UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women Rashida Manjoo on Wednesday called for adopting a unified family code to ensure equal treatment to all citizens, and also more specially, protecting the rights of women in terms of marriage, divorce, separation and having children.
“For a country with diverse population, it’s a challenge but it’s doable to come up with a uniform family law that ensures the protection of the most vulnerable in terms of marriage, divorce, children etc and it is possible,” she told a press conference at a city hotel.
Manjoo, the first UN independent expert here to assess the situation of violence against women, also said Bangladesh’s personal law governing marriage, separation and divorce sets out separate rules for different religious communities.
“What you have in Bangladesh is plural systems that govern particularly family laws. You have religious, customary and tribal systems and laws that function. The challenge is whether marriage, divorce and separation practices and laws are based on religion or based on customary laws.”
The UN official said there is a challenge creating a discussion around how all communities consider citizenship and one law in terms of protection of most vulnerable women.
She mentioned that there are some researches done by the Law Commission as well as the Law Ministry, and hoped that the civil society will definitely be active to that end.
Responding to a question, Manjoo said she is not asking Bangladesh to abolish anything. “I’m asking for dialogue in the country about thinking through what it means equal law and equal citizenship. But religious practices will continue.”
Talking about violence against women here, Manjoo said, “Violence against women is a human rights issue, that’s not negotiable…it demands accountability.”
Narrating her extensive visits and meetings here, the UN official said she received reports of human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, occurring in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, which houses Rohingya community.
“It’s regrettable that I was denied access to the camp by government authorities, thus preventing me from assessing the situation directly, including through interactions with women residents of the camp,” she said.
Asked what was the reason behind the denial, she said, “I wasn’t given a reason. I was at the entrance of the camp. I was told by police and military authorities that they have been informed that I didn’t have the necessary permission to enter the camp.”
Responding to a question about 13-ponit Hefajat demands, the UN official said she has been provided with that document which reflects the demands.
“One of the demands calls for women not to be allowed in public spaces. It’s the responsibility of the state to promote and protect the rights of all citizens in the country, including addressing the challenges. It’s really important,” she said.
On addressing the violence against women, she said it cannot be addressed in isolation of the context, including the historical, political, economic, social and cultural contexts, and realities that impact and shape the lives of women.
According to interlocutors, the UN official said, the most pervasive form of violence against women in Bangladesh is domestic violence, with an estimated 60 percent of married women reported to having experienced of violence at the hands of spouse and or in-laws.
She expressed concern over the remaining challenges such as unregulated religious educational establishments which foster harmful gender stereotypes, poverty, early marriages, security issues, prevailing level of violence against girls, harassment by both teachers and fellow-pupils and the absence of suitable toilet facilities for girls.
Quoting numerous interlocutors, she said the absence of effective implementation of the existing laws was the rule rather than the exception, in cases of violence against women.
“I was also informed about other challenges in relation to access to justice are reflected in women’s experiences in accessing the justice system…it’s my hope that accountability for violators of women’s human rights is increasingly addressed in the justice system,” the UN official said.
She reiterated that the need for holistic solutions which address both the individual empowerment of women, and also the social, economic and cultural barriers that are reality in the lives of women.
“Empowerment must be coupled with social transformation to address the causes of inequality and discrimination which most often lead to violence against women,” she added.
The UN official also informed that her findings will be discussed in a comprehensive report that she will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June next year.
During her 10-day visit, the Special Rapporteur has had meetings with government authorities and civil society at the State, District and community levels in Dhaka, Chittagong, Rangamati, Khulna and Jessore.