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Implications of Women's Citizenship in the Emerging Social Contract

In later chapters we will look in more detail at how public policy has transformed the lives of women and girls and the roles they have played in their country's transformation. But for now, we explore two examples of the changing terms of the social contract between women, society, and the state. The first is the strength, firmness, and multiplicity of opposition to violence against women in social movements and in the law. Levels of violence are high in absolute and relative terms, and a significant minority remains supportive of patriarchal norms: for instance, a third of women of all ages agreed it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives for infractions of the wifely code (burning dinner, going out without permission, refusing sex; NIPORT

2013). Almost three-quarters of men report having been violent towards their wives (World Bank 2007), between a quarter to two-thirds of Bangladeshi women experience violence from husbands in their lifetime, and women and girls routinely face violence, threats, and harassment from non-family men in public spaces.[1] Violence against women is relevant here not because its levels or forms have changed, but because of the institutionalized and powerful resistance it has engendered. Prominent, powerful, and organized sections of Bangladeshi society no longer accept male authority over women's bodies to the extent of violence, and have successfully organized their state to reduce the impunity, if not the prevalence, with which women experience violence. In this, they appear to have the support of the general population. This is a movement taking place at different levels, involving coalitions of actors across levels, classes, and sectors: community groups, national women's organizations like Mahila Parishad and Nari Pokkho, development NGOs, parts of the mass media, the state machinery, and international human rights mechanisms and networks.[2] Resistance to violence signals a growing assertiveness to refuse patriarchal rights to commit violence against women, whether wives or women who transgress patriarchal norms by being in public spaces (and are therefore 'legitimate' objects of violence).[3]

A second example of the growing citizenship of Bangladeshi women is in the institutionalization of social protection against the crises inherent in the life-cycle. Again, this displaces old patriarchal responsibilities that were largely honoured in the breach. The institutionalization of what in Bangladesh is known as the social safety net has been noticeable in the wake of the global food, fuel, and financial shocks of the early twenty-first century (see, for instance, GoB 2012). But recent changes to the state safety net build on a system that has developed over the decades, partly motivated by democratic- clientelistic political competition, partly by the drive to absorb more and use aid better, and partly, too, because these imperatives align with state policy to protect the poorest. This has been present across regimes, but most expansionary and explicit under Awami League majority rule in the democratic period since 1991. It is early to say whether recent efforts to strengthen the social safety net will foster women's citizenship, but programmes set up in the post-famine period set the stage for the transformation of the relationship between women and the state, and indeed organized non-state action. Chief among these has been the Vulnerable Group Development[4] (VGD) programme, known locally as the ‘dustho mata (destitute mothers') card'. This was a World Food Program (WFP)-supported scheme through which rural political representatives channel a regular ration of foodgrains to cardholders supposedly selected as the most needy. As need far outstrips supply and there is no formal accountability in the process, the card is among the rents which local political patrons distribute among the lowest layers of their client-base. In fact, although the bureaucratic governance of the programme is weak to non-existent, the political incentives to ensure the cards mostly reach poor women are fairly strong; the programme is a prime example of an intervention that succeeds by ‘going with the grain' of local political power arrangements (see Hossain 2007a). In variations to the core food transfer scheme, there have been training and other initiatives by NGOs and donors to ‘graduate' these women into micro-finance schemes, frequently in a bid to reduce their dependence and integrate them into the market.[5] But at its core, the programme protects a large number of vulnerable women from absolute destitution. It also gives them a recognizable stake in ‘getting on the list'—seeing and being seen by the state (see also Chatterjee 2004; Corbridge etal. 2005).

The VGD programme was established under military rule in 1975, immediately following the economic and political crises in which the assassination of the nationalist Sheikh Mujib sparked off a series of coups, the last of which installed the military leader Zia Rahman in power, where he remained until his assassination in 1981. VGD was a product of both its time and the aid ‘tilt' of the Zia regime. The 1974 famine taught donors that government food stocks were precarious and in need of further donor support, and that food aid needed to be targeted to the poor. The new regime was by no means on the left, despite having come to power on the back of a leftist coup; but the particular political context and constraints lent it a discernibly pro-poor tendency (discussed further in Chapter 6). Zia was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue who submitted to international donor community pressures (Sobhan 1982). These directions included market orientation, against the statist economic management that had characterized Awami League ‘socialism', as well as interventions targeted to the poor. The Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) (as it was originally called—not to be confused with an existing intervention that now takes that name) came about as part of this wider reorientation, and it reflected the beginnings of a move away from universalist rations programmes which, despite their rhetoric, had favoured the politically organized urban middle classes at the expense of the rural poor (see Chowdhury and Haggblade 2000).

