Positive discrimination needed to protect women’s rights
Women face discrimination every hour of every day, in various forms. From a greater lack of access to equal opportunity and payment in workplace, educational institutions, social discourses and household decision-making, to the more specific instances of intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, sexual violence and an apathetic lack of acknowledgement for caregiving and household contributions—women are undermined in every sphere of life.
This, unfortunately, is not a new phenomenon. From the dawn of civilisation, women have been looked at through a male-oriented lens—except for perhaps a few communities, which followed a matriarchal structure.
The world has made significant progress in the last century to drive equality for women, including ensuring their right to vote, own property, have better access to literacy, healthcare and livelihood opportunities. But the problem at the root remains: the patriarchal worldview that sees women as the lesser being, unequal to men.
As the world gets ready to observe the 40th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) today, we face new challenges posed by Covid-19, which have further exacerbated the discrimination against women.
According to "Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Women," a report published by the UN in April 2020, "Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of Covid-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex".
The policy brief elaborates on the economic, social and health impact of the pandemic on women and girls. "Compounded economic impacts are felt especially by women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty," it says. While early reports reveal more men are dying as a result of Covid-19, the health of women generally is adversely impacted through the reallocation of resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services.
"Unpaid care work has increased, with children out-of-school, heightened care needs of older persons and overwhelmed health services. As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, gender-based violence is increasing exponentially. Many women are being forced to 'lockdown' at home with their abusers at the same time that services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible."
The situation is no different in Bangladesh where women are facing discrimination due to the pandemic. With lifestyles changing, women now have to manage work-from-home, household chores, children's education during online classes, and provide care to the sick. While men do participate, due to the prevailing patriarchal social mindset, it is the women who are shouldering most of these added workloads.
Similarly, women are increasingly becoming trapped with abusive husbands due to restricted mobility. A research jointly conducted by the NGO Manusher Jonno Foundation and James P Grant School of Public Health of BRAC University on 65,000 women and children in 53 districts, titled "Life in the time of coronavirus: A gendered perspective," revealed that 30 percent of those who survived domestic violence had first encountered such violence during the pandemic. The forms of violence range from sexual and physical torture to economic and mental abuse.
The research also found that, trapped at home, the husbands demanded more frequent sexual intercourse from their wives. In one instance, when a wife—tired from her household chores—refused to entertain her husband's overtures, she was subjected to physical and mental torture.
And this problem is not unique to women. With child marriage increasing sharply in the country, this problem is also being faced by many underage girls. Data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics indicate that child marriage increased by 13 percent—the highest child marriage rate in the country in 25 years.
These young girls—who should be in school, learning, growing, finding their own feet—are now trapped in the homes of their in-laws, engaged in caregiving, household chores, and giving in to the sexual needs of their husbands, and in the process becoming pregnant at a tender age, often damaging their sexual and reproductive health.
Not that these problems were not there before the pandemic, but there is no denying that Covid-19 has created multi-layered opportunities to exploit women and further discriminate against them. And this problem cannot be addressed in the short to medium term, because we are perhaps not assessing the problem from the right perspective.
The problem is we take discrimination against women for granted. We take it for a fact that the role of a woman in a household includes household management, performing daily chores, cooking, caregiving—all for free, of course. Thus the women are engaged in both productive and reproductive roles within the household, while the men are only engaged in productive roles.
We also take it for granted that women as employees are less efficient than their male colleagues. And women are often systematically overlooked in their workplaces to reduce their visibility. An article by Harvard Business Review, titled "Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work", says: "On the one hand, women's contributions are systematically overlooked at work. This limits their professional advancement and helps to explain why the senior levels of organizations remain overwhelmingly male. Yet when women try to make themselves more visible, they can face backlash for violating expectations about how women should behave, and risk losing their hard-won career gains." Under pressure, women have to "over-invest"—work harder in order to get equal opportunity at work.
However, since these predominant social perspectives and patriarchal views are not going to change anytime soon, there is no point in simply talking about discrimination against women. We need to leverage these discriminating tendency of the society and turn it into a driver of positive growth for women; in short, we need to actively work on positive discrimination of women.
In the household, we need to acknowledge women's contributions and make way for rewarding them financially for the services they are rendering. We also need to provide them with economic empowerment opportunities—access to skills development, access to finance—so that they can work, be financially independent. and have an equal say in the family.
In the workspace, we need to actively look out for the women performing well and reward them for their performances. There can also be women-friendly promotion policies. These days, many international organisations have certain reserved places for women in leadership positions. This can also be arranged for mid-level female employees. In fact, every organisation must have a minimum requirement to employ women workers as part of HR compliance so that women have better access to work opportunities.
These can be the starting points.
Since as of now, there is no way to end discrimination against women, we have to turn this discrimination into an opportunity for women's growth, otherwise there would be no positive outcome.
There is clearly no point in just talking about the prevailing discriminations. Women need to step up, actively fight for their rights, turn these discriminations into opportunities and pave way for their own growth. This won't be an easy fight, but without this approach, eliminating inequality and discrimination would become very difficult, even in the long run.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle: @tasneem_tayeb