The beginning of December might mark Holiday season, but it’s also that time of the year where we pay extra attention to women’s rights worldwide. The global campaign ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence’ (25 November to 10 December 2020) raises awareness for just that. Especially in 2020, it’s urgent to speak about this topic. Simavi and BNPS are working in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh) for a safer environment for girls.
Global effect of the pandemic on violence against women and girls
This year is like no other. Even before COVID-19 hit, violence against women and girls had reached pandemic proportions. Globally, 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year. As countries implemented lockdown measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, violence against women, especially domestic violence, intensified.
Reports of domestic violence have decreased as survivors find it harder to seek help and access support through the regular channels. School closures and economic strains left women and girls poorer, out of school and out of jobs, and more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, forced marriage, and harassment.
Sexual violence in a conflict area
The forgotten conflict in the isolated Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area of Bangladesh gravely affects the lives of the indigenous Jummas (11 ethno-linguistically and religiously diverse people). Traditional patriarchal social structures in the area severely disadvantage women and girls, and restrict their bodily and sexual autonomy. Together with the prolonged conflict, this increases their exposure to sexual violence and assault.
Besides being exposed to sexual violence, harassment and assault, young women and girls lack the information, means and support to manage their menstruation with dignity and fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and rights. The outbreak of COVID-19 has unfortunately resulted in more sexual violence and much protest against lack of justice. Official numbers from this area are not available.
Gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment in Chittagong Hill Tracts
These factors make the Hill Tracts highly relevant for a programme to promote gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment. Building on over 30 years’ experience working on community health in Bangladesh, Simavi has designed Our Lives, Our Health, Our Futures with partner BNPS (a local women’s rights organisation). The programme has begun in 2019 with the support of the European Union.
“We are implementing Our Lives Our Health Our Future Programme to enable girls and women to be the owners of their own destiny and be supported by their communities and surrounding to do so with safety. We want women and girls to live with no fear of violence, to decide with whom and when to marry, to decide when to have children, to live their puberty and womanhood with dignity and to take decision and control over their own bodies and sexuality. We believe this change can be sustained in the long term.”
Sharing the stories of survivors, activists and partners on the ground
For the 16 Days of Activism, UN Women invited survivors, activists and partners on the ground, to tell their story. Especially in the conflict area of Chittagong Hill Tracts, it is sensitive and potentially dangerous for women to step forward and share their experiences. Heroes can be found anywhere. We would like to introduce miss Tripura, a local activist who started her path of empowering young girls after having to deal with violence herself and longing for a fair future for all.
“I started my journey in 1988/89. Women in Chittagong Hill district are very vulnerable. Their rights are not protected at all. It used to make me sad. I felt if they get peace, I also would get peace in my life. I thought if they become economically empowered, their condition and position might be changed.”
Ms Shefalika Tripura is currently the executive director of the Khagrapur Mahila Kalyan Samity – Association for wellbeing of women in Khagrapur (KMKS) organisation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. KMKS is a women-led, women’s rights organisation that works with us in the Our Lives, Our Health, Our Futures programme.
Ms Tripura shares: “Women have to fetch water from waterfalls or wells by travelling from up to 2/3 kilometres every day. Women and girls are often being kidnapped on the way, raped or face harassments. They do not go to the police station, since most of the times it has no result or backfires on them.”
Towards a safer future
During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence there have been several activities organised in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to raise awareness for the situation of girls. The local campaign includes discussion with different government departments, discussions in girls’ clubs, a rally, display message-posters in different places of the villages, games, a signature campaign, candle chain and cultural programming. Girls played an active or lead role in all the events.
Programme manager Mahbuba KumKum has contributed to the Solidarity Narratives on Share-Net The Netherlands, a platform that facilitates the exchange of knowledge on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
We believe that with joint efforts of global campaigns and local implementation we are working towards a safer and equal environment for young girls to grow up in.
Our Lives, Our Health, Our Future is funded by the European Union.