Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


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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‘History needs to be rewritten’

‘WHATEVER I am today is because of those days,’ she says and remains silent for a long moment. Her silence seems to take her back in time. Thirty-seven years on, the memory of the guerrilla war, the moments of desperation, the struggles, the joys of believing in a liberated Bangladesh and finally being independent are still fresh in Naila Zaman Khan’s memory.
‘It was while caring for those who were injured in the war along with my mother Sultana Zaman and sister Lubna Marium that I realised I want to be a doctor. Because that meant no one could send me back from a battle field, that meant I could be within any combat to fight for my country,’ she says, seated in her office at Dhaka Shishu Hospital. ‘I was a first-year economics student at Dhaka University back then and I had never known I would move to medicine and become a doctor – but the war certainly paved my way.’
Today Naila is not just one of the leading professors of child neurology in the country but also one of the pioneers of child development centres and a campaigner for access to health for women and children.
But more than anything else, Naila remains one of the countless war heroes. ‘From the war, I also brought back strength,’ she says. ‘The war had brought men, women, children – everyone – together, irrespective of social status, background or anything. And in many ways, women were the true heroes because we had come to realise that none of the patriarchal forces could possibly protect us – we were the most vulnerable in the war and constantly targeted and brutalised, and suddenly found that we were on our own.’
In 1971, when the war broke out, the war heroes also included countless women like Naila. In many ways, in the mainstream history, the role of women is largely ignored, denied and misconstrued, she says. ‘Our history needs to be rewritten with the role played by women recognised and recalled – every battle, every guerrilla action, every escape, every heroic act. The recognition of all those unsung heroes is still due.’
‘Perhaps we should write it,’ she says. ‘Many of our women authors have written in the guise of fiction but facts in this case would be even more brutal, barbaric and dehumanising. We need to revisit those demons, i.e. the Pakistani army and their razakar collaborators, resurrect them from our nightmares into paper.’
Naila says she cannot control her emotions when she speaks of those days, yet she travels through those moments and speaks of stories of strength, of determination and dreams of a Bangladesh. She struggles to keep her smile, and fights back tears – often of pride and inexplicable melancholy.
‘As soon as the war began, we had to leave home – my father Colonel Zaman was a sector commander and joined the troops immediately. My brother had also left for the war. My mother along with me and Lubna, had to go into hiding,’ she remembers.
Throughout April, they hid in a remote rural area in Tangail. ‘We were constantly on the run – villages would be burnt or bombed one after another, and we would have to be prepared to escape.’
At night, while still in hiding, they would listen to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. ‘By June we got a letter from my father asking us to come to Dhaka,’ says Naila. ‘The next week, we wore burka and travelled by bus to Dhaka and reached my uncle Siddiqur Zaman’s house. Crossing the border, by then, was an intricate work and Waheedul Huq organised the crossing.’
The war was becoming only more intense by then. ‘My mother and sister would assist the refugees near the Jessore border in the Kalyani orphanage,’ she remembers.
It was then that Naila joined the young troupe of musicians, called Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Shangstha, who were travelling through refugee camps and ultimately crossing the border zones into the liberated part of Bangladesh at that time.
‘We sang patriotic songs to keep up the morale of people. Through that camp we had been to Delhi to speak of our work where Bangladesh was first recognised,’ she says.
By mid-October they left Kalyani and went to Sona Masjid where Naila encountered the fiercest operations to take place.
‘We saw brutal deaths including that of Captain Jahangir’s. We brought back bodies and buried them,’ she says. Naila, along with Dr Moazzem and her mother, set up an advanced dressing station, where they treated thousands.
On the Women Development Policy, Naila says, ‘We yet again face the same struggle for equal rights. In the inheritance law, for example, women are not entitled to equal property.’
For a woman who had contributed equally as a man in bringing to life this country, how does it feel? ‘It’s a fight yet again,’ she says. ‘We must get together and ensure that we receive equity in formulation of policies, in parliament, in local governance.’

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To the root of the problem (with Turaj Ahmad)

Syed has never been able to cope with stress, his family would say. At thirty, he is divorced; he has lost his job several times, had disagreements with his father and walked out of home. He has spent months trying to justify his own actions. He never wanted to be this way- always anxious and unstable. Like others, he had his own plans. ‘I had dreamt up so many things that now seem impossible,’ he mutters. ‘I have had difficulties in coping almost everywhere. It started from home to school, to work and turned out to be a never ending cycle.’

