100 years of International Women's Day. Celebrating Women's Struggles
6 – 8 March, 2010
Jointly organized by
Narigrantha Prabartana, UBINIG and Odhikar
T R I B U N A L. “Salute to Women’s Struggles”
Venue: National Press Club
Date: 7th March, 2010
Time: 3 pm – 6 pm
A Women's Tribunal was organized on 7th March at the Conference Lounge of National Press Club, Dhaka. Over 200 women and men participated as audience. There were two parts of the Tribunal. The first part was the Testimonies from women activists and the second part was the statement from the jury members. The audience had great interest in listening to the testimonies as well as responses from the jury members on the issues.
The tribunal started with a chorus of Fakir Lalon Shah’s famous song by Nabapran Andolon artists. The song was "Nigom bichare shotto, gelo tai jana; Mayere bhojile hoi tar baper thikana". It is difficult to translate the powerful anti-patriarchal statement in the song, because implication of certain bangla words such as ‘bhojona’, ‘nigom bichar’ etc. are embedded in the historical context of the linguistic, cultural and politcal struggle of Bangladesh. It says, the sign of the father is inscribed in the notion of mother and not other way around. The Subject of the world is the prokriti, the feminine or the process within which all beings arrive and disappear. Mother is the cause as well as the process and the result. She is not some kind of passive force, that requires an external agent or a ‘big bang’ to create and start the world. So, the notion of ‘mother’ is not merely biological notion opposite to the ‘father’ the cause or the agent of change. Mother is the unity of the cause and process and thereby become the movement – the prakriti. The ‘address” (thikana) of the father, therefore is always in the mother.
Sayyida Akhter, Co-Convenor of the National Committee and Coordinator of Narigrantha Prabartana welcomed the participants at the Tribunal and explained the mechanism of the presentations of the testimonies and the jury statement. The written statements were given in the folders of all the participants. The Jury members will speak in the end to give their opinions or judgments.
There were 8 testimonies. These were:
1. The struggles of the Garment workers: Lovely Yasmin, President of Textile Garment Workers Union & Federation gave vivid description of her experience as a garment worker and the situation of low wage, unfavourable working conditions, the cheating of the payments on piece rate works, the violences caused by mastans hired by the management authorities etc. She herself started as a garment worker at the age of 11 years in 1983 with a wage of 165 Tk. per month. The struggle for minimum wage is continuing. On top of it the garment workers have to fight for a safe workplace to face the situation of fire incidents as depicted by the incidents of Saraka Garment fire incident in 1994 to the latest incident of Garib and Garib in 2010. The lock in the gate still remains a problem for the garment workers, a major barrier to save their lives. However, the garment workers did not stop, they are moving ahead in their struggles.
2. Demanding justice against Kalpana Chakma abduction in 1996: Nishi Dewan, Vice-President of Hill Women Federation, Rangamati said that even after 13 years of abduction of Kalpana Chakma, there is no trace of her; there is no report from the Investigation committee and no punishments for those who were identified as the culprits. Kalpana Chakma was a leader in the Hill women's movement, also involved in the self-determination movement of the Hill people. She was vocal against the violence particularly rape and abuse of women by the armed forces in the hill areas. Kalpana Chakma is still missing with no information whether she is dead or alive, the Jhum women continue to face the violences including rape, abduction and killing by armed forces and the outsiders. Despite the Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997, the situation is still the same for Jhum women. She demanded immediate disclosing of the Investigation of Kalpana Chakma abduction investigation and demand justice by punishing those who are responsible. She also demanded the security of Jhum women in the Hill tract areas. We do not want "Digital Bangladesh, we want secured life of women".
3. Struggles of the Women Human Right's Defenders: Tamanna Sarkar is a Woman Human Rights Defender of Odhikar. Tamanna gave testimony of 20 Women human rights defenders, who have been engaged in investigating about the violence against women in different upazillas of Munshiganj. She spoke about a speech-handicapped girl, Shahida, who was raped by the son of the owner of the house where she worked as a domestic maid in 2008. Shahida became pregnant and sought justice. But the offenders were absent in the Salish. She died at the time of giving birth to a baby in 2009. Her sister is keeping on the fight with support from the women human rights defenders. Fatema Akhtar (18) was married to Mahbub in her village in 2008. Within three days of her wedding she was asked to bring Tk. 10 lakh as dowry and was physically tortured because she failed to bring the demanded money. Her husband gave her death threats and also threatened to falsely accuse her brother for rape case. At one point Fatema with the support of the human rights defenders could take divorce and get Tk. 1 lakh for child custody. Tamanna described few other cases and also showed how difficult it is to get justice against the offenders who use threats of killing to the victims and their guardians. In one case the rapist declared that if the victims go to the meetings, they will be raped again. The role of the administration has also been unsupportive of the victims.
