To be free from gender-based violence, we need empowerment
Gender-based violence has historically permeated across our social mosaic. Be it in big cities or remote villages, women and girls have always been looked at through a gender-biased lens, in which they have been and still are considered as the inferior sex, always a step behind men—both in terms of their abilities to perform chores requiring physical strength or their intellectual acumen. It is in this biased attitude that misogyny has found a hotbed, and it is this social perspective that has normalised violence against women.
While states and governments in the modern world are trying to break the shackles that bind women to a life of discrimination and abuse—gender equality has been enshrined in the UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the nations are working hard to achieve—violence against women is on the rise globally.
Although women have better access to education, skills development opportunities, jobs, and entrepreneurial options in the cities, in the peripheries, the story is quite different altogether. These women and girls live in the murky shadows of male-dominated communities, with no possibility of access to education, let alone income generating activities. And often, these women perish in the obscurity in which they endure life.
Despite some differences in the living standards of the women in the urban and rural settings, one thing is common for the majority of them: violence, often at the hands of their family members—be it the father, brother, husband, uncle, cousin or in-laws.
Violence against women comes in many shapes and forms: physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and political. There are cases where women are subjected to marital rape by their "better half." Then there are those instances where infants are murdered within hours of their birth by their own fathers. There are incidents of women being tortured mentally and emotionally by their families for various reasons; then there are circumstances where they are not allowed to keep the money they earn. And of course, there are those classic examples of smothered female voices in politics, through intimidation, threats, character assassination, and stoking the ever-present doubt about their leadership capabilities.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Women are subjected to violence and discrimination day in and day out—at home and outside, at their work place, thorough state policies and institutionalised biases. At times, these are conscious acts, and at times just a part of social norms. Sometimes, they are done even in the name of cultural and religious practices.
The ongoing global pandemic has only aggravated the plight of women. According to a UN Women report, "two in three women reported that they or a woman they know experienced some form of violence and are more likely to face food insecurity. Only 1 in 10 women said that victims would go to the police for help." This is based on a study of data collected from 13 countries in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak. According to USAID, about a third of women have faced gender-based violence, which in numbers comes to around 700 million.
In Bangladesh as well, there has been a rise in violence against women. As per a World Health Organization (WHO) report, Bangladesh ranked fourth in the world in gender-based violence by intimate partners. Prepared by analysing data between 2000 and 2018, the report suggested that about 50 percent females aged between 15 and 49 have had to endure sexual and physical violence at the hands of their partners in the country.
It got worse during the pandemic. A Manusher Jonno Foundation study, conducted in 27 districts, revealed that 4,249 women and 456 children had to endure domestic violence in April 2020, during the government announced general holidays. The study shed further light on some grim social realities: of the 57,704 women and children interviewed for the study, 1,839 were physically tortured, 4,622 were mentally tortured, 203 suffered sexual violence, and 3,009 women had to face financial hardships due to pressure from their husbands.
A Brac report released last year suggested that in the first 10 months of 2020, Brac's legal aid services received more than 25,000 complaints of gender-based violence. In view of such a high number of formally lodged complaints, one wonders what the actual figures would be, given that many women, girls and their families shy away from making such issues public, let alone seek legal recourse, due to fear of social stigma as well as the hassles and expenses associated with the process.
Child marriage has also seen a spike in Bangladesh during the pandemic. Brac's community-based women's group, Polli Shomaj, revealed that in the first 10 months of 2020, child marriage increased by 68 percent, compared to the corresponding period in 2019. Many families, unable to bear the economic brunt of the pandemic, resorted to marrying their daughters off at an early age. But with child marriage comes marital rape, adolescent pregnancy, forced labour, and at times, even death.
The death of Nurnahar—a 14-year-old girl from Tangail—last year, due to excessive genital bleeding as a result of persistent marital rape and a lack of access to medical help is still raw in our memories. The girl's family, reeling from pandemic-induced economic hardships, gave her in marriage to a 34-year old man named Rajib.
The girl bled from the first night of her marriage, and despite the constant bleeding, her husband kept forcing himself on her. She was taken to a kobiraj by her in-laws; they did not allow her medical help. Later, as her condition kept deteriorating, as a last resort, she was taken to a local clinic and finally to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). But she succumbed to her internal injuries a few days later. Her mother-in-law later alleged that she had been possessed by demons, which caused her genital bleeding.
Nurnahar is just one of the many young girls who are considered an economic and social burden by their families, and married off early to wash their hands off of unwanted responsibilities. While this case came to prominence, many more girls have died as a direct result of child marriage—during childbirth, due to torture and domestic violence, suicide—without us ever knowing about them.
Gender-based violence is not just a minor social problem; it's a malady, an endemic, a pandemic itself. It is eating at the heart of all the progress mankind has made. And it has economic implications too: USAID suggests that gender-based violence has been estimated to cost the world more than five percent of global GDP.
However, it is not a problem that can be addressed with a one-dimensional solution. The governments, including ours, need to adopt a multi-pronged approach to address this crisis: awareness, education, and sustainable empowerment.
On the one hand, the governments need to work towards changing the gender bias of the patriarchal societies we live in through mass awareness campaigns, celebrating the innate resilience, energy, and contributions of women—especially the rural women who toil day and night to support the men in their families in their income-generating activities, including farming, animal husbandry, poultry rearing, among others. On the other hand, the governments need to create improved access for girls and women to education, skills development and entrepreneurship training programmes, and then integrate them into mainstream economic activities by providing them with employment or sustainable livelihood generation opportunities. For women, education and skills development are mandatory, as without them income opportunities would remain unutilised, and thus empowerment will not be sustainable or effective.
To this end, the government can collaborate with the development actors working in these areas, in order to be able to enjoy the benefits of their tacit knowledge, experience, community access and best practices.
Empowerment is the only key to ending violence against women. Without this, no matter how many shades of orange you splash, they will be consumed by the bleakness of their lives.
To truly "Orange the World," we first need to remove the dark tint of the gender-biased lens of our patriarchal society and empower our women with knowledge, and the tools and means of financial freedom. Only then will we be able to ensure a violence-free future for our girls, for our women.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb