An episode in UNICEF Bangla-desh’s popular cartoon Meena, the protagonist’s cousin Rita, a 15-year-old girl receives a proposal to marry the village shopkeeper’s son. The shopkeeper’s intention is to have his son married to a girl who would be meek and gentle and would do all the household chores. But the young girl is not ready for marriage at such an early age and wants to complete her education first. She has learned, moreover, that early marriages result in complicated pregnancies and even death. So, with the help of her cousin Meena, Rita musters up the courage to tell her father that she is not ready to get married; and fortunately for her, the suitor too had told his father that he will not marry a minor girl and as a result, the marriage is postponed.
Despite being a fictional character, Meena was an ambassador of social and cultural change, particularly on issues pertinent to gender. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, embodies the spirit of Meena’s advocacy. SDG target 5.3 calls upon countries to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage. Unfortunately, forced early marriage is still widespread in Bangladesh—although there has been a declining trend. The percentage of women in Bangladesh between ages 20 to 24 years old who were first married by the age of 18 years old decreased from 73.3 percent in 1994 to 58.6 percent in 2014. Similarly, the percentage of women between ages 20 to 24 years old who were first married by the age of 15 years old decreased from 47.2 percent in 1994 to 22.4 percent in 2014. Despite the improvement, these numbers are nonetheless unacceptably high. When women are married off at such early ages, it substantially compromises their ability to pursue their education and participate in the labour market.
Apart from early marriage, empowerment of women in Bangladesh has also been stifled through violence. SDG target 5.2 asserts the need to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres. However, in 2015, as high as 55 percent of women who were ever-married and 65 percent of women who were currently married reported suffering from violence inflicted by their partners, according to data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). Regrettably, a large number of incidents of violence against women remained unreported. In 2015, an estimated 72.7 percent of ever-married women in Bangladesh did not disclose their experiences of violence to anyone. This means that the prevalence of violence against women may be far worse than illustrated by the findings of the official surveys. In fact, according to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organisation, 409 women were victims of domestic violence, 116 women were victims of sexual harassment,195 women were victims of physical torture for dowry and 22 women were victims of acid attack in 2018.
Gender inequality is a pervasive phenomenon which has proliferated from households to markets to governance systems and to all other spheres of society. This means that the myriad miseries of life, such as poverty, physical violence, sexual abuse, illiteracy, unemployment, employment with low wages, landlessness, vulnerability to climate change and burden of unpaid household work—all tend to affect women disproportionately more than men. Thus, it is imperative to identify the root causes of gender inequality, and consequently make the relevant changes in laws, institutions and policies that will create equal opportunities for men and women.
Concurrently, the economic empowerment of women through education and employment must be ensured. The right to education should not be violated on the basis of gender, and girls at all ages should be guaranteed access to quality education and lifelong learning opportunities within secure and supportive environments. The unpaid household work of women should be eased by improving access to clean drinking water and natural gas for cooking. In order to support working women, legislation on equal pay and maternity benefits should be properly enforced, and child care centres should be established. Ultimately, the success of these measures will depend on whether the overall attitudes, values and perceptions towards women are consistent with, and conducive towards, the goal of achieving gender equality. Unless the required behavioural changes can be achieved, it will be difficult to accomplish SDG 5 by 2030.
Syed Yusuf Saadat is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Policy Dialogue.