From November 25th (International End Violence Against Women Day) through December 10th (International Human Rights Day), USAID joins the international community for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. During this time IMPACT will highlight USAID’s work to combat gender-based violence.
Shahida Begum is a young Bangladeshi mom who hails from the northern district of Bogra, where her parents arranged her marriage at the age of sixteen. At the ceremony, her mother and father agreed to pay the groom’s family a dowry in exchange for taking Shahida’s hand in marriage. Though illegal, the traditional practice of paying a dowry—usually a lump sum of cash or valuable property transferred from the bride’s family to the family of the groom—still occurs in Bangladesh, particularly in rural areas.
In the beginning of their married life, things were going well for Shahida and her husband. However, after a few months, Shahida’s in-laws began to demand more dowry money. After several refusals, the requests transformed into heated verbal pressure from her husband’s family, yet Shahida and her family continued to resist. The situation continued to escalate to the point where physical violence was exerted against Shahida by her husband. The violence grew worse with the birth of an unexpected baby girl. Finally, the abuse became so intense that she had no choice but to flee to her parents’ home. Even though her husband knew that she was breastfeeding their daughter, he did not allow Shahida to take their child when she walked out the door.
Bangladesh is considered a rising performer in achieving development milestones. Not only does it boast a growing economy, it is also on track to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals, including MDG3 to “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women.” Today, there is equal enrollment of boys and girls in primary and lower secondary schools, and the number of seats in parliament was raised in 2004 from 300 to 345—the additional 45 seats reserved for women lawmakers.
Despite this progress, violence continues to destroy the lives of many Bangladeshi women and girls. The Daily Star—a popular national newspaper—reported that 822 women were victimized for dowry in 2012; of them, nearly 300 were killed. These numbers only reflect official reports and don’t tell the full story. Privately, domestic violence is widespread in Bangladesh. A baseline survey conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2011 found that 75 percent of women surveyed believed that domestic violence is justified if a wife disobeys her husband.
USAID is working with the Government of Bangladesh to implement and enforce the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2010 to make tragedies like Shahida’s a thing of the past. Public awareness campaigns educate citizens about the law and the consequences of domestic violence. In addition, USAID has trained nearly 300 human rights defenders—half of them women—to enforce existing human rights laws, including the Domestic Violence Act. Grassroots social protection groups made up of social workers, doctors, religious leaders, teachers, and students monitor domestic violence in their communities and help victims access legal channels and alternative dispute forums to settle incidents of abuse.
After leaving her child behind, Shahida lived at her father’s home where she felt safe. During this time, she experienced a wave of emotion and confusion. She had heard about domestic violence happening in her community but never thought she would be a victim. Most of all, her soul longed to return to her baby daughter.
Shahida began to seek help and found a social protection group in her community. This group was part of USAID’s Protecting Human Rights program in which a legal counselor, police and social protection group members promised Shahida to help resolve the dispute. The group also provided psychosocial counseling.
The social protection group organized two alternative dispute resolution sessions in which Shahida, her husband and their respective family members convened to present their stories. Forum members listened to the testimonies and discussed the accounts amongst themselves. After coming to a ruling, members of the group brokered an agreement among the parties in which Shahida would be allowed to return to her in-laws’ house and be reunited with her daughter. To ensure she would not face future violent acts, the Protecting Human Rights program issued a clause in which they would file a court case against Shahida’s husband or his family under the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act if she is abused in any way.
In August 2013, Shahida returned to her husband’s home. She says she feels safer with her daughter in her arms and also takes comfort in regular monitoring by USAID’s Protecting Human Rights program to ensure a violence free life for Shahida and her child.
As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we renew our commitment to end the abuse that traps so many women and girls in Bangladesh and around the world. Let us work together, in partnership, to make all forms of violence a thing of the past.