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May 18 Academy Reflections

Security and Rights of Women and Girls: Bangladesh Perspective

Sharmin Subrina-Association for Community Development (ACD)
Sharmin finished her Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from University of Rajshahi in Bangladesh. For 13 years, she has been working with the Association for Community Development (ACD). ACD’s goal is to achieve the rights of people, especially the disadvantaged and vulnerable women, adolescent and children at grassroots levels through improving their socio-economic, political and cultural status, ensuring social justice and good governance. She is also the focal point of ECPAT International Child and Youth Advisory Committee. Her interests and expertise include gender, women empowerment, and child rights.
Last September, I attended the May 18 Academy, a two-week intensive education and training program specially designed on human rights, democracy, and peace. It included several lectures including visiting historical sites in Seoul, Gwangju, and Jeju. The academy, which was organized by the May 18 Memorial Foundation, exclusively discussed the Gwangju Uprising. I visited some civil society’s organizations such as May 18 National Cemetery, May 18 Archives, Gwangju Trauma Center, Jeju Peace Foundation, and other pivotal historical sites related to the Korea’s democratization movements. The academy provided lectures from prominent lecturers with various backgrounds such as the May 18 Democratic movement, Justice, Human Rights, History of resistance, refugee, risk management, current Korean issue, May 18 archives, Asian human rights issues and so forth which helped me to realize the democratic movement.

While I learned about the struggles of democracy and human rights in South Korea and the countries of other participants from Asia, Europe, and Africa, I shared the situation of women and girls in Bangladesh. In this article, I will discuss the challenges women and girls face in exercising their rights and how civil society organizations can play a role in empowering them, drawing from my experience working with the Association for Community Development (ACD).

ACD has been providing institutional care and support to the victims of human rights violations, including trafficking, bonded labor or slavery-like practices, domestic violence, acid burns, torture, migrant returnees, children in conflict with laws, among others. for their social and economic integration. Being the pioneer organization working in the counter-trafficking initiatives on the northern part of Bangladesh, ACD received the Anti-Slavery International Award in 2001 and the UN-HABITAT Regional Office for Asia and Pacific Award on ‘Gender and Rights-Responsive Sustainable Cities in Asia and the Pacific’ in 2007.

Situation of Women and Girls in Bangladesh

Women and girls in Bangladesh face barriers and disadvantages in nearly every aspect of their lives. They are commonly not allowed to make independent decisions on the most important aspects of their lives such as health, education, employment, or when and who to get married or have children. They face systematic discrimination, which begins at home in their childhood and continue throughout their lives whether at the workplace, in the community, or in public institutions. Women in Bangladesh are often considered a financial burden by their families and most of them are married off as children.

Not surprisingly, Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world. Girls who get married early are more likely to be abused by their husbands, report less reproductive control, and have early and high-risk pregnancies resulting in higher health complications and maternal mortality. There is strong evidence that child marriage causes girls to drop out of school, which results in lower educational attainment.

Women are vulnerable to a range of violent acts, which includes domestic violence, early or forced marriage, trafficking and forced prostitution, child sexual abuse, rape, acid attack, threats of dowry-demand, and threats of violence, among others. The feeling of insecurity, violence, and the threat of violence greatly influences a woman’s ability to participate in public life, to seek employment, to enjoy a rewarding work life, and to inherit property. Even where women have equal rights to participate, discrimination, threats of violence, and sexual harassment at home and outside, often stop them from effective participation, restrict their mobility, freedom, and deprive them of exercising their fundamental human rights.

The indigenous society in Bangladesh is extremely confined by social custom, norms, which extremely affects the adolescents as well as makes them fall in discrimination, abuse, and violation. In the familial context, they are confined by familial decisions. The social exclusion excluded their rights to enjoy the government facilities. They are excluded by the government development authority, especially the local government which is mostly biased by vested interest groups. The community has a negative attitude on female education. Most of the male and female members of this community work as sweeper and cleaner in different institutions with lower salary or wage. The family members are dominated by male. Traditional and customary malpractices and patriarchal society disenfranchise adolescent girls from the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all their economic, social and cultural rights in the mainstream society. The adolescent girls' opinions, decisions, and activities are controlled and confined by the male members of their family and community.

