Women’s rights in jeopardy

Qumrunnessa Nazly

On 8 March 2008, the chief of the present interim government declared a policy document on women development: Jatio Nari Unnayan Niti 2008. Even before this policy, we got two more policies on women development. The first one was adopted in 1997 and the other, in 2004.

The first women development policy was adopted through a comprehensive participatory approach and was welcomed by all the relevant groups including women’s rights activists of the country as a progressive policy document. In 2004, the successive government declared a new policy document, they said, on women development, named Jatio Nari Unnayan Niti 2004.That policy of 2004 was rejected by women’s rights activists of the country, as the document restricted the space for women’s rights and empowerment, and they continuously demanded for the replacement of the policy of 1997.

In the situation, prima facie, the declaration of a new women development policy which can be termed as the replacement of the policy of 1997 with few exceptions in specific areas came as a good sign of the intention of the government and at the very first hour of its declaration, the progressive groups welcomed the initiative.

Some of the positive inclusions in the latest policy are: five months long maternity leave, reservation of one third seats of the parliament for women and direct election for those reserved seats and creating employment opportunity of women in foreign labour markets.

Now, if we turn to the weak points of the new policy, most importantly, regarding the question of economic empowerment of women, the new policy has totally avoided the matter of ensuring equal share and control in the inherited property which was incorporated in the first policy of 1997. Another point relevantly comes with one of the objectives of the policy that tells ‘give due recognition of women’s contribution in socio economic spheres’ (1.8). But unfortunately, in the preface section of the policy (where the title is Women’s Situation in Bangladesh) neither detailed description is given about the women’s condition and position, nor has women’s contribution in different areas, including different socio-political movements, of the country been recognized. However, as a progress on the restricted women development policy of 2004, the right groups at the first hand appreciated the new policy. But the shocking news was waiting for, just three days after the declaration, the law adviser of the interim government termed the policy as just a document for discussion on how to protect women from repression and deception and on how to improve their conditions socially. The aforementioned comment appears misleading as to the legal position of the various state documents and papers, since so far we knew and still believe that a state policy document is not just a document for discussion rather guiding principle of the state upon which concrete action plan comes for implementation of the programmes.

After that statement of the law adviser, a more grave signal was aired that a committee has been formed to review the just declared policy because the review committee has been formed with members from such groups whose stand is against all kinds of progressive development including women’s equal status and rights. This kind of compromising and flexible attitude to the satisfaction of particular groups is inconsistent with the secular and democratic principles and undoubtedly deterrent on the way to progressive development of the country. Moreover, these examples raise obvious questions on exact standing point of the government on the principle of gender equality. In this regard, one vital point cannot be ignored- this is the government of extraordinary kind, which took over the charge to bring change to all kinds of anomalies existing in the state.

As a final point even though, the policy does not contain anything on equal rights in inherited property, the state cannot deny its obligation to ensure equal rights of women in all spheres of life including equal rights in matters of inheritance which Bangladesh, as a state has undertaken by a considerable number of national and international legal instruments. And the declaration of a policy on women development is one step forward to the compliance of state obligations to ensure gender equality. Now the time is not to get back but to take measures to bring the policy into reality.

The writer is working with a human rights organisation