‘I refuse to stop fighting’

Sheikh Hasina

Global Insight: Women

Bangladesh is a male-dominated society that still believes a woman’s place is in the home. Despite archaic attitudes and numerous assassination attempts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina explains why she continues to strive for gender equality

Sheikh Hasina

© Russell Watkins / UK DfID CC BY 2.0

Lack of education and conservative societal attitudes are the key factors preventing women from achieving full equality in Bangladesh. We live in a male-dominated society in which the majority of opportunities still belong to men. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude amongst many men is that the woman’s role is to marry, rear children and cook. Girls are traditionally seen to be financial burdens to families – why would a family spend money educating a girl when she will eventually go to another family through marriage? But attitudes across society are now changing: families are now realising that girls being educated and earning money benefits the whole family.

I have worked hard to tackle these attitudes and give girls access to education. Our government has taken measures to curb child marriage by implementing new women’s development policies. Similarly, girls are given government stipends to allow them to continue education up to undergraduate level, and we provide them with millions of free books every year. There are also small-scale changes that we have undertaken, such as ensuring rural co-ed schools have girls’ toilet facilities so female students don’t feel embarrassed; we are removing the excuses and factors preventing girls from gaining an education and, in turn, equality.

Husbands and parents are realising that girls are not burdens, but rather can be the drivers for development and change through education, and this is hugely important. Attitudes towards women working are also changing. For middle-class families, a girl working would be thought to bring shame upon a family. We are striving to make women visible in all major professions and give our female workforce the confidence to make its mark.

We must give women financial freedom and economic empowerment. If a woman can earn money, she automatically has a voice in the family and a stake in society. This is something in which my father, Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, believed, and I continue to hold this belief. After the Liberation War in 1971, my father made education for women free up to high-school level. This was the first of many steps taken by the Awami League government over the years to ensure women’s equality.

We now have a ten per cent quota for women in government jobs and reserved seats for women in parliament. This is something which my father actually implemented in our first constitution in 1972. I have worked to grow female leadership in politics from a grass-roots level, keeping 30 per cent of seats at local government elections reserved for women. I faced a lot of opposition when first implementing this, but I believe that by removing the initial barriers into politics, women will be encouraged to move up through the ranks. From the higher courts to administrative roles in the government and jobs in the armed forces, our girls now have role models and achievable goals to which they can aspire. When our girls see a woman deputy governor of Bangladesh Bank, a female Speaker in parliament or a female university vice chancellor, they are given the confidence to know that they too can aim high.

I was very active in politics during my student life, and I was elected vice president of our college union. Boys and girls worked together during student politics and during that time I never felt at a disadvantage being a woman. In 1975, 18 members of my family were brutally killed in a coup d’état. I was abroad at the time with my husband, my children and my sister – and this was an unimaginably difficult period in our lives. During this time, I was elected party leader in absentia and so began my return to politics. When I returned to Bangladesh in the early 80s, I faced many obstacles. I was young and many of our party leaders were older men – many of them thought, what does she – a young woman – understand? They doubted whether I was fit to take on the role, they thought me too inexperienced, too naïve. I was fortunate that the rest of the party, and the people of the country, accepted me as party leader, and that being a woman did not hinder my ability to gain respect amongst the party members and voters.

As a woman, there are of course added challenges to being a public servant. When I first became party leader, I faced a lot of resistance from conservative forces and older generations who doubted whether a woman could ever lead and be head of government. I had to face this and, frankly speaking, when we gained a female leader to our opposition party, it helped to stifle these doubts. Here were two women running two major political parties in a traditional, majority Muslim society.

Balancing family life and a career is an obstacle that women in all professions face. When I took up politics to work for my people, this was something I had to consider carefully. When I spoke up against military rulers, I was arrested and put in jail – of course, my children suffered. I was lucky to have support from my family, especially my sister, and my children were always understanding, but I admit that I found it difficult and it played on my mind. Was I being the best mother I could be? Was I unfairly putting my children through too much? These were some very hard personal obstacles which I had to overcome.

I have also faced many political obstacles. I have fought against military dictators who want to stop democratic process and I have fought – and continue to fight – against extremist forces that use fear and violence to hinder progress in Bangladesh. There have been many smear campaigns in the media to try to dishearten me, and there have been numerous attempts on my life, but I refuse to stop fighting. I believe in democracy, and I want to create a Bangladesh that is peaceful and prosperous – no obstacle is daunting enough to stop me achieving this goal.

About the author:

Sheikh Hasina is the Prime Minister of Bangladesh


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