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FOCUS June 2003 Volume 32

Rights in Law and in Practice: The Case of Bangladesh

Jamila Ahmed Chowdhury

Women are favorite subjects of literature, and Bangladeshi women are no exception. The beauty and charm of Bangladeshi women are extolled in poems, legends and short stories. But the suffering of Bangladeshi women hardly comes out in the literature. Bangladeshi women endure oppression and deprivation in their own family, community or in the society at large. They are also subjected to violence and discrimination. In a large country like Bangladesh, with its socio-economic and legal systems biased against the poor and the women, Bangladeshi women are in difficult situation.

Women's rights in law

Under the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, women's rights are protected under the broad and universal principles of equality and participation. These principles are found in the following Articles in the Constitution:

  • Article 10 of the Constitution provides that steps shall be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of national life.
  • Article 19 (1) provides that the State shall endeavor to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens. Article 27 specifies that all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law. Moreover, Article 28 (1) provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Article 28 (2) more directly and categorically says that women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life. This latter provision means that all rights mentioned in the Constitution, such as right to life, right to personal liberty, right to property, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom to exercise a profession or occupation are equally applicable to women in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has a number of special laws, specifically prohibiting certain form of violence against women including the Penal Code, 1860, the Anti-Dowry Prohibition Act (1980), the Cruelty to Women Ordinance (1983), the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (1993;), and the Prevention of Repression against Women and Children Act (2000).

Women's rights in reality

Despite the legal support for women's rights, Bangladesh women are still practically not given equal treatment. Practices of inequality are manifold, of which the following deserve a special mention:

  • In case of wages in the informal sector, women are paid a lower grade than men for the same work;
  • In divorce, women need a court order to enforce their right to divorce, which requires proving the validity of their reason for seeking divorce. Men, on the other hand, do not need such court order and thus they can divorce their wives even without any proper reason, and at any time they wish;
  • In inheritance, a woman is generally given half the share of her male counterpart. A son would exclude his paternal uncle or aunt from inheriting from his deceased's father's property, while a daughter would not cause such consequence.

Contravening the Constitutional provisions on the right to life and liberty (Article 32), and freedom of movement (Article 36), Bangladeshi women face different forms of violence by men on a daily basis. One research report1 published in 2000 by a reputed women's non-governmental organization in Bangladesh shows that 30% of the women in the cities are battered by their husbands, 37% are victims of verbal insults and harassment, and 33% are victims of other forms of domestic violence. Another survey reveals that among the victims of physical violence, 23% are rape victims, 22% acid-throwing victims, 10% burn-victims, 5% are victims of poisoning, forced abortion and other kinds of violence.

A number of traditional practices also oppress Bangladeshi women. Many women have been charged with committing "moral" offences before local religious leaders whose views are generally biased against women. The local religious leaders issue a fatwa (ruling) that metes out punishment to women, such as the humiliating and degrading public whipping and stoning. There is no legal sanction for fatwa; it is simply a part of traditional practice.

Bangladeshi women who fail to pay the dowry to their husbands and their families are subjected to violence. Some have been beaten, set on fire or poisoned. Women who turn down marriage proposals are in danger of suffering violence from spurned men. There is increasing number of cases of men throwing acid to the faces of women with the aim of disfiguring them. One non-governmental organization (ODHIKAR)2 reported an increasing number of acid-throwing cases - 101 in 1998, 178 in 1999, 186 in 2000, 206 in 2001 (including 33 of the victims who were children) and 247 in 2002

The mobility of Bangladeshi women is also hampered by traditional practices. The observance of pardah (seclusion) is an example of such traditional practices. This practice restricts the movement of women outside the house. And if they enter a public place where men are present, they have to make sure that no part of their body (including their face) is without any cover. In some extreme cases, family reputation is considered blemished if any of the Muslim family's women fail to follow this tradition.

