ICS: Women’s Rights in Bangladesh

Here’s to strong women.
May we know them, 
May we be them, May we raise them. “

As many of you know on March 8th people all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day. A day for all us gals to thank the generations of women before us for their courage and determination, as well as to empower ourselves to further gender equality, not just for us but for our children.

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back” – Malala Yousafzai.

I believe that no person should be discriminated against because of their gender. No person should have less opportunity, less fun, less of a chance of achieving their dreams – purely because they are female. I’m not fighting for more rights than men have, I’m fighting for the same rights. Why? Well, I think why not is a better question.

If the names “Singh” and “Kaur” were created to eliminate inequality – then why does it still exist?

For those of you who don’t know me… I’m a British girl with Indian heritage. My grandparents were born in Punjab, India and moved over to the UK to try and give their children a better life. Growing up as an Indian girl I was still exposed to (but not the subject of) the presence of gender inequality within the Indian culture. For example, in many families the birth of a boy is celebrated with giving traditional Indian sweets to, well…. everyone. Whilst the birth of a girl is looked down upon. I recall on a number of occasions when older Indian women asked my mum “Oh do you have any children” and she would reply “Yes, two daughters” and the response?? “Oh don’t worry, hopefully you’ll be blessed with a son soon.” (Of course my mum would have a witty reply to that – You tell ’em mum!) To top it all off there’s a festival that celebrates the birth of a boy.

In the Sikh religion there is a prayer which states “So why call a woman bad? From her kings are born.” But if that’s the case then why has culture contradicted this to see her as less? Where is the festival that celebrates the birth of a girl?

“Travelling – it leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta.

It’s known widely, that things have progressed for women’s rights in India and across South Asia. There are more women with jobs, school girls playing football, and young women dressing how they wish.

From Sept-Dec 2017 I lived and worked in a very rural community named Edilpur three-month voluntary placement in Bangladesh with International Citizen Service (ICS) and Y-Care International. The experience was life-changing and now I am writing to raise awareness. I’m writing this for equality. I want to share with everyone the things I witnessed and just how hard it can be for girls and women in countries like Bangladesh.

The missing girls…

The main aim of the project was to create three, inclusive youth groups.  We wanted an equal mix of both boys and girls and a range of ages. As we walked around several communities to recruit members, we noticed something very strange. There seemed to be a whole group of people we could not find. Girls – between the ages of 10 to 14 years old. Where were they?

Then we realised… girls who are at the age of puberty are kept inside the house. They aren’t allowed out, and some aren’t even allowed to go to school. One could say that it seems that girls this age are technically imprisoned in their own homes. They have no freedom. An age when you should be exploring, hanging out with friends and learning. And instead these girls were confined. We must have walked for miles, from community to community, with a whole bunch of missing girls, not getting to live the life they deserve, whilst the boys headed off to school, socialising in their free time. And that leads me on to my next issue.

Boys will be boys!

…and girls just wanna have fun, right? NOPE. Girls want an education, girls want to have the right of freedom, the same opportunities, the choice of making their own decisions. And yes, maybe some fun too – after all, who doesn’t?

During placement we could tell the difference in maturity levels between boys and girls by how they acted, and although it is true that females tend to mature earlier than males generally I don’t believe that this was the only factor for these young girls maturing so fast. I’d see boys of all ages playing outside, but girls – not so much. I even saw girls as young as 4 helping out with household chores whilst the boys would play hours on end. And in the evenings the boys from the local youth group would get together to play a popular South Asian board game called “Carrom Board” and just hang out together. But in the three months that I lived there, not one single girl would stay behind and play, or socialise. And this was because in Bangladesh (probably more the rural villages) girls aren’t allowed out in the dark.

This also affected our workshops. If people arrived late and it delayed the timing of our workshop, the girls in the youth group would panic saying that they had to leave early in order to get home before dark. And bear in mind this wasn’t just young girls, our youth groups involved people up to the age of 25. And what some people may not realise is that this rule also applied to us whilst we were there. As part of integrating into the community we had to abide by their rules.

Having come from a country where I have been lucky enough to have so much freedom, it made me appreciate it so much more than I ever have. What I didn’t understand, was that the rhetoric said it was unsafe for women to be out after dark. But perhaps if the emphasis was on men to act with respect towards women, instead of posing a threat, then this wouldn’t be an issue.

“Stress, anxiety and depression are caused when we are living to please others.” – Paulo Coelho

Here is an overview of some of the issues faced in Bangladesh by women:

  1. The dowry system – when a girls family needs to pay (or gift) the family of the boy she is to marry. If a brides family is unable to pay the dowry the bride is often punished in the form of domestic violence.
  2. Early marriage rates in Bangladesh are one of the highest in the world with 71% of girls in rural areas being married before the age of 18.
  3. And finally, teenage pregnancy.

I had an interaction with a girl – 18 years old, whom I can’t name. She wanted to go to university but said there wasn’t any point as her parents had her married off. This girl was extremely intelligent and told me as though it was normal. Her dreams were quashed because she had been taught that all she is good for is to be someone’s wife and someone’s mother. It really saddened me to see someone so young and with so much potential miss opportunities that could have been hers for the taking.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.

I get that this has probably not been the happiest of reads, but reality isn’t always happy and I wanted to highlight that although I had an amazing experience on my ICS placement – the reality of it was shocking and emotional to say the least. But, I feel empowered to help form a positive change for women and girls around the world.

And on that note, I’d like to finish by sharing a famous quote by G.D. Anderson that I believe concludes my points better than I could in my own words;

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” 


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