Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives

Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)

Edited by Niamh Reilly

Acting Locally: Bangladeshi Women Organising as part of the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights

By Shireen Huq

This is a very exciting opportunity for me, not only because this is my first visit to Ireland, but because of what this gathering represents – perhaps the beginning of the process in Ireland of bringing women together to work on a common human rights agenda. This is also very exciting for me because I am engaged in a similar process in Bangladesh, where we are trying to bring together 242 local women’s groups scattered all over the country into one national platform, which will be based on a rights agenda. So there is a lot that I want to take back with me from here.

"Women’s Rights as Human Rights." The very title of this conference is what came to represent the women’s agenda at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. The slogan aimed to achieve, first of all, the recognition that crimes against women are also crimes against humanity; secondly, that violence against women constitutes a violation of fundamental human rights; and thirdly, that this understanding must be made integral to the overall concept of human rights and to the practices of international human rights bodies and mainstream human rights organisations.

At the same time that this slogan demanded a new awareness on the part of mainstream human rights organisations and activists, it drew the world’s attention to the extent of violation and violence that women suffer in every culture, in every class, and in every situation they are placed in. Furthermore, it represented the demand for an end to the neglect this issue customarily received from state bodies, political parties, and civil society.

Women’s rights ARE human rights. The assertion was made in Vienna and it reverberated across the globe in women’s marches on International Women’s Day in various capitals around the world; in village meetings; in discussions in small towns all over the globe, and finally in the hall rooms of the Beijing International Conference Centre. In fact, this slogan was echoed throughout the entire preparatory process for Beijing, from the local level, to the regional level, and then to the international level. The document that was finally adopted and endorsed – the Beijing Platform for Action – is testimony to that awareness and to an understanding of the interconnectedness of rights and disparity, of rights and disadvantage, of rights and discrimination and of rights and the possibility of achieving justice. Getting it into the document was one part of the struggle. Now to get it translated into practice requires our continued presence in the streets. The issues before us are neither simple nor small and certainly not without severe consequences.

What are the issues before us in Bangladesh, or for that matter in South Asia, a region that is generally characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment, high population density, and lower rates of literacy and education? It is very easy to say, "But everyone has problems. Why talk about women separately, why talk about women’s human rights?" These are the questions that we in the movement face. There is however, enough evidence to suggest why. Four of the seven countries in the world that have a male population that is larger that its female population are located in South Asia. Male longevity is greater in South Asia. Women are at the short end of every imaginable social, economic, and political opportunity. Women have lesser access to services and public goods than men, but at the same time they continue to carry a greater burden of poverty. Women almost always have fewer rights and freedoms. This is possibly true of other parts of the world as well, not just South Asia.

One important and emerging human rights issue for us in South Asia is the lack of protection and enforcement of rights for people in economically vulnerable situations. The two most obvious categories are refugees and migrant workers. Both are categories that affect a large number of people in South Asia, and a very large number of women. South Asian countries are some of the largest "sending" countries, that is, countries that send out people as migrant workers to other parts of the world. At the same time that the developing world is made to open its borders to the free flow of goods, the movement of people – particularly people in search of livelihoods – continues to face severe restriction. In some cases the restrictions are getting worse. The plight of migrant workers, both men and women, and the families they leave behind defies minimum standards of protection. One aspect of this problem that particularly affects women and children in South Asia is trafficking. This involves situations where women and children in search of livelihoods fall into the traps of employment agents and then end up in exploitative job situations or in brothels in other parts of South Asia.

Currently, a large section of Bangladesh’s ethnic minorities in the southeast are refugees in eastern India, while at the same time we have a few hundred thousand people from Burma (Myanmar) as refugees in Bangladesh. This is just one example. India has a lot of internal, inter-state refugees. Indeed, the issue of refugees and migrant workers is one that we in the human rights movement (and particularly in the women’s human rights movement) have to take on.