4. Movement for preserving seeds by farmers: Sameda Begum, a leader farmer of Nayakrishi Andolon in Pabna district first talked about the destructive effects of the so-called modern agriculture. She explained how the farmers in her area lost all different varieties of seeds, hen, fish, goats, cows etc. The extraction of ground water for irrigation caused arsenic poisoning. The use of pesticides and chemicals in food production has led to increased incidences of diseases among humans, animals, birds and fishes. Pregnant women are suffering from miscarriages and also giving birth to deformed babies. The farmers are losing the traditional varieties of rice. Now the companies are giving hybrid seeds and also making newer seeds in their laboratories. The farmers are becoming poorer and are losing their occupation. However, since 1995, Sameda has joined Nayakrishi movement for biodiversity based farming. She has organized women to preserve seeds and have been successful in stopping use of pesticides and deep tube wells for crop production. Farmers are exchanging seeds among themselves and increasing the collection of seeds. "we will give our blood to preserve the seeds and stop the aggression the aggression by the companies".
5. "Preservation of the traditional Shokher Hari": Momota Rani Pal representing Karu Shilpa Parishad of Rajshahi has been working with her potter father since her childhood. She could not speak very much because she was nervous to talk in front of such a big audience. All she said was that they have to buy the clay which is also getting lost and also cannot sell their products because of the use of plastics and steel materials. The Jury members requested another potter from Comilla to testify on this issue. Rikta Rani Paul said that they used to earn very good income by selling pottery items. These were related to the other business such as "Roshomalai" the famous sweet of Comilla and also pots for muri making. They also made toys, dolls for children. Farmers used to preserve seeds in earthen pots. But all these are now taken away by plastic industry and the potters are forced to change their occupation and migrate to the cities. Her request to the audience was to carry out activities of seed preservation in earthen pots and also reduce the use of plastics.
6. Fishers are continuously challenged to keep their livelihood: Nargis Begum of Barisal talked about the fishing community in her area. They were affected by SIDR cyclone in 2007 in which they lost the boat and nets - the main capital equipment for their survival as fishers. It is not only the natural disasters; the fishers are continuously exploited by the Mahajons with Dadan system - the advance payment by the middlemen in fishing business. The use of current net has caused problems for the seasonal fishing. Moreover, the cultivation of foreign variety fish is a big challenge for the fishers.
7. Struggles of Health Field workers: Shiria Begum, a Health Field worker of Ganoshasthya Kendra, (People's Health Centre) which was established during the liberation war as Bangladesh Field Hospital in Savar. The women field workers of GK were the first to go to the villages to provide health services. Women used to go on bicycles and it was a big surprise to the village people. However, they used to provide health service they could win the hearts of the people. They had the slogan "grame cholo - gram goro" - Let's go to the village and build the villages.
8. Women's movement against Yasmin Rape and Killing, 1995: Sultana Akhter Ruby, a lawyer and Co-Convenor of Sammilita Nari Samaj and member of Samajtantrik Mahila Forum gave testimony of women's movement which grew against rape and killing of Yasmin. Yasmin was a 14 year old girl raped and killed by Police on duty near Dinajpur. She was going to see her mother in Dinajpur from Dhaka and got down at a place called dosh mile at late night. She waited in a tea stall for the morning. But in the meantime, the three police Moinul Huq, SI, Abdus Sattar, Constable and Amrita Lal, the driver saw her and offered the Tea stall people to give her a lift to her mother's house. But in the early morning she was found dead with signs of being violated and raped. A man called Velu first saw the dead body on the road side and filed a case of unnatural death. But when the people in the tea stall saw the body they could recognize her and told everyone the real story behind this death. There was a protest against such brutal killing by Police forces who were supposed to safeguard the girl. The Administration of Dinajpur took the side of the Police and fired the protestors. Seven people died. Women's groups were outraged by this incident and visited Dinajpur. There were rallies in different districts and for two years the case was fought in the Rangpur Court. The death sentence given by the court was implemented much later. However the Superintendent of Police ordering the firing at the protestors and helping the accused police, the doctor giving the false medical report and the District Commissioner were all acquitted. The case against the killing of 7 people has not yet been taken up by the government despite the changes in the government. Women movement is demanding justice for such killing.
9. Movement for Direct Election in the Reserved Seats for Women in the National Parliament: Shima Das Shimu of Narigrantha Prabartana and member of Sammilita Nari Samaj gave the testimony on the movement for direct election in the reserved seats. In the Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh in Article 65(3) there is a provision of seats reserved for women in addition to the 300 seats and these seats were to be voted by the elected members of the Parliament. Initially the provision was for 15 seats for ten years, but over the years the number of seats were increased to 30 and finally to 45 and the term has been increased till this last Parliament. Although the intention was to prepare women for increased political participation at all levels, the ultimate result was more of taking the opportunity by the major political party women to take a short cut way to be in the parliament and for the Party leaders to give bonus to the women activists for their contribution. So women never could build their own constituencies and therefore could never become accountable to their voters. Their experiences show that they were deprived, discriminated and humiliated in the Parliament and almost considered as "Second Class" members. But yet, the Awami League and BNP party women never supported the women's movement. Women's groups such as Narigrantha Prabartana conducted meetings for opinion building and Sammilita Nari samaj filed writ Petition in 2004 against the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which did not keep the provision of direct election and got a ruling against the government. Two more writ petitions were filed against this ammendment. But the government got the verdict in its favour and continued the system of indirect election for the reserved seats. Women's movement hoped that the present government will take the opportunity of two-third majority in the Parliament to amend the system. But they have also followed the system of indirect election for proportionately nominating women for the reserved seats. Women's demand still continues.
