Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks with a reporter during the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Stephanie Keith
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is delicately positioning her nation in the Indo-Pacific contest between the US and China. Photo: Agencies

When Myanmar in 2017 launched a systematic campaign of terror to annihilate Muslim Rohingya communities, according to one report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA), soldiers raped around 18,000 girls and women.

Rape and sexual assault were used as weapons to demoralize communities, and the Myanmar army, apart from killing hundreds of people, used rape as a strategy to spread fear with a view to ensuring that the Rohingya, especially the women, would never think of returning to their land.

Now let’s look at Bangladesh. Since the 2014 election that left more than half of the country disfranchised and around 10% of the remaining electorate voted the Awami League into power after all the other parties unallied to the Awami League boycotted the poll, 20,835 women, girls and even children had filed reports of raped by April 2019.

If we compare the numbers, in Bangladeshi under Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, around 2,000 more women and girls have been raped in a time of “peace” than those raped by Myanmar’s state forces under that country’s reign of terror.

The numbers are particularly formidable considering that in a Muslim-majority nation like Bangladesh, it is rare for a woman to report being raped.

This being the case, when the World Economic Forum (WEF) this year declared Bangladesh an epitome of women’s empowerment in South Asia, concerned citizens found it hard to believe.

Recently Shafquat Rabbee, a Bangladeshi-American geopolitical columnist and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Dallas, rightly pointed out, “Rape without punishment and plunder are the ultimate expressions of absolute, uncontrollable, immoral power.”

Caretaker system ditched

Before 2011, Bangladesh’s constitution provided for an impartial caretaker government made up of technocrats with apparently no formal political affiliation to oversee a national election. This process facilitated four elections that were endorsed by the international community as fair and credible.

In 2011, two years before the next national election, the Awami League-led administration unilaterally scrapped the caretaker-government system. This meant that the next election would be held under a prime minister nominated by the Awami League. In a country known for political violence during elections, this created a sense of impunity among members of the Awami League.

According to data provided by Justice Audit Bangladesh, the average number of cases of women and child repression was 15,343 per year under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime of 2002-06, and the number was 15,553 under the military-backed caretaker and half of the Awami League regime (2007-10). This average skyrocketed to 20,890 cases after the caretaker-government system was removed from the constitution and the Awami League came to power (2011-15).

We can debate for hours and commission researches on the causation and correlation of Bangladesh’s political impunity and harassment of women, but we cannot deny the numbers and trends that clearly show how rape and harassment increased significantly after the Awami League gave the impression to its people that it was going to stay in power longer than any previous regimes.

The myth of political empowerment

According to the WEF report, Bangladesh’s “success” of women’s empowerment was measured by its performance in four key areas, and apart from political empowerment, the country ranked lower than in 2006 in all three remaining areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival.

Numerically, there is no doubt that women’s political empowerment has indeed increased. However, the numbers can also tell us a different story. One good example is the proportion of female members of parliament. According to the World Bank, the proportion of seats held by women in Bangladesh’s national legislature is 20.63%, that is, 72 of the 350 MPs are women.

Now let’s face the truth. Fifty of these female MPs are in reserved seats, and hardly take part in decision-making. Many of them are the mothers, sisters, wives or daughters of male leaders of the party or of businessmen affiliated with the party. They do not have to take part in any election, but get nominated by the parties.

If we consider only the number of females who took part in the election and made it to parliament, the proportion decreases to 7.33%, certainly not an impressive number.

Another good example is this year’s Dhaka municipal election. Only six of more than 200 councilor candidates nominated by the two major parties were women. Two-thirds of them were from opposition BNP, and just two from the ruling Awami League.

But there is also a provision of reserved female councilors, one in every three wards, that saves the face of “women empowerment” in local government. In most cases, the voters do not even know the candidates who won the reserved women’s seats.

‘Getting worse’

While talking to a Bangladeshi daily, the executive director of CAMPE (Campaign for Popular Education), Rasheda K Choudhury, said, “There is no reason to think that gender disparity has lessened in the country just by seeing this ranking. On the contrary, it has become worse.”

Even the organization that ranked Bangladesh has said so. According to the WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2020:

  • Bangladesh ranked 141st in the women’s economic empowerment and opportunity index in 2020, compared with 107th in 2006.
  • In the educational attainment ranking, Bangladesh ranked 120th, a staggering 25 places behind the ranking in 2006 in this field.
  • Its health and survival ranking dropped to 119th in 2020 from 113th in 2006.

Moreover, after legalizing child marriage in 2017, Bangladesh stands fourth in the list of the world’s most child-marriage-prone country, with 59% of brides getting married by the age of 18 and 22% of them married before the age of 15. This is a result of the security risks faced by females and economic crises caused by the culture of impunity and lack of equal opportunities.

The global community should look into the reality of life in Bangladesh before providing generous funding in the name of human development and reducing the gender gap, only for those monies to be misappropriated by the ruling class and corrupt bureaucrats hungry for foreign trips and cash payments.

The writer is an assistant professor at a Bangladeshi university currently living in exile in Malaysia.