A second key area of human rights concern is religious oppression and conflict. This includes the persecution of members of minority communities, not only religious minorities, but also ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, and so on. At the same time that our constitutions enshrine equality between sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, our personal laws – that is, the laws that govern marriage, dissolution of marriage, guardianship of children, and inheritance of property – continue to be governed by religion-based courts. The result is an unequal distribution of rights, not only between men and women, but also between different women citizens of the same country, depending on which religious group she belongs to. In this situation, the rhetoric of equal citizenship is completely undermined. A third key area of human rights concern is the issue of violence against women. This includes increasing police and custodial violence. In 1993 the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics – the official government statistical office – revealed that three times as many women were dying from what is categorized as "unnatural causes," than of maternal mortality. Maternal mortality in Bangladesh, with an official figure of five per thousand live births, is one of the highest in the world. These official figures tell us that three times this number of women are dying from homicide, suicide, poisoning, snake bite, and drowning. You can deduce for yourselves which of those five categories are accidental and which are perhaps not accidental. Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in reply to a question in parliament, informed the parliament that one rape is reported every 24 hours, and in every 48 hours the victim is a minor girl. This is in a context where actual reporting is very low because reporting of rape carries so much shame and social stigma. It is usually reported only when the victim has to go to a hospital or a health centre. Very rarely will women or their families directly report rape.

A particularly insidious form of violence prevalent in Bangladesh is acid attacks. This is when young men throw acid at young girls who have the "audacity" to reject their propositions. The face is targeted. The result varies from partial burns to complete disfigurement and loss of eyesight, and death in the case of severe burns. As we have succeeded internationally to make gains in our campaign for the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, the concrete realities of women who are survivors of acid attacks or rape, women who have ended up in forced prostitution in brothels in India and Pakistan, or women who continue to be deprived of guardianship of children in the name of religion, remind us that these are but small gains. The challenge of translating these gains at the local level continues to be much greater than we had actually mobilised for. The challenge demands conscious political action not only on the part of women, but on the part of civil society at large. The women’s movement has not in that sense gained the kind of support of civil society as a whole that is needed to actually make a difference. Our activism has ranged from the struggle to make these issues visible in the media and on the streets, to lobbying governments to adopt proactive measures. I will now give some examples of the kinds of activism that we are now engaged in.

One is the kind of activism at the local level carried out in response to international mobilisations. The most obvious example is the Global Campaign for Women’s Human rights, which Charlotte Bunch and Niamh Reilly have been instrumental in fostering. What we did in Bangladesh was to translate the petition, publicise it widely, and collect thousands of signatures in duplicate, so one set was sent to the Global Center in New Jersey and the other set we actually took to the prime minister’s office. This action gave us the opportunity to bring the international campaign to the attention of people in the streets and to the government. Sometimes it can be helpful to say "this is not happening only in Bangladesh, this campaign is worldwide because it involves issues affecting people worldwide." During the Vienna conference and again in connection with the campaign, we organised women to hold up banners on women’s rights as human rights in ten different parts of Dhaka. We used this opportunity to attract publicity and to hand out badges that said "Resist Violence Against Women" and a leaflet that was based on the Global Campaign with specific additions on the Bangladesh context. This is one kind of activism which is trying to link up with and use an international entry point to mobilise locally.

A second example is trying to mobilise nationally. In 1991 we formed what was called the International Women’s Day Committee, which brought together about twenty-six organisations. Not all of the organisations were women’s organisations; some were development agencies working with women, some were social organisations. The aim of the committee was to celebrate international women’s day and to organise a big march which would go through the city and create a lot of noise.

We used this opportunity to highlight a different theme each year. So over the years it provided an opportunity to build an agenda for the women’s human rights movement. It was also an opportunity to include different kinds of women under a broader banner. In 1993, for the first time, women engaged in prostitution walked with other women through the streets of Dhaka. This year our focus was young girls. The theme was "Safety and Freedom for Girls" and so we managed to get younger girls involved. In 1994 the theme was "My Body, My Right." When women chanted "shorir amaar shiddhanto amaar" (my body, my decision) up and down the streets of Dhaka, there was quite a controversy. It was interpreted by many as advocating free sex, and as stating a woman’s right to sleep with anybody she likes. At a training workshop for journalists, one of the organisers was asked if the slogan was advocating free sex. She responded, "No, actually what we are saying is that we will decide who we want to sleep with." In a socially conservative context, being able to take such issues to the streets is of course controversial, but it also creates an opening, a space to discuss such issues. It was very difficult until that point to actually have any discussion around sexuality or reproductive rights in public. In this way we have used the international women’s day mobilisation to open up certain spaces, to take issues to the streets which otherwise are very difficult.

