International Women’s Day Celebration. Sunday March 8th 2015
Open event organised by Berwick Trades Union Council in the “Cellar” of Barrels Alehouse.
1 pm. Speaker: Dr Helen Wright from Edinburgh. “Women of Bangladesh”
In Laura’s introduction we are told that there are many problems facing Bangladeshi women such as F.G.M. and arranged marriages. Dr Wright is an established author and has also spent 13 years teaching in the U.K.
Helen reminds us that Bangladeshi women are passionate about education but the issue has to be protected if the population is to have a better future.
Densely populated country. Population is 165 million.
Poor infrastructure – contaminated water and poor sanitation
Climate is hot and humid
Prone to earthquakes and flooding
The capital, Dacca, has only one earthquake proof building.
Helen then explains that she belongs to “Girls Plan UK” which sponsors children in more than 40 countries. As a delegate she recently went to Bangladesh to see what can be done. She stayed four weeks. She found the humidity a great challenge but was struck by the vibrancy of the place – colourful – and the people seem happy and welcoming. She had to take care with the food and water as the sanitation is dodgy.
She found that many girls work as domestics at ages 10 -14 years and she gives an instance of one girl, Rima whom she befriended. This girl was part of a large family, and could not go to school through lack of money. Her uncle had found her a job working in a block of flats and sleeping on the floor of the vestibule. Her routine was:
Get up at 5.30 am Cook breakfast for the residents followed by cleaning floors etc. At 3 pm cook for her Uncle. 6 pm cook for rest of the family
Sleep at midnight when all the chores are finished.
In-between she was able to attend school for 2 hours per day. She earned the equivalent of £8.20 per month. Rima did not want to get married and eventually studied to become a teacher.
Helen said that Rima was very happy about this and did not want to go back home where she would be hungry but best of all she was able to attend school.
Many other young girls work in the textile industry or electrical component factories.
There is immense pressure on cash strapped families to have arranged marriages for their daughters especially in villages where the Chief can use his influence. Girls are routinely beaten for disobedience.
78% girls are married under the age of 18 and this stops their education and traditionally each lives with their in-laws and many are treated as servants.
Early teen pregnancies often kill the girls. The percentage of girls dying in childbirth has dropped in the last 10 years but is still unacceptable.
If pregnancies are delayed there are usually fewer children and these children are more likely to be given better educations.
There has now been an edict by the Commonwealth Government saying that Arranged Marriages are wrong.
Female Genital Mutilation.
Helen confirms that this practice has terrible effects on young girls and that it is even an issue in the U.K. where 180,000 girls are at risk. Only education and persuasion will be effective.
It is a brutal fact that girls are less important than boys. This can only be solved by challenges. Sustainable goals are being achieved since the year 2000. Yet there is still a great shortfall in education.
Education is a GIFT
There is an economic argument for women to be educated beyond the age of 14. They contribute to their countries GDP.
Malala: ( the Pakistan girl of 14 shot in the head by the Taliban because she spoke up for education for girls). Helen has heard her speak and praises her for her bravery. Malala was rehabilitated in Sellyoaks, Birmingham, after her operation. She is now 16 and has written about her life and received many accolades and tributes. She continues the struggle for girls’ education.
Elaine: Is there much difference in treatment of girls in cities or rural areas?
Helen does not see much difference between the treatment – just differences in the environment. There are now shelters for the many street children who roam the cities and these are funded to try to protect the children.
Frances: Is the education of boys a priority?
Helen agrees. Even a free school would have costs e.g. for uniforms, shoes, travel. Some girls are left behind to do household chores or look after siblings.
Laura: What programmes for Asian women are going on in the U.K?
Helen: More needs to be done and we need women in positions of influence. Once we talked about “ and it became a dirty word. We should now use the term “ Influence through the home, the school and Girl Guides is needed to raise awareness of discrimination.
Auriol: She lived in London in the 1970’s near a community of Bangladeshi men. Many had joined the Merchant Navy in the 1930’s and they worked as stokers etc in the engine rooms. In the 70’s many Bangladeshi men were working in restaurants, often doing menial tasks: washing up etc. One she knew was a graduate and earned extra money as a scribe writing letters for others – very useful if writing to officialdom.
Helen: many Bangladeshi men now work in Dubai in the building trade under appalling conditions and send money home.
2pm Speaker: Lucy Morgan “Reclaiming Ourselves”. Lucy is an undergraduate at Newcastle University.
Lucy is a strikingly attractive young girl who speaks with confidence about sensitive issues. She looked up the word “Reclaim” and saw it meant “retrieve, or recover”.
She says we are still in a patriarchal society with double standards. She has been labeled a “Slut” by her contemporaries because she has tackled her own sexual issues. She has taken the abuse on the chin and become a feminist. She is proud that the local feminist society has increased from 5 members to 200, some of whom are men.
She attacks Pornography which is giving such a one-sided picture of women. She states that it is legitimate to be bisexual or lesbian as well as straight.
She goes on to mention Menstruation which is universally endured by women whether they have children or not. In addition there is a “luxury tax” on sanitary products such as tampons. She feels she is paying tax just to be a woman.
Next she tackles the theme of “Body Image” and compares the plight of young girls struggling to stay thin with young men struggling to put on muscles. Unlike men girls can die from anorexia. We must look out for each other and help each other.
Rose: What about scanty clothing that is misunderstood by men as a sexual invitation?
Lucy: Rape is all about power and control and is a violent act. It happens irrespective of what the girl is wearing.
Moira: get back to education issues and forget about the image crap.
Sue: We need more sex education in schools. Also it is difficult to report rape when in a foreign country. The shame reflects on the family.
Auriol: Gives some instances of the inadequacies of young boys trying to relate to girls (e.g. pulling plaits) – trying to dance. We have to acknowledge that we are all sexual beings – it is part of being human
Another lady: There is an on-line campaign started at Goldsmith University to highlight the sanitary products issue.
Another lady: What about equal pay?
Lucy: This is still a very important issue that has been around for many years and will take many more to resolve. There have been some advances.
The meeting ended with refreshments and a 2 hour showing of the film “The Help” about the injustices suffered by the household ‘helps’ – all of African descent in an affluent suburb in Mississippi.
Both the speakers had been given a vote of thanks and received a signed copy of one of Jackie Kay’s books of poetry. At the end of the film John Kay read out one of Jackie’s poems “ A Drunken Woman looks at her Nipple” which was an appropriate way to end a day about women’s emancipation.
Report: Rose Kay