Despite the legal provisions and commitments to national and international human rights treaties and conventions, the rights of women and girls in Bangladesh are grossly undermined. The issue of violence against women and girls, especially domestic violence, is long considered a private matter for families to deal with. Bangladeshi rural communities are often strongly patriarchal. Women in these communities, particularly those suffering from domestic violence, find it difficult to make crimes public. If they go to a local leader or court, they are often seen as bringing shame on their family. If they do bring a case, the legal system can work against them. The traditional manner of resolving disputes, through a committee of respected elites (or local level arbitration), is often male-dominated and oppressive for women. In the traditional arbitration, women including adolescent girls are often unable to attend their own hearings and are treated with disrespect if they do go. Women face substantial discrimination in accessing justice due to discriminatory laws or attitudes of public servants.

Although social norms and cultural beliefs related to the status of women in society can be deeply rooted, there is strong evidence that these can evolve and change through education, awareness, economic development as well as the efforts of governments and civil society.

ACD’s Approach

ACD brings together community members of different ethnicities and class, not just to address human rights violations but also to tackle the underlying causes of these problems. ACD’s village development committees aim to strengthen local justice system through enhancing capacity of Salish (village arbitration) committees, Violence Protection Committee, and people’s organizations which improve access to justice for disadvantaged and marginalized groups and enhance their human rights process and practices in the rural areas.

I am working with ACD for a long time where I have coordinated several projects related to human rights and women’s participation in democracy. I have worked to empower women by raising their awareness through interventions at the community and household level. Social norms and attitudes related to the status and role of women in society can also improve over time through greater exposure and interaction with the outside world.

Economic independence enables women to negotiate and engage in domestic decision making, which reduces violence and gender discrimination because it gives confidence, sense of security, increased mobility and gains respect from family members. Girls need trade-based skill training, life skill training, and education, engagement in sports and cultural activities to build their self-confidence and to raise voice against discrimination and violence.

Lack of information also creates barriers towards security and rights of women and girls. Accessibility and availability of information are prerequisites for women and girls as violence survivors to access justice and other services. The Right to Information (RTI) Act can be used by women and girls to ensure that they get the information they need in order to access justice and prevent further violence.

To fight all forms of violence against women and girls, ACD engages men and boys to help in changing their behavior and social norms, making them allies in our cause. Engaging them has resulted in their initiative to stop their peers to stalking girls and preventing early marriage in their locality by participating in their community’s Action Committee.

Women’s empowerment is defined as improving the ability of women to take independent decisions and have access to various services such as health, education, earning opportunities, enjoy fundamental rights, and political participation. The relationship between economic development and women’s empowerment run in two directions. Development alone can play a major role in driving down inequality between men and women. However, continuing discrimination against women can hinder development whereas empowerment can accelerate development. It is essential to collaborate and foster institutional linkages with relevant ministries and departments like Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Department of Social Service, Department of Women Affairs, police department, One Stop Crisis Centre and counselling institutes.

Poverty and lack of opportunity create inequality between men and women so that when economic development reduces poverty, the condition of women improves. Economic development, however, is not enough to bring about complete equality between men and women. Policy action is still necessary to achieve gender equality.


During the May 18 Academy, I am able to gain some good practices of attitude, behaviors, and professional aspect which I can replicate at my work in Bangladesh. It was also an opportunity to connect with other participants from 15 countries who shared their human rights country situation and organizational works. It is needed to create an atmosphere for building capacity and confidence among the downtrodden and disenfranchised segments of populations, in particular, to be able to preserve their basic human rights and demand good governance and accountability. Men and boys must take meaningful initiatives for more gender role and relationships in the society.

Reducing gender-based violence is fundamental to the achievement of peace, economic productivity, rights, justice, and social cohesion. In the Millennium Development Goals, there were no targets or indicators relate to violence. However, the Sustainable Development Goals planned to address most risk factors to bring gender equality and to address the violence against women and girls. Government and related stakeholders need to be supportive of gender justices and bring change in attitude and behavior perpetuating violence against women and girls.

In the end, our strong collaborative effort can ensure human rights in the world. I express sincere gratitude to the May 18 Memorial Foundation for organizing this program for the human rights activists. My learning experience from the May 18 Academy will contribute to the global social movement for the protection of women and girls from violence.