Similarly, when a constitutional amendment was proposed to introduce state religion, the women were the first ones to take the issue of secularism to the streets, to say NO to the issue of religion and state. As far as the political parties are concerned, it was too sensitive an issue. We, of course, had nothing to loose, so we could take the issue to the streets. And once we did, for the first time secularism and what it means to have an official relationship between a religion and a state, what it means for people from other religious denominations, was widely discussed in the print media and in student groups and other fora.

In addition to choosing a theme each year, we also do a write up on the theme, in the form of a two-page leaflet. In the last four years we have printed between twenty and forty thousand copies of the leaflets and distributed these to different parts of the country. So although the main event may take place in Dhaka, smaller events are organised in other parts of the country on the same theme. This year, various events were organised in nineteen different places in the country. These events mark the beginnings of discussions. The diverse participation in these discussions and events by many different types of women help to avoid the marginalisation of the issues by the media.

We responded to the issue of violence in several ways. One was to try to use the government statistics on female mortality to get the government to actually do something about it, because in order to make an impact you need a national programme. We tried to make the point that violence is the state’s responsibility, that it is not up to women to give their voluntary time and labour year after year to do the work that needs to be done on this issue. The statistics did not tell us much about the nature of violence against women and girls, the consequences, the implications. However, what they said about the possible magnitude of violence spurred us into taking action on a research project on violence against women. The findings will enable us to go to the government with concrete information on where violence against women comes from and what measures are needed for victims and for survivors. In other words, to begin to tackle the issue of power relations between men and women.

Another response to the issue of violence against women on our part has been to lobby the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to adopt a multi-sectoral response to violence against women and girls and to work with an inter-ministerial group to formulate a programme. Last August, the Ministry convened a working group composed of representatives of the ministries of health, home affairs, law, justice, and parliamentary affairs, and social welfare. The organisation I work with, Naripokkho, was included in the working group which was composed of representatives from the health ministry, the ministry of home affairs, and the ministry of law, justice, and parliamentary affairs. The working group recently completed a preliminary report which was endorsed by the government.

And finally there is the work to be done directly with violence survivors. Survivors of acid attacks are far more isolated than survivors of other form of violence. These are women who do not have a nose anymore, who do not have a mouth anymore, whose injuries force them into a kind of isolation where families hide them and do not want them to come out. As we have been working, visiting the hospitals, getting to know these young girls – and they are young: fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen year old – we realised that they have had no opportunity to meet among themselves. So on April 25-26, 1998, we are organising a workshop which will bring eleven girls and their mothers together. Often acid attacks take place in the house of the girls, the acid frequently being thrown in through bedroom windows, and quite often a sibling or the mother is also injured. We are organising this workshop with the hope that will be the beginning of a forum for these girls and women to have a voice and some visibility.

In finishing, I would like to say that in all the work we have done locally or internationally to assert the slogan "Women’s Rights as Human Rights," we have expanded the definition of violation and we have demanded this expansion for the last ten to fifteen years. But when it comes to translating our gains into concrete measures, we need to refocus on the realities of these women, the reality of having survived physical violence, and it requires far more work than we have actually done yet. Secondly, the realisation that women’s rights go beyond legal rights, beyond legal reforms, and beyond talking about the law as being responsive to violations of women’s human rights needs to find a place in this translation. We have to start thinking about what kind of services survivors and families of victims require, what kind of changes in health services we require, what kind of changes in the police stations we require, and most of all what kind of voice and visibility survivors themselves require.

Shireen Huq is a founder member of Naripokkho and works with the International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific

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