Barrister Sara Hossain is practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and currently serving as Honorary Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Service Trust (BLAST). She works widely on public interest litigation and legal aid, women's human rights and access to justice, minority rights and has also obtained significant judgements in regards to such and many more. Ms. Hossain was also listed among the Top Ten inspirational Bangladeshis around the world, published by British Parliament Commonwealth Room. On this Women's Day, Sakina Huq and Adib Shamsuddin from Law Desk talks with her on the following issues.
Law Desk(LD): Is Bangladesh keeping up with the emerging gender equality compared to other SAARC Nations ?
Sara Hossain (SA): In some areas Bangladesh is actually surpassing other SAARC Nations; in relation to a number of indicators of gender equality. For example, in many areas like girls' enrolment in primary and secondary schools, maternal mortality figures or women's entry into the work place, Bangladesh has excelled above many of its SAARC neighbours.
We have lots of laws dealing with particular forms of violence against woman that are very common not only in Bangladesh but also in South Asia. We are advanced in some areas like recognising acid violence as a serious form of violence and it needs very specific attention. In fact, Bangladesh's law on acid violence from 2002 is being seen as a model for Pakistan and India to follow now.
Another area we moved ahead if we see in the recent years that, women are more visible in public offices; whether it's in political positions or in offices of State including different agencies. We see a very significant presence of women in factories or RMG's. The condition of the worker is poor and the pay for woman worker is so poor, which however continues to be a source of shame for us. It is still a reality that women do not get equal payment like men. Almost in all sectors we witness this trend.
Despite constitutional guarantees, we still have a system where you don't have rights as a citizen; rather we have limitations of rights depending on which religion we belong or which geographical area we come from. That's an area where much work needs to be done.
LD: Bangladesh has made progressive achievements in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with regards to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, what are suggestions for same in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
SH: Looking at the SDGs, there are some new specific indicators. One of them is about marriage and the issues around child marriage, as well as forced and early marriage. This is the area where we lag behind. The number of child marriages is shocking in Bangladesh. In the SDGs child marriage and early marriage have been identified as goals that Government has set for themselves that they will reduce the number over the next 15 years.
Another important SDG indicator is - working on rule of law, which potentially makes a big difference regarding women's right. Where laws in Bangladesh do not ensure full equality for women, even if the law itself is good, the application of the law is not very equal or fair for women in many situations, so the fact we now have an SDG which talks about rule of law means the government and organisations have to look into that what the law has to achieve in 15 years to ensure that equality.
LD: Would you say that lowering the marriageable age was indeed a pragmatic policy?
SH: The controversy we are having in Bangladesh is over the age, and whether we should take this chance. If we get the chance to fix it, then we should fix it and just say that 18 is the minimum age and stick to that. Of course there are arguments going on whether there will be an exception or creating special circumstance for 16 years. At least as far as the women's movement in Bangladesh is concerned, which is quite strong, I think everybody has that consensus that it must be 18 and you should not allow the marriageable age to be 16.
LD: Gender based violence often goes unheeded or goes unpunished. Take last year's Pohela Boishakh incident at TSC as an example , justice is yet to be served despite all the public outcry. If the law is applied properly for sexual harassment or violence against women, will that be good enough to change the social behaviour of the masculine society?
SH: The incident of TSC is more of an assault and a full blown criminal act than just one of sexual harassment. If the law were enforced properly, fairly, equally and not selectively then definitely it would have changed the practice of behaviour, that there are consequences to these kinds of acts. The unfortunate absence of due diligence is what really gives licence to people to carry on further acts like this since they would think there are no reparations for doing such. At the same time, enforcing the law whether it's around sexual harassment or violence is not just about catching the responsible, and prosecuting and punishing them. But it's also responding to what the victims need in this situation. We all voiced the need to catch perpetrators of the TSC incident and punish them but we have lost sight of what happen to the woman who went through that experience.
It is also very important to look for prevention of this kind of situation. What do we have to do to ascertain similar incidents aren't repeated? Pohela Boishakh is around the corner now, what are we going to do? Are CCTV cameras enough? As women, we need to be aware of what the risks are and how we are going to fight back; it doesn't mean staying back home and not celebrating the festivals rather it's quite the reverse. We must all go to Pohela Boishakh and we must all be prepared to deal with the worst. It also means that not just woman but also our male friends, comrades, boyfriends, husbands must be around with us as well and be part of it. This is not a battle between men and women; it's about people who feel that public places are for people to enjoy. We should not be frightened off or no one should feel it is something of a risk to go and celebrate.
LD: As a leading lawyer of the Fatwa case, what security do you think of the promising judgement would offer for women?
SH: There were mainly three judgements in Fatwa case, two from High Court and one from the Supreme Court, and all of them are really good. The judgements made two principles very clear that, you can't give any unlawful punishment and people who don't have any authority under the law can't take law into their own hands. But now, no one claims to be issuing fatwas anymore. I have noticed and heard that the fatwa is not being given per se but almost the same thing is happening in the name of “Shalish”. Shalish are taking place giving some kind of punishment which is being carried out and sometimes woman are being humiliated in public by men, but the word fatwa is now rarely used.
But the judgement made it clear that the act of taking the law into your own hands and secondly imposing a punishment which is not in Bangladeshi law in any place, that is an offence. If that still happens, then the Union Parishad or police has a responsibility to take action against perpetrators. The fatwa judgements have helped us to understand what is wrong. But we also have to go one step beyond and see even if the fatwa is not practiced but a similar kind of practice needs to be stopped as well.
LD: As an active member of the judiciary, tell us about the position of women in the legal system.
SH: There are great numbers of women lawyers are emerging but we are often not being able to ensure that they stay in the profession. It is really hard to stick to. People like me are privileged, because I have a family that is very supportive, has a lawyer in it who is supportive. I also have colleagues who are supportive. But for most people this is not the case. You have to juggle between family and work responsibilities. Often family does not accept that a woman will stay out late working. The hours of work are not very family-friendly; they don't get the time to take care of their children or elders and so on. Until the profession begin to understand that women's participation in this profession is very crucial and that we need to alter the way of practice, I think it will be hard for women to come in. In terms of judges also, we have shockingly low numbers women judges. Although among new enrolment we see lot of woman coming in but in higher levels there are still very few women and that makes a difference in terms of how the whole process works.
LD: Lastly, any wishes for the women on this Women's Day?
SH: My wishes are for all women, ones who are empowered and the ones who are powerless, I really hope that everyone will remember that there are limits to power, and there are ways to exercise it justly and unjustly. I hope every woman whichever position she is in will think about that.
LD: Thank you very much.
SH: You're welcome.