development and correction. This is the reason why the plan of this female prison consists of sections such as day care centre, beauty parlour, tailoring, handicraft and catering.’

‘If the plan is followed accordingly, this could be a live example and testimony to the fact that prisons are ought to be correction and development centres, rather than being a torture cell,’ hopes lawyer Alena Khan of BSEHR.

There are also two special cells named Night Queen-1 and Night Queen-2 for VIP female prisoners. These two cells will accommodate 20 prisoners. According to the Jailors Sultan, women will soon be cooking for themselves and also be trained to sew and make paper bags which will be sold.

‘All of the success at this moment depends much upon how fast government approves our proposal and we can employ the staff,’ says Zakir. He also expressed his disappointment at the delay on the approval and inefficiency.

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