VGD is not a progressive programme by contemporary standards. Very poor women are required to queue for hours for deliberately public handouts that highlight their destitution and dependence, often to receive foodgrains of inferior quality. There are no effective grievance mechanisms, and the rationing of the cards means that there is no effective right to such protection: if you get a card, you are lucky. But if you are unlucky, no matter how severe your need or deserving your case, there is neither a formal rights basis on which to demand it nor a formal legal basis through which to claim it. Informally, however, a local political leader who fails to provide a card for visibly destitute elderly women will lose political capital, and, worse, may even be subject to public shaming or, if particularly egregious, to threats (Hossain 2010b). The programme works despite weak systems of command and control because of how society and politics are configured: local elites are not so detached or distant from the poor people they are supposed to serve that they can routinely afford to neglect them.

These are not the only and they may not be the best examples of the feminization of citizenship in Bangladesh, nor of development 'success'. But each adds an angle to the argument that the patriarchal bargain broke because women could no longer afford to rely on their men to provide and protect, they have been pushed into laying claims on the state, and (partly to attract aid) the state has taken up some of that slack. It has done so for better and for worse, and women and girls in contemporary Bangladesh experience new and different disciplines and controls to those that constrained them under the old patriarchal bargain. But although the process has not been unambiguously empowering for women, there can be little doubt that their incomplete release from the customary patriarchal bargain to be reincorporated as citizens has been crucial to the advances of human development in Bangladesh. There should also be no doubt that the state has been foundational in permitting and enabling these new incorporations, as it extends its reach into the most personal (but no longer private) domains of homes and families, bodily practices, and sexual relationships.

The mandate to address gender was by no means accepted with alacrity by the society or its governing elites in the first instance. Several of the truths that needed confronting and the new ways of being that a recognition of women entailed amounted to attacks on deeply personal and private matters of sex and sexuality; marriage, family, home, and kin; honour, shame, and status. But the extremes of destitution and desperation that became unignorable in the wake of the war brought the joint issues of gender and poverty to the policy table. Once women had been recognized as citizens and development agents in their own right, it was a short step to operationalizing the knowledge that gender relations held the key to the human-development challenge in public policy and social action. Somewhat later, the interest in the nimble fingers of an endless stream of apparently docile female workers gave the payoff to an ideology of women's economic empowerment—an ideology that perfectly accommodates the spirit of globalized capitalism.[6]

There has never been an important challenge to the national development ideology of women's economic empowerment: to the extent that this succeeded, it was a classic example of strong winners (public policymakers seeking donor approval and funding; NGOs seeking the same but also winning formulae and replicable models; a strong, cross-class women's movement with useful coalitions across other civil society actors; industrial elites benefiting from effective subsidies from state and society) and weak losers (the dispersed power of the local landed elite, who gained as much or more than they lost from women's advancement; the Islamic right—weak and localized to date, with little to gain ideologically or materially from opposing the economic advancement of extremely poor women).

In the forty years since independence, women have mostly consolidated and extended the terms of their engagement in the social contract, becoming the objects of both protection and control. We will explore this further as we look at how women have increasingly pushed for and are being treated by the state as citizens in their own right, with their own concerns; the growing extent of gender equality in the middle classes, particularly as a result of public service employment; and the priority given to social protection, which primarily serves women at vulnerable stages of the life-cycle. Progressive forces and organizations, including civil society organizations and NGOs, have played a major role, often with the backing of aid. And there have also been backlashes at local and national levels against women's mobility and freedom in particular, but also against women's rights to organize as workers. These changes have frequently been viewed as evidence of women's empowerment in Bangladesh, but it may be more appropriate to see them as evidence of the declining relevance of the traditional patriarchal bargain, and its replacement with a social contract between citizen and state. This may loosen the domination of one set of patriarchal institutions, but the terms on which the state, the market, and global institutions contract with Bangladeshi women come with their own controls and domination—as well as benefits and sources of power.

  • [1] See Table 7.1 in World Bank (2007, 90-1).
  • [2] See for instance, the 8th official submission to CEDAW, the Convention on the Eliminationof all forms of Discrimination Against Women (GoB 2015).
  • [3] There is a large literature examining the distribution, sources, and character of violenceagainst women in Bangladesh. These include cross-country comparative analyses of prevalenceby the World Health Organization (Garcfa-Moreno et al. 2005;Garcia-Moreno et al. 2006). RuchiraNaved has produced an exhaustive body of work on the nature, extent, and correlates of violenceexperienced by women in Bangladesh (e.g. Naved and Persson 2010;Naved 2013). Much work isalso devoted to exploring the relationship between women's involvement in paid work, microenterprise, and other 'non-traditional' activities (Schuler etal. 1998;Heath 2014).
  • [4] Originally the Vulnerable Group Feeding programme, not to be confused with the currentVulnerable Group Feeding programme which has a somewhat different purpose and means.
  • [5] See Matin and Hulme (2003) for an analysis of the lessons of the long-running BRACextension of the VGD programme. Also Lewis (1993) for a critical view of the preference forintegrating poor Bangladeshi women into markets rather than building welfare systems.
  • [6] On which, see (Fraser 2012).
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