Need united women’s movement to achieve democracyFarida Akhter || Sunday 18 December 2022 ||
IN ALL aspects of our life — economic, social, cultural and political — we are going through a very difficult time. Conventionally, economic problems are considered at the centre of all other problems, but politics is the determinate sphere where our active engagement is needed for a collective solution.
This is also true for the women’s movement. Given the history of patriarchy, societal norms of male domination, and anti-feminine culture, the critical question is how women could collectively constitute an effective agency to challenge the political state of affairs today. It is time to think differently and refuse to remain the eternal victim of the post-colonial patriarchal state of Bangladesh that has already earned coercive and violent fascist parties and state structure along with a nationalist-secular ideology. Politics however is not merely competition for power. It is also a vital sphere to build a democratic polity, if we are at all interested to give it a try. Democracy requires political education and various tasks to facilitate peoples’ democratic will and to incite people’s aspirations for a positive change.
Given the geostrategic position of Bangladesh, any mobilisation for a democratic change has become extremely difficult. Indian rulers view Bangladesh as a state they have helped to earn independence from Pakistan and treat it as though it is their ‘colony’. Northern states and superpowers see Bangladesh as an experimental case of capitalist development to deter it from the radical path the country might have taken in 1972. They have spent a huge amount of development funds to integrate a poor and backward economy into the global capitalist order for cheap labour and a market for their consumer goods. Now the major concern is to keep Bangladesh out of the orbit of China. These are hard realities. Equality important are the issues of the looting of banks, the rise in numbers of billionaires, and other forms of unprecedented mal-governance, human rights violations, and crimes in Bangladesh. Above are the ground realities and women must get their acts together in this concrete context of oppression.
Indeed, revisiting women’s involvement and historical role in the language movement of 1952, the democratic movement of 1969–70, the movement against the anti-autocratic regime of General Ershad in the 1980s and women’s role in other movements is urgently required now. Unfortunately, during the past 14 years, women’s movements have remained largely absent to attract national attention except in certain critical movements against rape and indignity of women. The inactivity of women’s organisations contributed negatively to the rapidly changing situation that people are facing at the moment. Meanwhile, the NGO-isation of the women’s movement and the partisan character of the women’s organisations have changed the nature of their response to the critical social, political and economic situation of the country, a situation in which women suffer the most.
Needless to mention that women are not a homogenous group, their approach towards problems cannot be described uniformly. Women are divided by economic class and by their position with or against the oppressing class. In general, women however are direct victims of the soaring price of essential commodities. Since August 2022, the effect of price hike is severely burdensome for people across different socio-economic classes. While the middle-class women are reducing or rearranging their menus and their food basket is becoming smaller, the lower middle and poor women are seen standing for hours in line before the TCB trucks (state-owned Trading Corporation of Bangladesh) which sells rice, oil, sugar and other items at a subsidised rate. They are finding it difficult to have two meals a day and their menu is restricted to merely rice, potato and a bit of dal. They are not able to manage their household needs with a fixed income. In addition to the price hike, the shortage of gas, electricity, and diesel has affected their lives. The women workers, particularly apparel workers, are faced with the threat of losing jobs as the factory operation is routinely disrupted due to a shortage of gas and electricity.
Since the election of 2018, increasing incidents of human rights violations and a decline of democracy is observed. People could not cast their votes to elect their representatives to the national parliament. It was widely reported that the votes were cast the night before. The democratic space for raising demands for wages, and other rights for a dignified living has been shrinking. Violence against women is on the rise, but justice is delayed or denied depending on who the perpetrator is. Freedom of expression is curtailed and human rights violations are escalating in the form of arbitrary arrests, extra-judicial killing and enforced disappearances. Restrictions on freedom of assemblies for those belonging to the opposition political parties are rampant. The apparel workers, those who were killed and injured in the factories such as the Tazreen Fashions in 2012 and the Rana plaza factory collapse in 2013 are yet to get a dignified compensation or justice.
While the problems faced by the urban people, particularly women, are more visible and have been discussed at national policy levels, the problems for the rural people remain unnoticed. Small-scale farmers have to compete with the aggressive marketing practices of agrochemical corporations and women are disempowered through the promotion of corporate commercial seeds. These are done with government support, while farmers preserving traditional seeds do not get any recognition. The commercialisation and industrialisation of food including poultry, fisheries, livestock, and even horticulture are displacing the real producers, particularly women. Rural entrepreneurs such as the handloom weavers are without work facing competition from imported cloth. The livelihood opportunities are changing for the worse and more people are migrating to cities in search of a living. Women remain the worst affected by such loss of livelihood.
At the macro-economic level, the GDP is USD 416 billion with a growth rate of 6.9 per cent and the per capita income is USD 2,503. This may look very promising, but the benefit of growth is enjoyed mostly by only 1 per cent of the country’s population who hold 16.3 per cent of the total national income, according to estimates in 2021. Obviously, the pandemic Covid-19 has exacerbated the already existing income inequality and the non-inclusive growth of GDP.
People are also suffering from climate change. There are more frequent floods, cyclones, droughts, and other natural disasters. The pattern has been changing over the last three decades and the changing climate has affected agriculture and other livelihood activities. People are becoming climate refugees as they are losing land productivity due to salinity, and losing land due to erosion. Such issues however have remained out of focus of the political parties’ manifesto and political agendas. There was no discussion at the political level about what the government should demand during the 27th Conference of the Parties (popularly referred as the COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There was no discussion at the women’s forum, while the environmental organisations mostly posed women as ‘victims’ of climate change.
People want change, so do women. But there is no women’s movement that is addressing the need of the people. Freedom from patriarchal and class oppression and social discrimination are crucial now. The suffrage movement occurred in developed countries in the last century as a beginning of their demands for rights as an individual. Women were granted voting rights in England not too long ago. This is the most important issue to address the women’s question since it reaffirms the political agency of women. Women in Bangladesh too joined different movements to express their political agency. In Bangladesh, women have voting rights and past history suggests that their participation in the electoral process is higher than men. As the democratic environment is declining, this ratio is declining too. Since the 2008 national election, the scenario has changed and now 51 per cent men participate in the electoral process against 49 per cent women’s participation. This decline is indeed worrying as the national electoral environment is getting more and more violent and anti-women. During the last national election in 2018, voters could not exercise their right to franchaise and in one case in a remote area, a woman voter was raped after casting her vote for the opposition party candidate. Even women’s right to franchise has become a context for her becoming a victim of sexual violence.
The next election is likely to be held in early January, 2024. Should women just wait for the election to be held and vote for the preferred candidate? Should women let the undemocratic practice of elections continue and see it just as a process of changing the political party in power? This is not desirable. Should the parliament be filled with those who have money or those who will work for the people? Whether the 50 reserve seats for women will be a direct election or just selected? Should we not mobilise for a change in the election system? In 1987, during the movement against Ershad, the Oikyboddha Nari Samaj (United Women’s Front) brought out a 17-point demand with a very specific demand of direct election. In 1995, the Sammilito Nari Samaj fought against the state violence against women. It is already late, but we should still try to unite ourselves. Women’s movement must be united to demand a democratically elected parliament. We must reclaim the legacy of the women’s movement in Bangladesh. Let the women’s movement be united and fight for democracy. Let us also join hands with those democratic forces that are on the streets fighting for democracy.
Published: Newage; 15, December 2022, (Need united women’s movement to achieve democracy).
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.