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Perception of rural Bangladeshi men towards women’s empowerment is a zero-sum game resulting in a high level of wife abuse in rural Bangladesh

Dhaka, May 24, 2017 - In a qualitative study conducted in rural Bangladesh icddr,b scientists and their partners have found that abuse remains very high regardless of changing gender roles that allows women to have greater access to education, mobility and employment. Further exploration revealed such changes in gender roles, women-focused NGO programmes, state policies on gender equality, promotion of female education, laws favouring women have generated a perception of male disadvantage. These contribute to an adverse condition and spousal abuse. Men strongly perceive that development policies and women’s empowerment initiatives were bypassing them and unduly favouring women at their expense. The study highlights the complex, multi-level nature of the drivers of perpetration of wife abuse at individual, household and community/societal level. While individual and household level drivers such as low education, poverty, unemployment, gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, and extramarital relationships are more or less well recognized, community or social factors influencing this violence are still under-researched.

The study found that childhood exposure of men to violence particularly against women in the household and community contributes to the creation of perpetrator. At community level, wife abuse is driven by norms internalised over generations. In an attempt to list women’s perceived faults from disobedience to refusal of sex, participants were found to believe that it is a husband’s duty to discipline females who voice against gendered or religious norms. Wife abuse can also be a representation of masculinity, with men expected to control wives, provide for families and to be aggressive, with an acceptance that they are violent when frustrated.

Many adolescents (boys and girls) and some young male (20-28 years) respondents held attitudes that condone wife abuse. Thus, it seems, gender inequitable attitudes and justification of wife abuse are instilled at a young age, with boys and girls holding conventional views on such violence by the age of 15.

It was found that most women are unaware of their right to go to the police and launch formal procedures. Their access to formal justice is also limited by their families, rampant corruption and bureaucratic and financial barriers (including transport costs). All of these factors contribute to under-reporting, alongside perceptions of wife abuse as a “private matter.” On the other hand, social norms justify wife abuse resulting in low conviction rates. Against this backdrop, the study suggests that action is needed to respond to the multi-level influences and patterns of wife abuse, with approaches to mainstream prevention and response across all relevant sectors.

The qualitative study was conducted during April 2016 to April 2017 in five villages of Dhaka and Mymensing divisions. 40 key informant interviews, 11 focus group discussion, 23 in-depth interviews and 7 intergenerational trios with females and males have been conducted. It was funded and coordinated by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), UK) while Emory University, USA served as a partner.

Today, findings of the study have been discussed in a seminar titled “Understanding Social Norms and Multi-level Drivers of Violence against Women and Girls in Rural Bangladesh: Implications for Prevention and Response” where Dr Ruchira Tabassum Naved, senior scientist at icddr,b said, “Potential implications of policies and legislations addressing gender and violence against women should be carefully assessed and adequate measures should be taken to ameliorate any backlash that ultimately harms women. It is critical to assess and conduct campaigns on costs of hegemonic masculinity and help men to understand the advantages of gender equality and violence free life for all involved”.

Commenting on the study, Ms Christine Hunter, Country Representative of UN Women Bangladesh and the special guest of the seminar said, “Bangladesh has made tremendous progress and really has pushed for women’s empowerment in a number of ways. But in reality women’s economic participation is dropping. Study such as this brings us back to see where we need to do more. And, it reminds us social change is just really difficult and takes time.”

Advocate Sultana Kamal, a renowned human rights activist and Chairperson of WE CAN Alliance to End VAW, and the chief guest of the seminar said, “Many social norms have changed but there are many, which support violence against women, have not changed. That is probably a challenge we have to really work on.”

Ms. Farhana Hafiz (BRAC), Mr. Mozammael Haque Babu (Ekattor TV), Ms. Khushi Kabir (Nijera Kori), Ms. Shaheen Anam (Manusher Jonno Foundation) and Mr. Soumya Guha (Plan International) attended the panel discussion and provided their insightful feedback.

Participants from partner organisations and other NGOs working in reducing violence against women attended the seminar.

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