DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Imagine a society where women and girls don't have to be afraid. A society where women and girls are treated with the same respect as men and boys, and where they have the freedom to reach their full potential in all aspects of life. One where girls don't become wives or mothers while they themselves are still children.
A society like this, where all women are encouraged to contribute their diverse and necessary strengths, would be a formidable power-economically, educationally, politically and socially. But the prevalent and rising gender-based violence against women, which takes place worldwide, stops this from being a reality.
That is where the significance of today's date stems from. November 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But how did this day come about?
On this day in 1960 in the Dominican Republic, three of the four Mirabel sisters were beaten to death, placed in their car and thrown over a cliff. Raphael Trujillo, the brutal dictator at the time, had made numerous and forceful advances toward one of the sisters.
Minerva Mirabel repelled these advances and made it clear she was unimpressed with Trujillo as well as his brutal politics. Subsequently, the Mirabel sisters became active members of a resistance group protesting Trujillo's ruthless regime.
As Minerva was under close government surveillance after her rejection of Trujillo's advances, she and her sisters were easy targets for the dictator's henchmen. The Mirabel sisters, unfortunately, paid the ultimate price for their bravery.
Over 20 years ago, the UN General Assembly designated November 25 as the day on which to raise awareness for women suffering violence perpetrated by men. The World Health Organisation states that one in every three women worldwide has been a victim of gender violence in her lifetime.
In Bangladesh, this number is much higher. In 2015, results from a government survey showed that seven in 10 women had suffered some form of abuse from their partners; half of these involved physical assault.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, violence against women spiked by nearly 70 per cent in March and April of 2020, compared to 2019, according to Brac. This has to stop. The prevalence of such violence hurts a nation in multiple ways, one of which is by stunting its growth.
It is time for Bangladesh to tap into its human resource assets of not only men, but women as well. Intelligence, innovation and skills are being wasted as the female bodies and minds that house these strengths are beaten, abused and even burned.
Bangladesh, like the rest of the world, is navigating through the severe impacts of the pandemic, the climate crisis and political unrest.
Wouldn't it be wise to use every available asset to navigate through such crises and grow meaningfully through these times? Instead of thwarting fertile minds and innovative ideas from women and girls, why not nurture them?
Within a patriarchal society, it may take effort and time to tap into the precious commodities hidden in the underutilised minds of women, but raising awareness about the violent crimes which thwart their talents would be a good start.
Violence towards women must not be normalised. It cannot be dismissed with acceptance and a shrug. Silence is dangerous, as it allows for the suppression of women's potential while allowing oppressors to keep treating them as inferiors. Women must be liberated through the education of their minds and by helping them take control of their own livelihoods.
With heightened awareness and vocalisation, the extremely low conviction rate of cases of violence against women may increase. Currently, when women do report violent crimes, very few reach a successful conviction. This is demoralising to the victim but also discouraging to others who might approach the law for help.
But this vicious cycle of justice denied giving way to more violence can be broken. With collective, strong and unwavering voices, laws can be upheld and justice can be served. Women can begin to feel safer in their own communities if authorities back them up with exercising existing laws and replacing ones which do not favour victims of gender violence.
Besides this, it is equally important to ensure that our children are also learning about crimes committed against women and what can be done to decrease them. The next generation is learning, growing and maturing. Young minds are grasping for truth and knowledge. Now is the time to teach and model equality. Children soak in experiences and follow in the footsteps of their role models.
A young boy who sees his father treating his mother respectfully learns to respect her as well. This can generalise into respecting his sister, the girl next door and a girl at school. Similarly, a young boy who is reprimanded for hitting his sister or using his physical strength to intimidate her will learn that his behaviour was wrong.
Treating sons and daughters equally within the family incorporates this sense of justice into the rest of a child's life. Seeing the females in their family being respected and listened to just as the males are is crucial. Expecting equal behaviour from both a son and a daughter, and listening to both sends a clear message: "You are both equal."
But sons are not the only children in this equation. Girls should also be taught to stand up for themselves more. When a girl's ideas and opinions are listened to as respectfully as her brother's, she learns that her thoughts and ideas are just as valuable as a male's-a view that should be the norm. Equality in the family therefore leads to equality in the community.
The rise of violence towards women has been called a shadow pandemic-a frightening result of the effects of Covid-19 on our communities. But luckily, we can all take steps to combat this in our own small and big ways.
From November 25 to December 10, during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, join UN Women and the rest of the world to right this wrong, and so we don't just have to imagine a society where women and girls aren't afraid.
- The writer is a British-Bangladeshi author who writes historical fiction, non-fiction and children's stories. The Daily Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.