‘And everyone would say, I just need to be more focused, but my mind is not.’

All of this started very early for Syed. At four, his parents thought his anxious behavior were just symptoms of a ‘naughty and restless’ child. He had developed speech a lot later than other children and his parents only thought he would learn soon. And indeed he did. But, there were bigger problems that everyone failed to notice.

At school, Syed was constantly singled out- often labeled as a ‘problem child’. His teachers were tired of him- the fact that he could not concentrate, would become absolutely anxious, and often not respond at all, never made sense to his teachers. He was just a problem child and needed to be punished and detained after school for throwing a tantrum in class.

Syed’s story is nothing new. There are always those children who are just ‘too naughty’, ‘restless’, ‘problematic’ and more. But, increasingly, researchers, doctors and experts in the field of child mental health and neurology point out that the unusual behavior of some children are not a case simple ‘difficult’ children at all. In fact, experts say that many of these are cases cognitive mental disorders and neurological problems that develop from a very early age causing behavioral disorders in them. Left untreated, as a number of studies show, children, either have mental fallbacks or lack developmental skills and proper growth, and end up miserably.

When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide, point out studies at a later age. Indeed, untreated mental health disorders can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system and there are enough evidences to prove so.

These disorders develop from a number of reasons including child malnutrition, infection, trauma, deprivation and neglect and can often developed while the child is in the mother’s womb and is also related to the mother’s health. Left untreated, these functional limitations can lead to permanent disabilities, virtually impossible to treat at an adult age.

There are many disorders that a child can have from a very early age. These include any anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, any depressive disorder, substance abuse, pervasive development disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, Tourette’s disorder, any eating disorder and bipolar disorder.

This is where early detection becomes absolutely imperative. As the first National Congress of the Bangladesh Society for Child Neurology, Development and Disability (BSCNDD) titled ‘Improving Quality of Life of Children with Neurodevelopment Disabilities’ kicked off at the Bangladesh College of Physician & Surgeons (BCPS) last week with a number of professionals involved in the diagnosis, treatment, longer term management and rehabilitation of children taking part, it hammered home the points that neurodevelopment impairments was now a major issue in the country and affected many children which in turns bears a huge cost on the community, that early detection and intervention was necessary and that community awareness and medical expertise could only be spread through the active involvement of the government. Integrating child mental health in the overall health care system is now an urgent necessity.

The need for early intervention

The results of some of the research conducted by the Dhaka Shishu Hospital (DSH) and others shed light on the fact that early intervention can stimulate an improvement in the overall state of children with mental health problems.

A study titled ‘Profile of Child Mental Health: Problems attending the child development centre of a tertiary hospital in Bangladesh’, conducted by a team of doctors at Dhaka Shishu Hospital, headed by Dr Naila Zaman Khan, a professor of child neurology, stressed on the fact that mental health is an essential part of child development and neurodisability service. Better opportunity provided for early intervention in a multidisciplinary approach can result in better parental compliance for treatment of their children.

‘Children who are often termed as problematic at school, actually need help and support of the teachers the most and there is a desperate need for professionals to handle such cases,’ says Dr Ann Le Couteur, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, New Castle University, on her recent visit.

Steps need to be taken to identify which nutrients can help improve brain development and function during the early childhood and gestation, with the goal of improving cognitive development and decreasing neuron-psychiatric disorders. This is exactly what the study ‘The effect of early Human Diet on Caudate volumes and IQ’ by a team headed by Elizabeth B Isaacs, MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Radiology and Physics Unit, University College London Institute of Child Health, United Kingdom, showed- that human brain structure can be influenced by early nutrition.

‘Besides this, there is also need for special emphasis on caring pregnant women; this is also a crucial time for a child’s development. Specifically, in Bangladesh, we have a number of women who are not only denied the basic care during pregnancy, but they lack proper nutrition, mental support and much more,’ says Dr. Naila.

Why the government needs

to be involved

In Bangladesh, there are about 18 Shishu Bikash Kendra (SBK), a centre were children with neurodevelopment disorders are diagnosed and treated, the first being set up by Shishu Hospital.

‘In the past fifteen years a body of health professionals, including child neurologists, child care physicians trained in neurodevelopment, developmental therapists, child psychologists, psychosocial counselors and neurophysiologists have been trained within the country and in key institutions in the UK and other countries,’ says Dr Naila also secretary general of the BSCNDD.

According to the statistics, the number of children with functional limitations in the country adds up to approximately 50 lakh. The members of the society believe that the necessary resources to treat such children are available in the country, however, the presence of proper institutions are lacking, which is where the government must step in.

‘We have the experience and technology to reach out to the grassroots and therefore it is necessary to scale up services and set up child development centers in hospitals which we urge the government to provide,’ says Dr Naila.

‘The amount of time that goes into looking at one child is a lot and the whole process of breaking the news to parents who get to know that their children have challenges to face is also difficult and hence time-consuming. And that is why we need SBK centres at all major hospitals across the country,’ adds Dr Naila.

‘A proper place for diagnosis, a centre, is required with trained manpower especially in the rural areas of the country,’ adds national professor M R Khan.

‘It is difficult to differentiate between mental disorder and developmental impairments, and that is why it is important that for day-to-day clinical practice, there is a broad based assessment than just a single focus,’ adds Dr Ann.

‘Most often development impairments tend to multidimensional and complex,’ says Dr Helen McConachie, Professor of Child Clinical Psychology, New Castle University, who has worked extensively on autism. ‘You do not have a set of specific symptoms that will tell you that this child has this developmental or mental problem and hence it is important that there are programs that ensure step by step, friendly environment, with skilled professionals.’

‘It is also important to understand that it is not just important to ensure that only professionals work, but everyone in the community must work together,’ says Dr Ann. ‘In a country like Bangladesh, the risks are very high and it can impact the society. Professionals working with families need to be able to recognise problems of distress and disruption that children and adolescents face during development and understand the factors that are more likely to increase or decrease the risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties.’

The government response

The government is yet to integrate child mental health and bring it dominantly within the national system where by schools, centers and other relevant stakeholders will have sufficient expertise to ensure proper development and ability to handle cases of mental disorder and development of a child.

Zahurul Alam, president, National Forum of Organisations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD), pointed out that as a result of some flawed policies implemented by previous governments regarding rules of business many children with disabilities had been filtered out of the educational institutions with only four percent of such children attending schools.

However, he lauded the measures taken by the current caretaker government regarding the issue. ‘A big gap between the activists and the recipients has been in existence but hopefully as a result of the Convention of Rights of Children with Disability signed in December 2007 which will come into effect soon, this gap will be bridged and disabled children will come through,’ he said.

‘Several hundred children are born in the country with neurological problems that make them permanently disabled,’ said Dr. A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, adviser to the ministry of health and family welfare. ‘There are two stings of support to deal with this issue that can come from the donor agencies and the corporate sector that is in terms of providing funds and of helping raise awareness,’ he said.

While dealing with children is difficult as it is, it is more so with children with functional limitations and according to the Health Adviser, only a limited number of people are aware of the facts regarding disabilities especially among the rural population.

The health adviser affirmed that the infrastructure in the health sector has improved while urged the BSCNDD to take a holistic approach to the task in hand. ‘This program needs to be strengthened to meet all needs to prevent neurological problems and it is important to institutionalise to sustain these services.’

According to Shawkat, the government is committed to work on child disability that is a curse for not only a family but also for the state. ‘Prevention is better than cure and therefore the government would look forward to receiving a proposal from the society,’ he concluded.

The way forward

The first National Congress of the Bangladesh Society for Child Neurology, Development and Disability was concluded with the adoption of the 13-point Dhaka Declaration to protect children from the hazards of early child malnutrition, infection, trauma, deprivation and neglect.

Dr Naila announced the Dhaka declaration with some other major recommendations: to set up Shishu Bikash Kendras in all major divisional and district public hospitals, training in multiple disciplines deemed necessary for optimum short- and long-term management of children with neuro-developmental impairments and functional limitations, and teaching of certificate, diploma and degree courses related to child neurology and development.

The declaration also includes transfer of advancement technology through national regional and international collaboration, updating knowledge and skills through seminars, symposiums, and congresses on a regular basis at the district, divisional, national, regional and international levels.

‘We believe that posterity will deem the congress to be a milestone for public health as our aim is to establish the need for child development centers across major public hospitals in Bangladesh,’ says Dr Naila.

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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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