Women have a great role to play in ensuring gender justice
Professor Dr. Shahnaz Huda teaches law at the University of Dhaka and is the former Chairperson of the Department of Law.
She is an expert on personal and comparative family laws, gender and child rights issues and has several publications to her credit. Professor Huda completed her PhD from the University of East London, UK in 1996, and her post-doctoral research at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK, as a Commonwealth Academic Fellow on family law in South Asia. On the occasion of International Women's Day 2020, Raihan Rahman Rafid and Sadman Rizwan Apurbo from the Law & Justice, the Daily Observer talked to Professor Huda on the following issues.
TDO: The theme of International Women's Day 2020 is #EachforEqual, which is drawn from the notion of "Collective Individualism". In the legal context of Bangladesh, how would you evaluate the role of each individual in bringing gender justice?
SH: The understanding of the whole concept should be that men and women are equal. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the worldview is both patriarchal and paternalistic. As an example of the latter, according to Section 87 of the Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006, both adolescents as well as women are prohibited from doing certain types of work - based on the idea that women are inferior to adult men. Again, Section 109 restricts women from working between 10 PM to 6 AM without their consent. This may be due to concerns regarding their safety, but in reality, it is the State that should be responsible for ensuring the security of women at all times, rather than restricting their work opportunities.
Within the social and cultural contexts within which we live, despite the great strides Bangladeshi women have made, the concept of gender equality continues to be an alien and unacceptable notion. This is further exacerbated by rising fundamentalism and discriminatory personal laws under which women of all religions are deprived of their rights in one way or other. Research has shown that as many women become empowered and financially more independent through various interventions undertaken by the State and NGOs, patriarchal society tries to counteract by committing egregious acts of violence against them.
Women have a great role to play in ensuring gender justice - by instilling in their male offspring the ideas of respect for all, especially women. Women also need to believe in equality for themselves and respect other women. Although the common rhetoric is that only men commit violence against women, many women are also perpetrators or instigators of violence against other women. Thus when we talk about violence against women, we only focus on violence by men which statistically is true, but we also need to acknowledge that women in some cases commit verbal and physical abuse e.g. mothers in law and the abuse which is committed against helpless house help. However, it is true that violence against women is committed by and large by men. The fight to ensure a violence-free society for women must be supported and ensured by men and the youth of this country. Women are often disrespected, harassed and abused because of the resentment men feel, sometimes subconsciously, due to their occupying public spaces since a woman's place has been traditionally considered to be inside the home. Scores of Bangladeshi women now are successful in the outside world, each in their own way, and paternalistic patriarchal society is still reluctant to accept this.
TDO: Do you think we need a specific law for sexual harassment at the workplace and educational institutions? How can we frame legislation that addresses gender equality?
SH: I do not think having a separate law for everything is a good idea. There is a dearth of facilities and the Courts are already overburdened. We do not have enough judges, enough space in the courts or sufficient manpower to implement new laws.
We already have many laws which can be reformed and amended so that the offence of sexual harassment is taken seriously with commensurate penal liability because it is a violation of women's human rights. Provisions for compensation for victims/survivors need to be made. The main focus should be on implementation of laws, raising awareness and providing access to the formal legal system. There persists the feeling of impunity that perpetrators rely on based on financial or political clout. Confidence in the legal system needs to be restored.
In many cases, access to the Courts and the procedures within are sexist, intrusive and acutely gender insensitive.
Going back to the question regarding sexual harassment, there are provisions which already exist albeit without using the phrase directly, for example, Sections 509 and 354 of the Penal Code, 1860 and Section 332 of the Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006. However, these need to be updated and more importantly implemented. The guideline provided by the High Court may be incorporated in the form of rules. People are also unaware of these laws. There is even a provision about sexual harassment in the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance of 1976 and those of other metropolises, but most police officers are not aware of such provisions.
We can strengthen, update and make stricter whatever law already exists. Most crucial is the implementation of such laws. There needs to be proper monitoring at all levels.
TDO: What is your opinion on introducing compensation in sexual harassment and rape cases?
SH: I strongly agree with the idea of introducing provisions for compensation. The conviction rates are very low, for example in the Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Tribunals. However, we are all aware that an unprecedented number of girls and women are sufferers and survivors of violence. The trial process is by itself a gruelling process for women and they are often victimized further. Compensation will at least provide some form of relief and act as a deterrent which even provisions for harsh punishment contained in the laws is not able to do since criminal law requires a much higher degree of proof. Moreover, there is already existing provisions regarding compensation in section 15 of the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain, 2000. Further research needs to be done to evaluate the number of cases where such compensation has been received by women.
TDO: Last year, you co-authored a book titled 'Revisiting Personal Laws in Bangladesh: Proposals for Reform'. Would you enlighten us about the book?
SH: My work in the book is mainly concentrated on the personal laws of Hindus and Buddhists. There are some areas where the need for reform is very obvious i.e. provisions for divorce, equal property rights and so forth. However, it appears that the men within these communities themselves are reluctant to accept reforms.
I am a supporter of uniform family code, but I also understand that in our current social context acceptance of such uniform law is unlikely, at least at present. Even India, whose Constitution talks about a uniform civil code has not been able to introduce such uniformity in its family laws. Nonetheless, I believe that an option should be made available for those who want to come under the aegis of a more gender-friendly and secular law. The Special Marriage Act, 1872 is an outdated law from the British period. The Bangladesh Law Commission has submitted several recommendations and proposals which should be considered. We need to conduct more research, including empirical research to find the lacunas within the law. We demand a safe and secure life for all women since it is their inalienable and basic human right.
Thank you for your time.