There are also cases of trafficking of Bangladeshi women to other countries for purposes of forced prostitution. Because of the hidden nature of trafficking, reliable statistics are hard to find. Nevertheless according to one report,3 the rate of trafficking of women and children in Bangladesh is as follows:

  • 200 -- 400 young women and children are smuggled and trafficked every month from Bangladesh to Pakistan and Arab countries;
  • An estimated 10,000 - 15,000 are trafficked to India annually;
  • On average at least 70-80 women and children are trafficked daily from Bangladesh to other countries;
  • An estimated 200,00 women have already been trafficked to different countries including girls as young as 9 years old.

Rape cases are also increasing in an alarming rate. There were 3,189 rape cases in 2002, up from 3,140 cases the previous year.4

This situation restricts the free movement of women. They fear for their safety. They are not safe whether they are inside or outside the house. Parents, relatives and the women themselves are constantly worried about their physical security. This led to the situation where women cannot anymore freely move around without another person acting as bodyguard, and where parents insist that they return home before its gets dark whether their work is finished or not.

The Bangladeshi government created in 1990 a program in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to assist women victims of violence. Assistance cells have been created in different parts of the country to implement the program. However, the number of such assistance cells is very limited to be able to cope with the demand for service.

Early marriage is another obstacle in promoting women's rights. The Majority Act, 1875 clearly provides that a woman must at least be 18 years old to be able to get married. This legal requirement unfortunately is disregarded, especially in rural areas. Many marriages are held without the 'free consent' of the women. The parents give the consent as if there is no justification for getting the consent from the women. Poverty, family honor, social insecurity are some of the major reasons for early marriages. As a result, the women's right to education, a pillar for realizing one's own rights, suffer.

In education, more Bangladeshi boys study than girls. The ratio of boy-girl students in the primary school level has improved with girl enrolment reaching 70% of the boy enrolment level. But the situation in the secondary school level is still bad with girl enrolment constituting only 40% of the boy enrolment level.

In livelihood, Bangladeshi women suffer discrimination in getting bank loans. Since most of them do not have properties of their own that can used as loan collateral, and husbands or male relatives have to give consent to any bank loan transaction, the opportunity for women to access to financial resource from the bank is limited.

Employment of women is still low. This is true for the both private and government offices.6 And women who occupy government jobs have lower status and very little influence in government decision-making processes.

In politics, while Bangladesh has two women Prime Ministers during the last decade until the present, only 6 women legislators have been elected into Parliament during the 8th National Elections held in June 2001. There are 36 women legislators (composed of 30 members occupying reserved seats for women and 6 elected members), in the 330-member parliament.

Turning the Law into Practice

The situation of Bangladeshi women illustrates the problem of turning legal principles into social, political and economic practice.

The discriminatory attitude against women, rooted in the family and extends to the State level, should be ended. Because of the constraints from the family, society and the State in general, Bangladeshi women are not aware of their rights. And even if some of them become aware of their rights, they still would not assert them due to the "ingrained unexpected continuity" (i.e., the traditional belief of keeping women under the shadow of somebody such as their fathers or husbands).

A basic change in the institutional structure may occur if social security for women is ensured. Furthermore, the outlook of the family and society has to change to give more opportunity for women's protection and participation in Bangladesh. This, in turn, will help women become independent and conscious about their rights.

In this case, the approach may have to be two-pronged - at the level of the family and society, and at the level of the State. This approach mitigates the gap between the laws and the existing practices against women's rights.

Without the link between the principles and the practice, Bangladeshi women will continue to suffer. This is a sad state three decades after the United Nations pronounced the "Decade of Women (1975- 1985)."

Chowdhury Jamila Ahmed is a Japanese Development Scheme (JDS) Scholar under JICA Program.

For further information, please contact: Graduate School of Law, Niigata University, ph/fax (8125) 261 -2108, e-mails:;


1. Violence on Women in Bangladesh, Nari Pakha Report, (Dhaka: 2000).

2. ODHIKAR, Yearly Report on Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh (Dhaka: 2002).

3. US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2002 (Washington: 2002) and USAID, Bangladesh Anti - Trafficking 13 March 2003.

4. "Violence May Be Rising Against Bangladesh Women," Gulf News, United Arab Emirates, 23 March 2002.

5. The government policy of recruiting more women into the government service has not been successful so far. In 1999, only 14% of the new government employees are women. See 1999 Country reports on human rights released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S Department of State, February 25, 2000.