As my parents’ first child, I was showered with all the love and affection in the world. I could not have had a happier childhood. My parents bought me DVD’s of Meena, a children’s television show created by UNICEF. Meena, although a fictional character, won my heart and became my role model. She popped the bubble I had been living in. At the tender age of six, I was crushed by the epiphany that to society, boys are more important than girls. I will never forget how Meena helped the girls in her community. She raised her voice against injustice. Her boldness inspired me to be fearless in every battle I have had to fight because of my gender.
I grew up with the belief that I am not a subordinate to men, but an equal in every aspect. The birth of my younger brother did not change the way my parents treated me. However, at every family event, our relatives would dote so much on my brother that I would feel invisible. It was not enjoyable when their eyes were on me, though. They were critical of my every move.
Women in Bangladesh have it hard. There is discrimination in terms of education, employment, political freedom, contribution in the domestic sphere and so on. Out of the 144 countries in the survey, Bangladesh stood 47th on the Gender Inequality Index in 2017. The patriarchy and traditional gender ‘norms’ may have resulted from extreme poverty and high illiteracy rates.
Bangladesh is one of the few countries where the number of men exceeds the number of women. This is the outcome of sex selective health care and female infanticide. Many families, especially in rural areas, prioritise the health of a man over a woman. The prevalence of female infanticide in the Indian subcontinent, even in 2019, is utterly outrageous. In European countries, men are outnumbered by women, 105:100. In Bangladesh it is the other way around, with a ratio of 95:100.
Despite the notable rise in female employment, many women are still either uncomfortable or forbidden to step out of the house without a man. This is especially common in rural Bangladesh. The world is considered to be an unsafe place for girls, but why is it so? Who makes it unsafe? The criminals who would have been behind bars if it had not been for the weak enforcement of laws due to corruption in the system and societal tolerance. It is all so sickening. Cases of sexual harassment, eve-teasing, acid throwing, physical abuse and rape are brushed aside to avoid defaming the victim’s family. The tortured souls’ voices are muffled by society. The victim is a disgrace. Blame the victim, shall we?
While the number of rape cases doubled from 564 in 2001 to 1043 in 2004, Bangladeshi newspapers reported 1164 cases of domestic violence in the same year. The numbers have not shown any significant positive change in recent times. How foolish of us to think women are safe at home! Shockingly, some believe that a woman is her husband’s property and he is entitled to practise power over his wife.
Sometimes gender equality seems like a dream that will never come true. The 2012 Human Development Report showed that for every dollar earned by a man, a woman makes 12 cents only. The gender pay gap exists even today in a country as progressive as ours. Our culture and the traditional gender ‘norms’ encourage income inequality, discrimination when it comes to educating a girl child or providing her with proper health care, the unfair distribution of assets and deeming a woman’s role in the family as well as community insignificant.
Poverty-stricken families fail to educate all their children and end up putting the boy child’s education first, with the belief that their daughter will eventually have to be married off. But I do not think financial constraints are the only cause of this decision. I have seen financially sound families sending their sons off to prestigious educational institutions and not bothering about the girl child. They are happy to spend much less on their daughter and send her to a cheaper school or university. A family I know spent a fortune to get their son admitted to an English medium school, and spent almost nothing on their daughter’s education, sending her off to a Bangla medium school, establishing their unyielding sexism. Even if the girl is meritorious and possibly more capable than the boy, parents will send their son to a university overseas, and their daughter to the one next door. “She is a girl, she cannot manage herself without the supervision of a man, she can leave the country with her husband once she is married, it is mighty big of us to be providing her with a higher education,” are the excuses the parents made in their efforts to justify their prejudiced decision.
Why do you deprive your daughters of the love that they deserve? Why do you cut their wings off instead of teaching them how to fly? Once you start educating your daughters, their employability will be higher. She can be the breadwinner, give her a chance.
In order to protect women from sexual harassment and physical violence, on the streets, at work and even at home, you do not need a man to chaperone her, all you need to do is train her to be a physically and emotionally strong individual. Help her develop a self-defence mechanism. Teach her the martial arts, karate, perhaps. Let her unleash her inner warrior.
A woman is not merely a wife, daughter or daughter-in-law. She is as powerful a force as the raging storm. She has the gift of giving life. She can move mountains. Her strength will forever remain incomprehensible to men.
I hear girls my age share their struggles with each other. Their parents will marry them off without their consent. They are afraid their in laws may not allow them to work a full-time job, or any job for that matter. An unmarried woman is considered a burden. It is only marriage that can add meaning to her existence.
On the other hand, men get to be the decision-makers. They are allowed the liberty to decide whether they want to get married or not. Regardless of how unqualified and unfit they may be, men are expected to work and be the provider. They enjoy the title of the head of the family. Freedom and power are served to them on a silver platter.
It’s 2019. We need a wake-up call. This cannot be the reality of the country we live in, a country where the most powerful and influential entity, the Prime Minister, is a woman, a country where the opposition party, too, is led by a woman.
Laws against child marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and every form of abuse there is, must be strictly enforced.
I am left with no choice but to borrow the unparalleled and unafraid Malala Yousafzai’s words, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Women must use their voices and demand equality. Instead of stigmatising issues, let’s speak up. Let’s empower women today. Let’s beat the odds by building a nation where every girl child is educated and given the opportunities that she is worthy of.
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Gender equality still a dream