Christine Hunter is head of the representative of U.N. Women in Bangladesh. In a recent exclusive interview with the Daily Observer, Christine shared her views about status of women in Bangladesh, their future and the country's tremendous achievement of MDGs. Excerpt from the interview:
Observer: How do you view the present status of Bangladeshi women?
Christine: A great progress has been made in various areas -- maternal and child mortality rate has decreased, Bangladesh has achieved MDG targets which many countries have not yet met. But still too many women die giving birth and the highest risk area is to adolescent mothers. Bangladesh needs to work hard to reduce child marriage to minimize that risk.
Among girls of ages between 15 and 19, half are married. So we have half of the girls who are deprived of the opportunity to fully develop themselves as citizens, community members and leaders. They already have become wives and mothers too. This has to change.
Observer: What is the biggest challenge Bangladeshi women face?
Christine: I think the biggest challenge facing women in Bangladesh at present is gender inequality and violence against them. And it happens everywhere, in the street, in school, in work place and in home. That's one thing needs to be addressed firmly.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, about 87 per cent of adult women in Bangladesh experienced some forms of violence. This has shocked everybody. But this violence against women is so common it has become normal crime in people's lives.
Observer: What you think are main reasons for low participation of women in politics?
Christine: Actually, there has been a substantial increase in number of women in parliament but still we are not at the rate we want that to be. When Bangladesh parliament should ideally have minimum of one third women members it has just 19 percent. We need to do more to raise women representation in parliament and in local government bodies.
Sometimes violence discourages and prevents women from getting involved in economic activities and politics. That has to be done away with. We also need to reduce women's dependence on their husband's income that often leads to abuse.
Women should be empowered to make choice about the life they want to live and have some say over that and have the power to act in their own interest. For this the "complicated" social structure needs to be changed.
Observer: As head of UN Women you may have observed discriminations, especially unequal treatment between men and women in jobs. What steps are needed to change this culture?
Christine: In my work life I have been lucky not to experience any significant discrimination. I have always worked on women's rights and gender equality. But I have heard of it, and seen it too, many types of discrimination affecting working women. It happens in many job cultures in Bangladesh and many other countries too.
Right many discriminations women face in labour market are because there are more men than women in this sector. Most men still want to see women doing household work and not doing job outside homes. We need to break that vicious cycle. Universal education and vocational training can help women a lot.
In the RMG (ready-made garment) sector women are very reliable and good workers. So, they (may) also be considered for managerial positions, should be given equal opportunities and a sexual harassment free workplace. In this regard, the High Court directive against sexual harassment and ILO provisions should be implemented.
Observer: What does U.N. women do?
Christine: It is the U.N. agency responsible for gender equality and empowerment of women. One of our jobs is to support the government to improve the gender equality. The government of Bangladesh has signed on to international conventions on gender equality and our role is to support them to implement those here. We support technically or we work as a partner or if government needs we help in capacity building.
And we also help make links between the civil society groups who have information and evidence, and what's needed to bring them together. We do also help linking up partners with government and civil society and other development agencies.
Observer: What is your observation about Beijing+24?
Christine: Beijing Platform for Action, which was agreed by the government in 1995, was really a radical document in several ways. The main thing is that it was everybody from government to development partners, civil society, and national development workers (who) came under the same umbrella with shared responsibility to promote gender equality.
The Beijing Platform for Action highlighted the need to put gender equality and women empowerment in the centre of development work. Bangladesh was part of the consensus and can really play a key role in moving this agenda forward globally for several reasons. The Prime Minister is one of the very few democratically elected world leaders who was there when Millennium goals (MDGs) were signed and she will be there when the post-2015 agenda will be agreed, very few leaders would be there in both times. She has taken very strong leadership position on many gender equality issues and Bangladesh is recognized as one of the best achiever on the MDGs.