10. Dulali Majumdar's testimony in a song: Dulali Majumdar is a singer who composes songs and sings for the common people. As she was told about the testimonies of the Tribunal she came up with a song describing the situation of Kalpana Chakma, garment workers, Yasmin, the farmers and the political empowerment of women. She said "Nari Andoloner gan re shono Banglar-i Santan" (Listen to the music of the women's movement). At the end of the song she complained why the singers like her are deprived and not recognized in the mainstream and why they are also not given respect?
There were four Jury members. They were
o Prof. Jahanara Huq, an economist and teacher in the professional life. She is the President of Jatiyo Mahila Karjokrom Pronoyon O'Bastobayan Samity, Ex-President of Women for Women and Business and Professional Women's Club, Dhaka North West, Life Member of Bangladesh Economic Association and Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad. She is also an activist in the women's movement.
o Maleka Khan, an expert in Handicrafts, Ex-President of Bangladesh Handicraft and Exporters Association and Ex-Secretary of Bangladesh KaruShilpa Parishad
o Munni Shaha, a journalist and Media Expert. Started as a Reporter in the Print Media and later became involved with the Private TV Channels News Reporting since its beginning. At present Head of News at ATN News.
o Farida Akhter, Executive Director of Narigrantha Prabartana, Co-Convenor of Sammilita Narisamaj and a member of several South Asian regional forum. She is an activist in the women's movement and a column writer and author of several books in Bangla and English.
This is a unique Tribunal. We have come here to listen to the testimonies, not to declare a verdict. We do not know if we have to cry or have to laugh as a Jury. What I found after listening to all testimonies is that in this class divided society, one class is enjoying all benefits and other is deprived. One is violating rights of others, the other is the victim. I congratulate all those who have testified and through them I could see how they are still fighting against dowry, acid, rape and other forms of injustices. Our laws are not enough to protect their rights. In this event of celebrating 100 years of International Women's Day, we are still hearing what was there 100 year's back. Will we need another 100 years to change the situation? We must be united in our movements. That is only way to change the situation.
I am not embarrassed, but I am not a Jury either in this Tribunal. I have heard about the craft workers' struggles. Pottery is a heritage of civilization. It must survive. Those who are living on craft they must be able to laugh and survive. Women all over the country are engaged in crafts making fans, kanthas, and pottery. Pottery is our identity, our soil is our identity. If you are not keeping pottery craft in your houses, then it is useless to listen to their struggles. We must live with our soil, and with our plants and trees. That is what we are.
When I was a Reporter in the Newspaper, I saw and reported about the Women's Movement demanding punishment of the police who raped Yasmin. I have seen how the administration took the side of the Police and tried to suppress the movement. But women's movement went on. On the issue of Direct Election for the Reserve Seats, Women's organizations filed case and were on the streets. But unfortunately the vested interest groups within the two major political parties such as Awami League and BNP became obstacle to the success of the movement. The male party member used it in their favour. Now these women Parliament members complain about the discrimination and deprivation. They ask me to report on their situation. But I refuse to do that because they made their own choices to be in such a situation. I urge upon all women's organizations not to invite them as "Chief Guest" in your meetings.
I thought I will not need to be outraged at this tribunal because it is about women's struggles. But I am extremely angry as well as sad. I could not take the fact that garment workers' starting salary can be 165 Taka a month which is not even like what was in the colonial period. How can we justify that the owners' wealth is growing and conditions of the workers are getting worse. It is not at all acceptable that even in 2010, garment workers die because the gates are locked!. I heard the testimony of Kalpana Chakma's as the total insecurity of the Jhum women in the Hill Tracts. They are still struggle for their dignity, respect and security. We demand the immediate disclosure of the Investigation Report of Kalpana Chakma and security of the Jhum women. The testimony of the Women Human Rights Defender showed how the violence against women is done by those who are in power and they are also well aware about the laws that punish the perpetrators. But they want to be beyond the reach of law. The farmer women keeping seeds demanded the right to preserve local variety seeds and stopping the Hybrid seeds which takes away their control over seeds. The government is now going to introduce Genetically modified seeds which will be patented seeds by the Corporations and has the potential of contaminating the biodiversity. The Livelihood of potters, and other craft communities are losing their livelihood. But we should criticise ourselves too. If we use plastic and discard pottery how can they survive?
We declare together that such an unjust system must not continue.