Open Space, a dialogue session on women empowerment

Dhaka,  Thu,  24 August 2017
Published : 02 Aug 2017, 19:43:45
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Open Space, a dialogue session on women empowerment

Farzad Siraj


Open Space was a dialogue session on women empowerment, sexual harassment and consent hosted by Footsteps at the National Press Club on July 29. This was broadcast live through the organisation's Facebook page. Footsteps is a youth empowerment and development based organisation which is undertaking several effective projects, and the seminar was part of their project 'Britto', which conducts workshops and seminars on topics not usually taught or talked about in our community.

Several influential women who champion the cause of women's rights were in the panel. Shah Rafayat Chowdhury, the co-founder and president of the organisation,  moderated the discussions in this seminar. The seminar was called 'Open Space' so that everyone present could discuss freely about these problems which are considered to be the biggest taboos in society.

The first person to speak was Syeda Shagufe Hossain, a social inclusion activist and the founder and project director of Leaping Boundaries, which trains madrasah students on their language and leadership skills. In this way, her madrasah students gain access to an education which normally they would not have access to. She emphasised the topics of misogyny in culture, religion and society and discussed the role of education in addressing the social problems of sexual harassment and gender inequality.

The next speaker was Muktasree Chakma Sathi, a rights activist and award winning journalist, who has been working for minorities' rights for more than 14 years, with a particular focus on the rights of women, children and indigenous peoples. She talked about the rights of indigenous women and how their problems are usually not given attention and almost never given the spotlight. She also talked about sexual harassment, women's rights and about how people should look at their own flaws before putting all the blame on a victim of sexual harassment, rather than the perpetrator.

The third speaker was Syeda Samara Mortada, the coordinator of ‘Bonhishikha’, an organisation that works to attain gender equity. She focused primarily on how society assigns strict gender roles and harshly ostracizes anyone who does not follow their idea of masculinity and femininity, often confusing the differences between gender and sex in the process.

Mariha Zaman Khan, a barrister by profession, is currently the Academic Guidance Tutor and lecturer of London College of Legal Studies (South), put emphasis on how more women need to be more vocal when they are being harassed or treated unfairly. She explained that for women to have equal rights and be treated with respect, they need to voice their opinions loudly and confidently as otherwise, the situation will never improve.

The fifth speaker of the session was Zaiba Tahyya, founder of  Female Empowerment Movement (FEM). She is running a self-defence training programme called  'Attorokkha' that employs underprivileged women in the security sector. She spoke about this project and its importance as it physically empowers women, by teaching them basic self-defence. The programme teaches women to fight only for self defence and not to provoke violence. This allows women to better defend themselves from sexual harassment.

The final speaker at the event was Sara Hossain, who is a barrister practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. She is one of the most influential advocates of women's rights. Her cases on women's rights have dealt with issues of  'fatwa' violence, 'forced veiling', choice in marriage, and the use of the 'two finger test'. She has also contributed to third party briefs in the Nepal Supreme Court on marital rape and before the European Court of Human Rights challenging the requirement of proof of force to establish rape. She shared her experiences of how victims of sexual harassment and rape are unjustly treated and how most women are too afraid to file cases. She is actively trying to change this.

The seminar had two main motives— first was to introduce the resources available for the victims of sexual harassment in this seminar and reach out to the general public regarding this information, while the other was to come up with collaborative solutions to these problems through effective discussion.

At the end of the event, all the panelists mentioned above answered questions regarding sexual harassment and women empowerment to the audience consisting of journalists and social workers. The questions were submitted online by common people and and led to an insightful and much needed discussion on issues often regarded as taboo.

With the success of this seminar, Footsteps aims to begin implementing projects addressing the problems of sexual harassment and gender inequality soon, with the collaboration of the panelists, who are all women empowerment advocates.

The writer is a student at Sunbeams School and  Operations Officer at Footsteps Foundation,

farzadsiraj@footstepsbd.org
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