Empowering Women for a Sustainable Future

by RUNA KHAN
March 7, 2022

Women populate this world. We carry the new generation in our wombs, and we nurse them, we nourish their values and nurture their humanity. In this way, we shape humankind.

Thus, when this is dismissed as part of women’s “natural duty”, it is extremely worrying in today’s world, where sharing responsibility is part of life and living. But we do see this happen!

Our strength is often different from a man’s; the strength of having the courage of empathy, humility kindness; often construed as weaknesses.

Twenty years ago, when I began Friendship, I met with scepticism and condescension from everyone. Even as Friendship grew bigger and stronger, no one wanted to believe that a woman, single-handedly, was behind this. “There must be a man behind her,” they say. “Must be her French husband. Must be her father.” I face this even today.

Twice as Good

How many workplaces are truly women friendly? Why are women in leadership positions so highly outnumbered by male counterparts? The government has declared compulsory paid maternity leave is for six months, and yet many women struggle to access this right even today. And even if they do get six months of paid leave, what happens after that?  How much time do husbands spend taking care of the babies, and how often are the grandparents made to baby sit!

But women are born managers. We manage our domestic responsibilities, which are by default relegated to us, and pursue our ambitions on top of that. Yet at the workplace, we must smile passively at snide remarks undermining our professionalism. A woman in this world needs to work twice as hard, and be twice as good as a man to be taken as an equal.

Like the air we breathe, biases are invisible. They are systemic, and deeply entrenched in our psyche. Even the most accomplished and forward-thinking are not free of them. There is no country or corner of the world where these biases don’t exist. If you doubt this, just look at how much women get paid compared to men, anywhere.

Sumaiya (8),Protapnagar, Asasuni, Satkhira (2021) ©AJ GHANI/FRIENDSHIP

This daily struggle has endowed women with abilities that a man rarely possesses. Every day, a woman must rely on her courage and efficiency. Women are born managers, lateral thinkers. Women are the strongest force for creating long-term impact in our communities and families.

Shantona Irin, a Friendship school teacher, constructed a room in her home to tutor students during Covid-19 school closures. I commend her, and I commend her family for having been supportive to the extent of putting up with these children coming to their house, using their facilities. We have FCMs and skilled birth attendants, who are all women; paralegals, governance aides, entrepreneurs etc., many of whom are women, and I thank their families for supporting them to be able to pursue these careers.

 Yet, even today women often have to be grateful for the most basic things—things that a man would feel completely entitled to, like their right to life, career or free speech.

‘I do not need to remarry’

For a woman, there are no such unchallenged guarantees.

And yet they survive!

Be they abandoned, ostracised, or abused; they find the strength to rise above. So many have defied all odds to transform their lives. In our working areas, so many women have turned their fates around and become successful as mothers and as entrepreneurs. Many are now transformative forces within their communities.

Nazma Akhter of Badoghata, Shyamnagar, was abandoned by her husband after they had a baby, left with no money and no career. She was young, she did not know how to fend for herself, let alone feed a new-born. Her in-laws found her to be a burden. She also felt a burden in her own family, as they were too poor to look after her. But she overcame insurmountable odds, and struggled for two decades before she became a successful entrepreneur. Today she inspires and guides chicken farmers in her village to use modern chicken farming techniques that she perfected with Friendship’s help.

I often tell the story of Ratna from Sonatola in Bogra. She had a fistula—a condition that made her unable to control urine flow. Her husband left her because of it. Poor to begin with, she became a pariah. But she never gave up. She had the fistula operated. She regained her health and her social standing, and now works and earns her own living. “I do not need to remarry,” Ratna tells us.

This resilience is part of womanhood.

Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow

This International Women’s Day, there are a couple of different themes being promoted. One of them being “imagine a gender equal world.”  A true challenge, since bias is deep seeded. Though difficult to imagine a gender-equal world, it must be the strive of our generation and generations to come. For only thus can we ensure using the full potential of humankind.

The world today is close to a tipping point. Enormous effort is needed to have a just society.  And if we empower women, we will endow humanity with the power to succeed. Our efficiency and resilience, our humility, kindness and generosity of spirit are the qualities humanity needs now, to create the world our youth deserve.

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